My 6-year-old son is afraid of dogs. It’s not so much that he’s scared that a dog will jump or nip at him. Rather, it’s because he has sensory processing challenges, and the sound of a dog’s bark is intensely painful to his ears.
Last summer, my son was playing in the park with other neighborhood kids when he saw a dog on a leash. He stopped playing, covered his ears, and went to the other side of the park. No amount of coaxing by me could get him to come back to play. He asked me to take him home.
As we left the park, I could feel stares from many of the other kids and parents. I felt like they were thinking: “What’s wrong with that kid? What’s the big deal? Why is his father indulging this?”
It’s times like this when I wish people knew a few things about parenting a child with sensory processing challenges.
1. My son senses sounds, textures, tastes, smells, and sights differently than other kids.
Certain clothing and food textures are very uncomfortable for my son. A faint unpleasant odor is sometimes enough to make him gag and plug his nose.
Loud sounds that may be mildly annoying to most people are ear-shattering to him. Unexpected noises startle him much more intensely, making him jump or even fall. To protect his ears, we have him wear noise-canceling headphones when he’s in a loud environment.
2. He’s not “being difficult” or “misbehaving.”
From the outside, it can look like my son is being defiant. The reality is that he’s simply overwhelmed.
When my son was 3, he used to literally jump out of the bathtub and run away. Only later did we learn that the sensation of the water on his head and the texture of the nonslip mat in the tub caused him a huge amount of discomfort. These sensations triggered his fight-or-flight instinct, and he bolted.
3. No amount of explanation or reassurance will make him “get over it.”
To help him gain coping skills, we do our best to explain situations to him. We reassure him that he is safe and we will protect and take care of him.
For instance, in the park, I told him that the dog was on a leash. I explained that the dog was nice and not barking. But these explanations and reassurances can’t take away the discomfort. And they can’t always counter my son’s anxiety or fear.
4. My son won’t just “eat it if he gets hungry enough.”
Some kids can power through a piece of bitter broccoli, but my son can’t. He’s what some call a “super taster.” That means a bitter taste is so strong to him that it will cause his throat to close up on instinct, and he won’t swallow. Certain foods are just too painful for him to eat.
5. I’m not coddling my kid.
I know people sometimes think I’m coddling or babying my son. But that’s far from the truth. If he had a peanut allergy, I wouldn’t pack him a PB&J sandwich for lunch. If he were deathly allergic to bee stings, I’d be nervous around beehives and flowers. He has sensory processing challenges, so I’m making sure he’ll be OK in a world of overwhelming stimuli. Sometimes that means exposing him to a bit more so he can get used to the world. But other times, it means shielding him from things that can cause him anxiety or sensory overload. It’s a tough balance that I try to get right every day.
- Read about how to explain sensory processing to friends and family.
- Get tips on how to work with teachers if your child has sensory processing challenges.