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Sensory processing issues

Should I Expose My Oversensitive Child to the Things That Upset Her?

By Elizabeth Harstad

My preschooler has sensory processing issues. Is it better to expose her to the things that upset her or try to avoid them?

Elizabeth Harstad

Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician, Boston Children’s Hospital

In general, I recommend that families consider what’s bothering their preschooler. Are these things that need to be done?

For example, if wearing a jacket really bothers your child and you live in a place that has cold winters, then you’ll need to find a way to get her to be more comfortable with wearing a coat.

But if she doesn’t like loud noises and flashing lights, then maybe it makes sense to avoid the fireworks display on the Fourth of July. In other words, it’s important to pick your battles.

Keep in mind that how parents act and react can affect their child’s behavior. Here’s an example: If a parent rushes to clean her child’s hands every time they get even a little dirty, the child may have a harder time learning how to tolerate dirty hands.

For many parents, it’s hard to know when and how to intervene without being overprotective.

It’s also important to remember that your child may need help learning to tolerate different sensations. One way to help is to slowly get her used to the thing that bothers her. This is sometimes called “desensitizing.”

It may start with having your child hold her winter coat. Then put just one arm in. Give praise with each step and allow your child time to get more comfortable. Eventually she may be able to put the whole coat on without too much protest.

Depending how severe your child’s issues are, you may need a therapist to help her work on this. Pushing too much too soon could add to her anxiety and make it harder to make progress. For that reason, I recommend talking with her doctor about your concerns.

I also want to mention one tricky thing about sensory processing issues. This phrase—sensory processing issues—can mean different things to different people.

Some professionals may use official-sounding terms to describe a child who is oversensitive to things. For example, some occupational therapists may describe a child as having “sensory integration disorder” or “sensory processing disorder.”

But there's no medically recognized diagnosis that describes sensory processing issues as its own disorder. Many doctors and psychologists consider them symptoms of something else.

Here are a few of the possibilities:

  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): One of the symptoms of ASD is that a child may avoid certain smells, tastes or textures.
  • Anxiety disorders: These can cause a child to be oversensitive to certain things. For example, kids with anxiety may get very upset if they hear a leaf blower outside because they fear that something scary is coming to get them.
  • ADHD: Some kids with ADHD are very active and like jumping on trampolines or crashing into walls. Those behaviors could seem like sensory-seeking activities.

Being extremely sensitive can also be part of typical child development. For example, many preschoolers hate the way jeans feel. They might prefer to wear soft leggings instead.

I’m mentioning all of this because kids can be oversensitive for many reasons. So it can be hard to know whether it’s better to expose your child to things that bother her or to avoid them to keep her comfortable.

This is why it’s so important to talk with your child’s doctor. Together you can come up with a comprehensive plan to help your child with sensory processing issues.

About the Author

Portrait of Elizabeth Harstad

Elizabeth Harstad

Elizabeth Harstad, M.D., M.P.H., is a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.

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