Child Reactions: Sensory Issues or Behavior Driven?

Janet WatkissBehavior, Challenging Behavior, Child Development

Many parents and therapists alike can be perplexed by whether or not a child’s behaviors are resulting from sensory processing dysfunction or behavior driven. When living or working with infants or toddlers, this can be especially difficult until they are able to express their wants or needs by actions or words. Parenting requires we learn to read our infant’s or toddler’s cues. Needs are often expressed through crying and if your child is frequently distressed, it becomes confusing and frustrating to be able to read, interpret, and/or meet your child’s needs.

To better understand the difference between sensory issues or sensation driven responses and behaviors, we need to define some terms. First, sensory processing is how our brain takes in, analyzes, and responds to sensation input from and through any of our senses. A child can be either over responsive or under responsive to sensation their body is receiving from the environment or movement experiences.

If over-responsive, they may experience sensory processing sensitivity and misinterpret normal sensory input as life threatening. They can become immobilized by a sensory overload of fear, anxiety, or distress resulting in either retreating from input or become defensive in reactions and responses.

If under-responsive, their central nervous system perceives sensation input much less intensely than others, leading to sensory seeking. Often, a child who is under responsive may actively “seek out” needed sensory input such as a child who must touch everything, is always moving, or bumping and crashing into objects or people. Another common term used by occupational therapists to describe a child’s reactions to sensation is sensory defensiveness.

When sensory defensive reactions are displayed, you will observe avoidance to specific types of sensation. Some common examples of defensive reactions can include avoidance of certain food textures, temperatures, or flavors, avoidance reactions to movement such as riding in a car, tilting head or body backward for hair washing or diaper changing, covering ears to loud or piercing sounds, or covering eyes to sunlight or artificial lighting. When a child is demonstrating sensory defensiveness, reactions are typically extreme.

A behavior is any action or response an individual makes.  Behaviors can be positive or negative. Some examples of behavior can include willful or learned behaviors. A willful behavior is described as a response to internal or external stimuli based on past actions that brings a perceived benefit. Our children learn to smile, pout, stomp, and cry in hopes of ending an unwanted activity or eliciting a wanted action or response from their parents.  This is a conscious decision or choice to act in a particular way that is within one’s control. Learned behaviors are a child’s action or coping strategy, based on past experiences but not based on a conscious decision or choice. Behaviors followed by success or reward are quickly learned. The success or reward reinforce a reason to repeat or stop an action or behavior.

What To Do About Your Child’s Behaviors

After briefly examining sensory based reactions and response, and general behavior infants and toddlers may display, we can conclude all behaviors have meaning and communicate something. Consider what triggers the response or action. Is it sensation input, past experiences, consequences, wants, or needs?

When a child’s reactions and/or behaviors begin to disrupt daily routines, frequency in reactions and behaviors increase, and/or reactions and behaviors become more extreme, parents may be advised to begin journaling when reactions are occurring. Are there specific activities within your day that lead to a tantrum or distress consistently? Does the child display concerning reactions or behavior to specific times of the day such as before a nap or before bath time?

If it appears a specific sensation is triggering a strong reaction, parents may begin to notice patterns in the child’s reaction. This could be demonstrated in a child displaying touch sensation sensitivities. Diaper changing, bathing, brushing teeth, or combing hair may provoke resistance in participation or acceptance of sensation experience to the body. When children become tearful at bedtime consistently, consider the possibility of anxiety due to separation from a parent or fear of lying in the dark.

There are many perplexing scenarios that trigger distress for children. Consulting with a pediatrician and sharing concerns may lead families to an occupational therapist or child development specialist who can help determine whether sensory integration or behavior strategies would be the most fitting and effective intervention.