Sensory vs Behavior

During my book signing a few weeks ago, I was asked by a mom how you can tell the difference between sensory problems and behavior problems.  It made me smile.  Why?  Because in my experience, this is hands down the number one parenting concern for those raising a child with Sensory Processing Disorder.  It always has been and I suspect it always will be.

And since getting a diagnosis of SPD is becoming more common at an earlier age – (you can’t say enough things about the value of early intervention, can you?) — we as parents have an even harder time telling the two a part.

A 2 year old with sensory issues is a tantrum throwing machine. Been there. Done that.  And it sure doesn’t end at 2, does it?!  Some days I feel like my nearly-nine year old isn’t any better!

So, I figured I would give my take on this — but please remember, this is my non-doctor, non-therapist, non-medical professional of any kind, advice, and in no way shape or form should you consider it medical advice or substitute it for your own good judgement.  Deal?

In a nutshell, my advice is the same advice that Dr. Ostovar gave in her interview last month, “Be a detective, and try and determine what caused the reaction.”  But, I am going to give you some specific examples that will hopefully help pave the way for your own clue-finding.

And with a wave of my magic wand:  You are a sensory detective.

By default, we should start with the theory that whatever is bothering our child is sensory related – or caused by some inability to react appropriately. Why? Because I much prefer to go with Dr. Ross Greene’s theory that children do well if they can (as opposed to the theory that children do well if they want to). If your child could react adaptively, I believe he/she would.

So, let’s assume that the tantrum isn’t just willful disobedience by an over-spoiled and over-coddled child. You don’t buy into the idea that your child is “just spirited” do you? I didn’t think so.

Before we begin sensory vs. behavior, let’s talk about the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown.

A tantrum is a manipulative fit (crying, screaming, throwing themselves on the floor, etc.) aimed at the child getting what they want from you – example being, “I want ice cream!”

A meltdown is an emotional response (crying, screaming, throwing themselves on the floor) to the child not getting what they need – example being “I want ice cream!”


Sure you are.

Children don’t always have the vocabulary to explain their motivation to you in the moment (if at all). So, often the words they use don’t give us a clear enough picture of what the problem is, or more importantly how to solve it.  That is why you have to be a detective!

Although both the tantrum and the meltdown sound the same, and include some of the same behaviors, they are not the same: determining why the challenging behavior is occurring is where the answer lies. If your child is upset because they lack the skill to deal with the situation, it is a meltdown – which by definition means that ignoring it won’t make it go away, and punishing it sure won’t help either.  If they have the skills to deal with the problem, then it *could* be a tantrum – but those are MUCH more rare than you think.

As parents we, for some reason, seem to gravitate towards the idea that our kids are attention seeking or manipulative, and that therefore all meltdowns are tantrums.  The reason I believe we do this is because if our children are misbehaving due to those reasons, it requires less of us to fix it. Conventional wisdom would suggest we could ignore the problematic behavior, and it would go away – or even better – we could punish it away. I don’t know about your house, but mine doesn’t work that way. If I could time-out-away the problematic behaviors for ANY of my kids, my life would be ridiculously easy. But, alas, it’s not. : )

So let’s talk about how to play detective – sensory detective and skill deficit detective.

First skill deficit detective – detective hats on.

Scenario #1 – Suzie was with you when you bought ice cream at the store and she really wants some. As soon as you get in the door she is yelling. “I want some ice cream!” And when you say she has to wait until after dinner, she is in full flip out.  Is that a tantrum or meltdown? Could be a tantrum – could be a meltdown. Does little Suzie have the skills required to wait? Or is waiting hard for her?

In our house, Matthew is awful at waiting. He gets an agenda in his head and by god there is no turning that child around. So, we have set it up to not push his waiting skills further than he can handle, or he is going to have a meltdown. For example, if you see us at McDonald’s, and we have agreed ahead of time (key here) that he can have ice cream, it is ordered with the chicken nuggets (mind you, we request a smaller than normal cone). He can eat both at the same time. At home, he knows that the routine is dessert (if any) will be after dinner. But his ability to access those skills at McDonald’s is greatly diminished due to other factors (tired, hungry, overwhelmed, excited, etc.) so I don’t test his waiting skills when he is less likely to succeed.  You know your child best; did little Suzie use up all of her waiting skills getting from the moment you put the ice cream in the basket to the time you walked in the door?  Maybe that was good waiting for her and she deserves the reward.

Scenario #2 – Little Suzie is playing in the cul-de-sac, and along comes the ice cream man. The kids come running to the street from houses away to greet the truck, and Suzie runs with them. But wait. You don’t buy ice cream from the ice cream truck – because it is filled with more chemicals than milk – and this is just something that is an existing rule for you – and Suzie knows it. So, when all of the other kids run to the street for ice cream, you offer Suzie a juice bar from the house like usual, but this time since you are outside, she begins to lose it. Screaming, yelling, demanding ice cream. Is this a tantrum? I would say this one is more black and white – and it is a meltdown.

Why? My interpretation is there is a good chance she is having an emotional reaction to the feeling of being left out, not just wanting ice cream. This isn’t about what is better, a juice bar or an ice cream, or whether she knows it or not, it is about everyone else in the cul-de-sac getting to do something that she can’t – and wants to. Having the skills to handle feeling that left out, is out of Suzie’s developmental ability.

Now let’s talk more about how to tell when it is specifically a sensory issue. Detective hats on.

What we know about Little Tommy: Tommy is a sensory seeker; he craves deep pressure touch, and can be very busy at times. He likes things to go his way, and can be a ‘black and white’ thinker.

Scenario #1 – Little Tommy is playing on the floor in the family room. He has cars out, and he is pretending that they are having a race. His brother, John, walks up and lays down next to him. At first they seem to be playing fine, but then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, Tommy starts to yell, and punches John over and over. Why did this happen?

Knowing the very little that I do about Tommy, I am going to guess one of two things happened: either his brother John happened to touch Tommy, perhaps too lightly, and that sent him into a sensory-meltdown (fight or flight). Or perhaps, his brother John may have broken an implied rule of the game – perhaps in Tommy’s mind the red car ALWAYS wins, and John made the green car win.

Needless to say, in both cases, it appears as though Tommy doesn’t have the skills necessary to respond adaptively, so he acted badly. The important part here is to recognize what the problem is, and address that – not just the reaction.  Note to self — this cannot be ‘punished’ away.  All the time outs in the world won’t change Tommy’s mind about the NEED for the red car to win!  You knew that, right?

Scenario #2 – Little Tommy has played hard all day, first at home with his mom, and then at developmental preschool all afternoon. Mom picks him up from school at 3:30pm and needs to go grocery shopping with him and his baby sister. Once in the grocery store, Little Tommy can’t keep his hands to himself, he is buggin the baby, can’t stop touching things in the store, and goes so far as to knock something off the shelves. Mom is feeling frustrated. By the time they get to the checkout counter, the overhead speaker comes on, “We have a special on crab legs today….” As soon as it starts, Little Tommy starts yelling and having a meltdown. Tommy isn’t usually sensitive to sound, so why is this happening?

Given how long Tommy’s day has been, the grocery store only made things worse. All of the lights, sounds, visual stimuli and people – that has Tommy on sensory overload – even if he is a seeker. How do I know? By the fact that he has had a long day – with new skills being taught and practiced at school, and by the way he was acting in the store – that behavior is caused by his sensory issues. And when that person came over the speaker, it may not have been louder than usual, but that was more than Tommy could handle – enter meltdown (not tantrum, because Tommy does NOT have the skills to deal with the grocery store after school — plain and simple).

How are those detective hats fitting?  Are you getting the hang of this?

Determining the answer to “Is it sensory or is it behavior?” is a really complex issue — that said, you know your child better than anyone else – you are the expert!

Take the time to think about what is going on, because when you begin to recognize where the problems start, and why they did, the problematic behavior is avoidable — and doesn’t require you to punish more.  This is 2010 and we should all have evolved past the “time out” strategy — special needs or not!

Have a question for me?  Leave your most challenging sensory vs. behavior question below and see if you can stump me!


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