How to Tell a Tantrum From a Sensory Breakdown
Since even the softest kids sometimes lose their s *% $ in the candy aisle or when leaving the playground, most parents have a tantrum or two. We’ve all developed our own behavioral strategies: ignore, grant timeouts, or appease. But what if your child’s mental illness is not your usual tantrum? What if it’s a sensory breakdown?
For children with Sensory Processing Disorders, stimuli that might just annoy the average child — scratching, loud noises — can be maddening, extremely unpleasant. And while adults usually have the experience and resources to deal with sensory overload (they leave a noisy mall; they wear earplugs on the subway), kids can just … lose it. And this breakdown can be very similar to a tantrum.
“It’s important to understand the difference,” says Amanda Morin, a former teacher and early intervention practitioner, writing for Understand.org . “A tantrum is an outbreak that happens when a child tries to get what he wants or needs.” On the other hand, sensory breakdown “is a response to feelings of depression. In some children, this happens when too much sensory information needs to be processed. They can, for example, be provoked by the hustle and bustle of an amusement park. For other children, this may be a reaction to thinking too much. Shopping at school can trigger tantrums, which can lead to a breakdown. “
For Judy, a mother of two in Brooklyn, NY, it became easier to tell the two apart when she was able to identify the irritants that were causing her toddler daughter to suffer: “She would have tantrums for what she wanted to avoid , and they have always been associated with her touch, taste or hearing, so it was easy to distinguish from the usual tantrum, which usually goes like this: “I want to do something, and you will not let me.”
Says Maureen, “The noise in the amusement park or the stack of clothes to try on in the dressing room at the mall is sensory input that floods your child’s brain. Once this happens, some experts believe your child is triggering a fight-or-flight response. This redundant information overflows in the form of screaming, crying, running or fleeing. “
Understanding her daughter’s sensory processing disorder helped Judy deal with relapse more compassionately. She knows, for example, that things like clipping nails, drying towels after a bath, and changing clothes will get in the way, and is therefore prepared to deal with the hassle of doing so.
Morin suggests taking the child with sensory disorder to a quiet and peaceful place so that he can calm down on his own.
Judy says her daughter, now 4, is doing pretty well in school but comes home every day and crashes. “I just let her cry (and trample) it. There is nothing I can do to prevent or stop this. I look at it as a healthy release from some stress and then we get on with our day and it’s okay. “
To learn more about tantrums and tantrums, check out this table to compare signs.