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.
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.