Is it Sensory or Behavior?

Children throw tantrums.  Although undesirable, this is very normal. Tantrums usually occur when a child doesn’t get their own way – they are testing the boundaries of their independence.

Sometimes, these tantrums can be especially intense…and for children with special needs it can be hard to tell if the kicking and screaming is something more than just a tantrum.

Toddler Tantrums:
Children throw tantrums due to behavior when they don’t get their own way – this may be made worse if the child is tired or hungry. These tantrums can often be quelled by simply ignoring the behavior, or removing a child to change their environment for a few minutes.

– Child has a goal
– Watches for reactions
– Will avoid getting hurt
– Ends quickly/fast recovery

Sensory Meltdowns:
Our bodies take in all kinds of sensory information all throughout the day, every day. Sights, sounds, tactile sensations, tastes, smells, movement. Sometimes, for some children, the brain interprets this information in a different way. Busy environments may be overwhelming, or some sounds or touches may be actually painful.

For a child who has a sensory processing disorder, what looks like a tantrum may actually be much more. When the brain takes in and misinterprets or becomes overwhelmed by sensory information, the child’s ‘fight or flight’ can actually be activated. When a child is screaming because of sensory  they actually feel high levels of anxiety or panic. This is not behavior related and “discipline” is not appropriate. A child in this situation needs help to calm down. If you think your child is experiencing ‘meltdowns’ due to sensory problems, talk with your EI or occupational therapist about ways to help your child calm down.

– No identifiable goal
– May hurt themselves
– Not concerned with reactions of others
– Slow to recover
This is a complex topic – sometimes sensory meltdowns can turn into behavioral episodes, and sometimes behavioral tantrums can become overwhelming and cause a sensory incident.

It can get complicated – which makes dealing with the tantrum or meltdown difficult. This is just the beginning and a quick guide to get you thinking about whether your child’s tantrums are just behavior, or if sensory may play a factor. Your EI is happy to help with behavior issues and can set you up with an Occupational Therapist if needed.

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