The Secret to Understanding Sensory Behavior

Sitting on the couch, listening to my toddler scream for the millionth time that day, wondering what set him off, and feeling the weight of not knowing how to console him….just like always.

At that time, nothing I did seemed to help him.

And as a person with a great deal of formal education in child development, I knew something was not right, but I didn’t discover the secret until he turned three.

For three years, I couldn’t stop the tantrums from happening.

I wanted to badly to help him in any way I could, but it always seemed to result in meltdowns.

He was exhausted. I was exhausted. I wondered how we were ever going to make it through those difficult times.

Looking back, I see clearly it was all sensory behavior, something I now clearly understand, but then, I would have given anything to have these secrets revealed to me.

Be sure to learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder and my parenting tips on how to support your child with sensory challenges.

Understanding Sensory Behavior

So what is this sensory behavior anyways? What makes it so different?

So many questions and so little answers are out there for parents who are dealing with it all.

If you are feeling in the thick of things, wondering why your child seems to be so easily set off and how you can help, you are in the right place!

It all starts with knowing why the behavior happens.

In the behavior world, it is well known that there are 4 functions of behavior:

  • attention
  • access to something
  • escape or avoid something

Most often, people think the sensory portion of this list refers to being hungry or tired.

There’s so much more to it than that!

Our bodies are constantly taking in information about the environment, where we are in space, how things feel, the brightness of the lights, and our ability to move around in it all.

All of this sensory information is processed and the brain decides if it is too much or not enough at any given point in time.

If the brain decides the body needs more, all the brain power goes into filling that need.

If the brain decides the stimulation is too much, all the brain power will go towards getting away from that stimulation.

It’s a constant balancing act that most of us don’t even notice, because we have become so accustomed to just meeting or avoiding those sensations.

Seeking, Avoiding and Behavior

Every morning I have a routine of getting out of the shower and immediately moisturizing my body.

I do this subconsciously because I’ve done it for so long and I just know it feels good.

That’s all I knew until I understood that I have a low tolerance to the feeling of my skin being dry.

When my skin is dry, I get irritated easily, I feel stressed out, and I can’t focus very well.

All it takes is a little lotion and I can function just fine.

It is my way of avoiding a sensory aversion and avoiding my own tantrums that happen when I have dry skin.

So it is with my son.

When he was young he loved being outside.

As soon as he knew how to ride a trike all he wanted to do was ride in the driveway, over all the cracks, and doing it all while he was BUTT NAKED!

He was happy outside and wanted to be out there all the time.

As much as I knew he loved being outside, I didn’t know WHY until I learned about sensory needs.

Again, he was filling a sensory need he had for more movement in the day.

When he didn’t have that, his emotions were more sensitive, he had more frequent tantrums, and was just off.

If only I had known the connection when he was younger, we could have avoided a lot of tantrums with just a few minutes of daily bike rides each day.

You see, when the sensory system is off (due to seeking or avoiding sensations) the brain focuses mostly on obtaining or avoiding those sensations causing logic to decrease, emotions to increase, which results in BEHAVIOR!

Some of the more common signs of seeking or avoiding behavior are listed in this document.

Do any of these sound like your child?

Some of the more common signs of seeking or avoiding behaviors

Addressing the Behavior

So now that we have seen the link between the sensory system and behavior that sometimes seems unable to be explained, the question remains, how does a parent address the behavior?

I’ll admit, before understanding the sensory link, I treated it as behavior and tried just about every parenting technique possible.

I tried comforting, ignoring, being patient, being firm, you name it, I probably tried it.

NOTHING worked to help his behavior because I was always addressing the result of the problem rather than the root of the problem.

His tantrums came as a result of his sensory system being off.

The key to addressing the behavior was to take a look at his sensory system and fill those needs he had, and help him avoid those aversions.

Just as simply moisturizing my skin each day will help decrease my stress and prevent me from losing my cool over the slightest thing, giving him a ride on his bike for a bit helps him as well.

So now when the less frequent meltdowns happen, I know it is all simply a result of his body needing more sensory sensation or less irritation.

We don’t feel the stress we did before, we know how to address the needs his body has and together we work through it all.

Sensory has been the missing link for us and is for the majority of the “unexplained” behaviors seen in children.

If you find yourself facing tantrums, meltdowns, picky tendencies, and things you just can’t explain with your child, try looking into the sensory reason behind it, you might be surprised at how simple it is to address.

About the Guest Author

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

With an undergraduate degree in child development, and a master’s degree in special education, this foundation was a springboard for Wendy in helping kids and families to see the root of any challenges they face.

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