for release Friday May 20 2005
by Melodie Davis
Scream-free Parenting: What If Its Something Serious?
Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a three-part series on parenting difficult children.
My toddlers are long grown. So it is fair for anyone in the throes of parenting toddlers to say, “She just forgets how it really is.”
I have never appreciated child-raising advice from those who truly seem to have really forgotten any notion of what it is actually like. Each generation of kids is different, and each child within a family is unique. Since my children are grown, I take some of my cues (and examples) from the wonderful children I come in contact with at church, the mall and (especially) the children of my nieces and nephews. My nieces and nephews on both sides of the family are raising multiple toddlers. (I’m stretching the definition of toddler to include roughly the age from 18 months to about 4.)
I was intrigued by one of the parenting books that came recently to my desk: The Sensory-Sensitive Child: Practical Solutions for Out-of-Bounds Behavior. It was written by two Ph.D.s who also both happen to have young children, Karen A. Smith and Karen R. Gouze (Harper Collins, 2004). I received this book just after viewing the Dr. Phil episode on “out of control” children that I talked about in my last column.
Are children out of control or is there something physically, emotionally or mentally wrong? Or is there something wrong with the parents?
The answer may be: all of the above. If there are problems in any of the above areas, there are probably going to be additional challenges and issues in raising a child beyond the normal occasional tantrum, the occasional sibling fight, the refusal to get dressed, and inevitable delay tactics in going to bed. Sometimes there are “different” things going on with the child; sometimes parents simply have not learned (or refuse) to take on the role of parent.
In the introduction to their book, the two Karens write about their two different families: “Through our experiences with our own sons, Ben, now 15, Evan, now 9, and many other children in our practices, we became convinced that the standard diagnostic labels do not always capture the complexity and nuance of their perplexing behavior.”
They go on, “Teachers, psychologists and parents frequently blame the problem on the child, labeling him as stubborn, hyperactive, or just downright ornery. Others are more benevolent, joking that he is a “horse of a different color.” Over time, it becomes hard for him not to think of himself as a troublemaker or an oddball. We believe that most uncooperative children don’t want to cause trouble…. They want to please their parents. They want to succeed, but we believe that a significant number of these children are in trouble because they have difficulty processing sensory information.” (p. xiii-xiv).
To be honest, that phrase raised my eyebrows a bit, because it sounds like just so much psycho-babble. Old fashioned disciplinarians would say “what the child needs is a good spanking.” But most of these parents have tried literally everything, including spanking in moments of desperation, and nothing has worked.
The authors put forth the idea that kids with overactive (or underactive) senses resist or act out when faced with simple everyday tasks like dressing because their brains have trouble processing the “smells, tastes, sounds, textures, and motion” of everyday life. A child in a noisy classroom gets overstimulated and can’t stay “on task.” A child hates getting dressed because his over-sensitive skin hurts or an elastic band around the waist squeezes him too tight. These authors base their ideas on clinical research and the work of scholars, including a woman named Jean Ayres, and they admit that some of the theories are still being tested and modified. They say that perhaps about 10-15 percent of children have these problems—in other words, not every misbehaving child has “sensory processing problems.”
The book continues by analyzing the issues and specific examples, and then offering practical solutions such as analyzing difficult situations from a sensory point of view: would calm music or white noise help if a child is over-stimulated?
If this still sounds too bizarre and “out there,” think about it: All of us have a threshold in terms of noise, brightness or physical restrictions that make us respond negatively. For centuries various methods of torture (dripping water, loud music played incessantly, lights on constantly) used this approach of overloading the senses until one cracks. Is it too bizarre to think that certain children have different thresholds at which emotional meltdown is triggered? At the other end, children left without much human interaction and little sensory stimulation in orphanages have also shown signs of disturbed emotional and behavioral responses.
It is worth thinking about, and if I had a child with whom I had tried everything I knew to try, I would definitely look into some of the solutions offered in this approach. There could be a host of other things also going on, from learning and attention disabilities, to physical problems. Keep looking for help.
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Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 887 words; end material = 105 words
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