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Should I Discipline My Child's Sensory Seeking Behavior?

Children who have sensory processing disorder can experience sensory input in different ways. While some children get overloaded by their sensory input, others feel as though their senses are understimulated, and this can lead to sensory seeking behavior.

Sometimes, this behavior can be inappropriate or risky, and as a parent, you may wonder the best way to handle this behavior in order to discourage it and keep your child safe. Disciplining a child's sensory offensiveness can be tricky, but you can manage your response properly if you understand which behaviors are sensory seeking behaviors, what purpose they serve for your child, and what behavioral alternatives there are that can serve a similar purpose.

How to Distinguish Sensory Seeking Behaviors

Sensory seeking behaviors in a child come from a place of wanting to feel stimulated or a desire to be calmed or soothed. These behaviors can be very distinct, and they often involve craving interaction with another human or object in a way that seems inappropriate. Sensory craves may include playing in mud or water, touching or standing too close to people (in a way that makes them uncomfortable), trying to engage in rough play like wrestling, making a mess of toys (but not necessarily playing with them), jumping off of high surfaces they should not be on, and more.

The Right Way to Respond to Sensory Seeking Behaviors

When you spot your child engaging in sensory seeking behaviors, it may be your gut reaction to discipline them in order not to reinforce the behavior and also to keep them safe. Typical discipline tactics may not the best way to respond to sensory seeking behaviors, especially if your child does not understand that they are doing something inappropriate or harmful. You should still respond if they engage in something dangerous or improper.

Determine whether the behavior is worth a reaction.

Look at the behavior you want to discipline and decide whether it's worth a reaction. Behaviors that deserve a response include ones that endanger or affect another person or ones that endanger your child. There are some behaviors—like spitting out food—that may not be worth disciplining because they don't cause harm to anyone else.

Understand what sensory input your child is seeking and redirect.

Take a look at your child's behavior and see what senses they are looking to stimulate. Rather than punish them for engaging in a behavior, redirect them to another activity that stimulates their senses in a similar way. Explain why it’s a better choice than the other behavior. You can eliminate undesired behavior without shaming or punishing them.

Use words rather than actions.

Words help children with sensory processing disorder understand why a behavior is unacceptable and why another is more appropriate. Showing them how to experience the same reaction another way, helps them avoid the behavior you don't want them to engage in without making things unpleasant or stressful.

If you need more help understanding your child's sensory processing issues and how to overcome the daily challenges that they face in life and in school, contact your local Brain Balance Achievement Center. For over a decade, we’ve helped over 50,000 individuals improve the critical and behavioral skills needed to create a brighter path for their future. You can also view the research and results of the program on the website.

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