One of the many struggles we parents face is determining how to set clear boundaries for our children and still allow them space to make their own choices. When do I put my foot down with my child and when do I ease up and give them freedom to do what they want?
Now imagine the child you are raising is a child that is constantly trying to control all of his/her experiences. A child with a sensory processing disorder (SPD) often feels out of control and so these children try to control what they can and are many times referred to as “controlling” by those caring for them. Therefore, the dilemma of setting boundaries becomes even more confusing for their parents. As occupational therapists, we often hear parents say that they feel badly for their children and their daily struggles and do not want to place “extra” demands on them by setting rules and boundaries.
The rule of thumb is as follows: Children with SPD require at least as many boundaries and clear and consistent rules as those with an organized sensory system. They usually require more rules and boundaries than organized kids. Children with SPD are need to control, therefore, the clearer the expectations of them, the more in control they will feel. If they know that every time they throw a tantrum, the rules will change, and that can be very scary for a child nervous about change. On the other hand, if the rules are always consistent, no matter how hard they try to challenge their caregivers, they will feel a sense of order in their lives. This will in fact, give them a feeling of control.
Along with clear and consistent expectations, we often recommend creating some kind of visual schedule. A visual schedule is the schedule of the day, written, drawn or photographed (depending on your child’s understanding). The visuals are vertically listed one at a time. As the child goes through each item on his/her schedule, he/she can erase or check off what was done. Sometimes an entire day is too overwhelming for a child (or a parent for that matter), so we often suggest taking one part of the day to make one a schedule and then take another part of the day to make another schedule. For example, have a morning routine schedule and a separate schedule for the evening. In order to give the child some control, the parent may want to offer two choices to a child regarding one or two items on the schedule. For example, at snack time you may ask the child “Would you like to have an apple or a granola bar?” This way, either choice is a good one for the parent and the child feels a sense of ownership over the decision. (If you would like to see an example of a visual schedule, email us and we will send one to you.)
It is important to keep in mind, as with all good parenting, that the key is in picking your battles. Primary caregivers, together, should determine the most important priorities that require the most serious limits. For example, all parents agree that it is never OK for a child to run into the street. Therefore, holding a child’s hand in the street may be a rule that can never be altered. On the other hand, wearing a short-sleeved shirt in the winter, if a child is sensitive to clothing, may not have to be the issue that turns your morning upside down. We cannot determine other families’ priorities, as each family’s needs and expectations are different, so families need to do that for themselves. It’s also important to remember that as children go through various developmental stages, the priorities may change.
To those of you who have never heard of these recommendations before, or prefer a more laid back family lifestyle, this may sound excessively rigid or inflexible. Rest assured that if you maintain consistency, the overall stress level in your home should significantly decrease as your child with SPD will feel safe and comfortable with the knowledge that he/she knows what is expected of him/her.
Alyssa Colton MA, OTR and Aviva Lipner MA, OTR are pediatric occupational therapists and owners of Kids’ Therapy Place, LLC and Kids’ Therapy Toy Store info_kidstplace.com
By Alyssa Colton MA, OTR/L & Aviva Lipner MA, OTR/L