Parenting and the Sensory Ecology of Child Development
When our children err, we have a responsibility to respond in a way that meets developmental need. Yet when my daughters freak out, I freak out. The more I act at the whim of my own anxiety, the less aware and responsive I am of and to my children’s needs.
As a therapist, I love to say that to the extent that I fail to go toe-to-toe with my own emotional reflexes, they will go toe-to-toe with the ones I love. Unfortunately, that statement is more descriptive than prescriptive, and I all too often play out the sequence.
Our children have basic needs such as hunger and safety, and we must meet them. Their needs are like our own, coded with deoxyribonucleic complexity and teeming with self-interest. If we are to do extraordinarily well in meeting our children’s needs, we must first see their needs through a wide-angle lens that highlights critical processing faculties.
Researcher Karen Purvis once said that “if the brain is hungry, it’s going to do some not so smart stuff.” She coaches parents in child development, especially those whose children have endured trauma and those whose brains are hypersensitive to sensory stimulation.
Dr. Purvis works with Dr. Cross and others at TCU’s Institute of Child Development to better understand such issues and equip parents everywhere to best care for their children. While the majority of parents do not face post-traumatic stress behavior or severe sensory processing challenges, to parent well is understand or at least leverage something of the complex chemistry involved in sensory and emotional processing.
Sense and Sensibility
Kids need predictability and appropriate levels of control. According to Dr. Purvis, “you cannot create a safe space unless you understand sensory processing.” Some of our kids pick up on aspects of sensory experience that others miss. While we must gain a greater understanding and responsiveness to the needs of those who struggle with unique sensory processing issues, we must also come to respect the sheer power of sense in all our lives.
Touch probably is more powerful than you give it credit for. One study demonstrated that if a waitress touches your hand for one second, your tip goes up an average of 35 percent. We are wired for touch, but trust is our electrical grounding. There are proprioceptive receptors under the skin. (The word “proprioception” comes from a combination of Latin words meaning “a sense of one’s own body.”) Deep pressure massage on areas less sensitive to touch have been demonstrated to be more than just calming. They can even heal brain damage from trauma. Infant massage every two hours for three to six months has been shown to have power to heal in-utero drug exposure and change the trajectory of a child’s life. Human touch is potent stuff.
The vestibular sense is involved in physical movement and balance as well as emotional regulation. Vestibular stimulation helps us determine direction, speed of movement, and pull of gravity. Vestibular proprioception refers specifically to pressure on the body, and this unique form of sensory input is distinct from the tactile sense. For instance, a weighted blanket releases gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, which has a powerful role in the regulation of nervous system excitability as well as muscle tone. Idiopathic toe-walking is a method some children use to increase input when and where it’s needed to achieve sensory regulation. Patricia Wilbarger created a now-widely-used protocol designed to reduce sensory and tactile defensiveness in children extremely sensitive to touch.