As parents we wish we could subdue our children’s outbursts with a gentle re-direction. In some cases this works beautifully. But, in other cases it fails miserably, and the behavior we are wishing to stop increases. One important key to stopping unwanted behavior is to understand why the behavior started in the first place, what is underlying the behavior. This is often much easier said than done, but not impossible.

Most kids respond to unpleasant situations with an emotional response. Susie wants the dolls her little sister is playing with, and when she is refused she begins to cry. David is upset because he wants ice cream before dinner, and when he is told no, he screams and kicks the table. Michael walks into a clothing store with his mother and shortly after arriving begins to scream and cry because he wants to leave. He doesn’t want to try on clothes and tries to run out of the store. While these scenarios may sound familiar and very similar, this last situation may be different at its core than the others.

There is a difference in the quality of the response for both the child and parent when the triggers are not emotional. In some cases, children are struggling with sensory processing overload. This happens when a child’s brain does not have the capacity to receive and respond to all of the information coming in through the senses. The information is too much to hold and process.

Imagine a small container that you are filling with water. You can’t turn the water off, and as a result it overflows and flows and flows. There are multiple triggers for children that include bright lights, loud noises, scratchy textures, new tastes, and more. In Michael’s case, he may have been overwhelmed by fluorescent lights, scratchy wool clothes, or too many people in the store. Whatever the exact reason(s), his environment was overwhelming in a way that it isn’t to most people.

There are different ways to respond to these situations once you understand them:

  1. In order to calm a tantrum, you will want to acknowledge what your child needs without giving in. Speaking calmly and in a soothing tone, be clear that you understand what he’s after and help him see that there’s a more appropriate behavior that will work.
  2. On the other hand, to manage a sensory meltdown, it is always best to help your child find a safe, quiet place to de-escalate. In Michael’s case you could leave the store and go to the car. It is important to provide a calm, reassuring presence without talking too much to your child. The goal in these cases is to reduce the input coming toward your child.

Each of these situations provides its own challenges, particularly in the moment. Parents Place offers a range of assistance in the form of experienced counselors, psychologists, and occupational therapists to help parents and children assess the differences in behavioral issues and the identify the best way to help.

Learn more about our children’s therapy services, parent coaching, and consultations.

Beth Berkowitz, Psy.D. is Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Director of Children’s Clinical Services and Child Training Institute at Parents Place in San Francisco.