ADVICE: Why Is My Kid Doing THAT?
Occupational therapist and author Cindy Utzinger kicks off a new series for Charlotte Parent and Carolina Parent
Have you ever asked yourself, “Why is my kid doing that?” If you haven’t, you are no doubt the exception to the rule and quite possibly raising a unicorn.
We can all fill in the blank for “Why is my kid doing _____?”
Perhaps yours is:
- Why is my kid a picky eater?
- Why does my kid have meltdowns?
- Why can’t my kid sit still?
- Why does my kid touch everything?
- Why does my kid seem anxious and fearful?
- Why can’t my kid do _____ like their peers can?
- Why does my kid have trouble focusing?
- Why does my kid have trouble with transitions?
Have no fear. Your child is not a bad kid. It’s possible your child just has their sensory “things.” If we’re honest, even adults have sensory “things.” When we learn to look at our child’s behaviors through a sensory lens, we’re better able to help them work through their “things” and help them gain the self-awareness and self-regulation skills they need to navigate life.
To look at a child’s behaviors through a sensory lens, we need to understand a few things:
Development and learning are like an iceberg. With any iceberg, there is the tip of the iceberg that we see above the water, but much of the iceberg lies beneath the surface. With learning and development, the tip of the iceberg is what we see our kids do: their behaviors, skill development, and emotional regulation. The sensory system, however, forms a large portion of what lies beneath the surface. When we see red flag behaviors, emotional dysregulation, or skill deficits, we must look beneath the surface—and often it’s the sensory system. It’s important to address the underlying root of the behavior if we want to make lasting changes.
Your child has more than five senses. We all know the five basic senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. But there are two senses most of us haven’t heard of: the vestibular and the proprioceptive senses. These two senses give us input about movement, help us to understand what our bodies are doing in space, and play a large role in behavior.
Behaviors are often a result of a “sensory cup” that is overflowing or not full enough. Some mornings we need quite a few cups of coffee to focus and face the day. But sometimes we might have one cup too many. The next thing you know, you’re jittery and unable to focus. If we swap out coffee for sensory input, we understand what our children may be experiencing with their sensory system. There are times when a child is under stimulated and needs an abundance of sensory input and will seek it out. Often, they do this in ways that drive us crazy—and involve a lot of noise and movement. Other times they have too much sensory input and become over stimulated, and we see behaviors and emotions like meltdowns or avoidance.
So there you have it, your first sensory lesson. In the columns to come, I will dive deeper into the behaviors that lead us to ask, “Why?” and give you the tools you need to help your children.
CINDY UTZINGER is an occupational therapist, mother of two, and author of Why Is My Kid Doing That?, a book to help parents better understand their child’s behavior.