Meeting a child’s sensory needs

Our interview series on The Connected Parent closes with the topic of sensory needs. For children from hard places, sensory challenges are often a symptom of trauma. You may have observed some of these behaviors. Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) takes these unique needs into consideration with its approach. We asked Sheila Wagler-Mills, TBRI practitioner, to share guidance in this area.

Why do children from hard places often struggle with sensory stimulation?

Every child’s story is different, but there are often common themes. For instance, for children who experienced neglect growing up, their need for sensory stimulation was unmet, resulting in a deficiency that did not allow the brain to develop optimally. As a result, these children often seek sensory stimulation. In contrast, children who experienced physical abuse associate touch with a negative and often become sensory avoidant or avoidant to specific types of sensory input. Children who were hospitalized early in their life may also become sensory avoidant because of the overstimulation related to their treatment.

Learn more about sensory processing.

How can healthy attachment relationships positively affect your child’s sensory processing, and what does this look like?

Healthy relationships require trust and safety. If an environment of safety is created in early life, it creates an environment from which it is safe to explore and return. When caring for children from hard places, building that trust and safety will give your child the opportunity to work through sensory insecurities and try new things. Whether the problem is withdrawing from or over seeking sensory input, a secure place and trusting relationship will encourage a child to explore and return more freely, in order to meet their sensory needs. In research, healthy attachments are proven to correlate with improved sensory processing.

How does rocking and holding a child during early development help children with healthy sensory stimulation, processing and attachment? If this is critical, how can this need be met in older children?

Rocking and holding young children activates the vestibular and proprioceptive senses and helps them to “find” their body and its place in space. These experiences help a child to process and organize information. Vestibular deficits are strongly correlated with insecure attachment in children.

For older children, who may not want to be rocked or held, there are other ways to help them reorganize and heal the brain through appropriate vestibular and proprioceptive activation, such as jumping and swinging or the use of weighted blankets. For children of all ages, helping them to utilize appropriate environmental stimulation to meet their needs aids in developing crucial skills and even encourages healthy attachment. However, it is also important to read body cues, as too much stimulation can be counterproductive, resulting in overwhelm and emotional dysregulation.

How can caregivers use felt safety to help their kids regulate sensory needs?

In short, a child is not free to experiment or explore in the sensory world if they don’t feel safe. This is one of many reasons TBRI is trust-based at its core. It’s also important for parents to follow through on what they say they will do and to give yeses as often as possible to build felt safety in children from hard places. Children learn by experience, and healthy experience builds new neural pathways, which lead to healing.

Our clinical team offers counseling support for sensory needs, helping you discover the why behind behaviors. If your child is struggling with extensive sensory-processing challenges, we will work together to identify additional resources including occupational therapy. Connect with us through our online request form.

Self-care for caregivers

Today we continue in our blog series based on the book The Connected Parent. We began the series with a focus on attachment styles (our own and our child’s) and how they affect parenting. Written and researched by communications intern Emma Lehman, the second post centers around care for the caregiver. The Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) principles were established to care for youth from hard places. These strategies can be reframed to support the caregiver’s wellbeing so they can be their best self for their kids.

For parents of children from hard places, it can be a challenge to balance their child’s needs with their own. Hard work, creativity, and diligence are important when it comes to caring for children with developmental trauma. However, this amount of constant stress can lead to exhaustion. It becomes harder to maintain empathy when weariness takes hold.

In The Connected Parent, Dr. Karyn Purvis illustrates how the Trust-Based Relational Intervention principles (TBRI) are used to guide children from hard places toward healing. Dr. Purvis also notes that the principles of TBRI, empowering, connecting and correcting, can be used for your self-care. At its core, TBRI is meant to empower the body, connect to the soul, and correct behavior and thinking.

Caregivers of children who have experienced hardships can oftentimes find themselves consumed by their child’s needs. While attempting to meet the child’s needs, they can unintentionally neglect their own. Helping these children heal can also lead to secondary trauma and compassion fatigue. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network describes secondary trauma as, “the presence of PTSD symptoms caused by indirect exposure to trauma.” Compassion fatigue is, “negative cumulative effects of empathetic engagement with trauma.”

The effects of secondary trauma can affect parents and helping professionals alike. Don’t feel ashamed of these feelings. Acknowledge them and explore what you need to heal and regain resilience.

Empowerment

Empowering principles are for the body. This includes the brain, neurochemistry, and regulation of blood sugar. Secondary trauma and chronic stressors negatively impact the body. The key to creating a healing environment for wounded children is by countering stressors. Some examples Dr. Purvis suggested include sleep, hydration, and physical activity. Focusing on these areas will benefit self-care as well.

Sleep directly impacts cognitive functions and physical health. Many health professionals will encourage the use of sleep medication, but there are often alternatives that may be effective. Getting a good night’s sleep isn’t always realistic for parents. But making sure the sleep environment is appropriate for rest is. You might lower the lights about an hour before bed, limit access to bluescreens (such as mobile phones, tablets, etc.), and minimally furnish the room for a less distracting space. A sound machine and oil diffuser with a soothing scent can also provide a calming atmosphere.

Hydration is deeply connected to cognitive ability and metabolism. Even at 15% of dehydration, cognitive function declines. Health, physical activity, and environment play a role in how much fluids should be taken a day. One trick for checking hydration levels includes how frequently one urinates, its color, and its odor. Don’t forget, about 20% of daily fluid intake comes from food; the rest comes from drinks.

Physical activity helps organize the brain and release endorphins (mood elevators). Children are encouraged to engage in physical activity or sensory exercise every two hours. Since worldly demands don’t give adults that amount of luxury, a short walk while completing tasks is just as helpful. Engaging in physical movement outside can be even more beneficial. Extra points if your child is involved.

Connection

Connecting principles contribute to healthy relationships. For children with attachment challenges, this would be used for building trust-based relationships and helping them to find their voice. Caretakers can adjust these principles to support their relationships and voice. This principle is split into two strategies: mindfulness and engagement.

In connecting with children from hard places, mindfulness is about understanding each other’s histories and triggers and what we bring to relationships. In terms of self-care, it’s about practicing awareness and ability to focus on others. Take time to center your thoughts on the feel of your body, and how it connects to the world.

Engagement is about community. In caring for a child, engagement strategies highlight non-verbal ways to make a connection such as eye contact and close proximity. When it comes to self-care, research shows the correlation of social connection and overall well-being. During times of high stress and anxiety, having people around to listen and understand these struggles can make all the difference. Socializing creates emotional support, logistical support, information support, and a sense of belonging. All of which are essential for meaningful relationships.

Sometimes it might feel easier to push others away when things get out of control. In truth, it can be more beneficial for the caregiver and child if the caregiver allows others to participate. This includes caring for your child, and caring for you. Dr. Purvis encouraged parents to, “Make it a goal to pause and say yes when someone asks if they can help rather than automatically saying no and insisting you have things handled” (The Connected Parent, 165).

Correction

Correcting principles are about responding appropriately to fear-based and connection-seeking behaviors that are indicative of a child’s need. When using this principle for self-care, caregivers can address their own needs. Instead of focusing on family imperfections, it’s about proactivity and healthy responses.

Proactive strategies with a child might look like practicing social skills through play. To cope with all the daily stressors in life, what changes can be made to cultivate more joy and peace in your world? Even the smallest moments can be used for self-compassion, like swiping a checkmark next to an accomplishment on a task list or having a dance party in the kitchen.

Responsive strategies include acknowledging the way one responds to a difficult interaction with their child with unique needs. Reflection with understanding friends, or counseling from a professional, can help in figuring out what went wrong, and how that interaction can be improved for the next time. Start by being curious. Pay attention to how you respond to mistakes. Talk to yourself as a coach rather than a warden, just as you would for your child or a close friend.

Allow for slow progress, and celebrate successes. Don’t push too hard and expect rapid change. Your mental health as a parent or caregiver is just as important as being there for your child. There’s no shame in asking for help.

If you would like to speak with a licensed counselor about self-care strategies or mental health struggles, our Encompass team would be honored to support you. View our locations and reach out for an appointment.

2 Hour Tuesday

This has been a year of unknowns and uncertainties. We are incredibly grateful for the safety and stability Encourage foster families provide the youth in their care. Our team is here to help you navigate this season and provide quality tools and resources to keep you on track.

While we wait for in person First Friday foster parent trainings to return, Encourage is now offering 2 Hour Tuesday online trainings through Zoom. Open to any licensed foster parent, participants will earn two hours of face-to-face training credits. No sign up is required. Join us as your schedule allows.

In August, we’ll take a look at helping children in times of crisis through Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI). Learn more about rupture and repair and how to help kids heal from big and small traumas in the midst of a pandemic.

2 Hour Tuesday: The Power of Repair
August 18, 6-8pm
Join the Zoom training.

Enjoy this timely session from the comfort of your home. For more information, contact Whitney Beougher, LSW, foster care assessor and trainer at beougherw@ccho.org.