[Material from SENSORY INTEGRATION AND THE CHILD: Understanding Hidden Sensory Challenges, copyright © 2005 by Western Psychological Services. Excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher, Western Psychological Services, 12031 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, California, 90025, U.S.A. (www.wpspublish.com). Not to be reprinted in whole or in part for any additional purpose without the expressed, written permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.]
A child with sensory integrative dysfunction may find many everyday experiences more challenging than other typically developing children do. Therefore it is not unusual for a child who is experiencing this problem to feel less confident about his abilities, especially in the areas that he struggles to perform adequately. There are three things that can contribute to a negative self-image: the way in which the nervous system is functioning, the feelings of frustration and inadequacy that arise when the child cannot do things well, and other people's negative reactions to what the child does. Parents can do a great deal to counteract the negative reactions of other people, and they can do quite a bit to reduce the feelings of frustration and inadequacy.
A Physical Problem
The first step is to realize that the child's problem is a physical one. It involves the action of electrical impulses and chemicals in his brain. A learning disorder or behavior problem resulting from sensory integrative dysfunction is just as much a physical problem as a broken leg or the measles.
When a person has the measles, he does not feel up to par; he is apt to be irritable and may be cranky and less likable. More things go wrong, because the physical problem of the measles interferes with the way the person behaves. We forgive and make allowances for the person with the measles. Similar forgiveness and allowances must be made for the child with a sensory integrative problem. You may not approve of the child's behavior, but do not let your disapproval damage the child's concept of himself as a person. Let him know that people don't like it when he behaves poorly, but that this does not mean no one will ever like him. Also help him to know what things are socially acceptable and then help him to do those things.
If a child is sick and vomits on the living room carpet, you might say, "Next time try to make it to the bathroom," but you would not punish him or make him feel ashamed for not making it there. Similarly, a child should not be punished or made to feel ashamed because his coordination is poor, or because he can't learn to read or write, or because he can't control his bowels, or because he does things that make other children dislike him. This is the child who needs parental love and acceptance even more than the child who doesn't have such problems. This is the child who needs a world of emotional support to help him become likable.
It is extremely hard to be accepting when a child is disruptive, stubborn, uncooperative, mean, or hostile. It tries the patience of even the most tolerant parent. It takes more patience than any parent should be expected to have. How does one cope with this type of behavior? If you remember that the child has a physical -- though not visible -- problem, you may find it easier to accept his behavior and disposition. You can still love him and he can love you back. Your child's feelings about himself will in part reflect your feelings about him.
Foreseeing Emotional Crises
Recognize that your child's nervous system is not as stable as other children's. This makes him emotionally fragile. Too much stimulation -- movement, people, confusion, changes in schedule, noise, demands, illness -- can cause him to lose control of his emotions. This is especially true if the child is tactilely defensive or gravitationally insecure. Learn to sense when your child is about to lose control of himself. For instance, birthday parties are the most stressful of activities for some children. When you sense that your child will not be able to cope with certain stimuli, remove him from that environment or decrease the amount of stimulation from the environment. Children do not like to lose control, because they feel worse about themselves when they do. You can help your child preserve a good self-concept by steering him away from situations that may overwhelm his nervous system. You can also help him by being calm yourself; you are a major part of your child's environment, and your emotional state will affect his nervous system.