One of my friends recently took her young son to a sensory-friendly theater – where kids who are highly susceptible to sensory input, or who have trouble sitting still for long periods, can enjoy a movie in a safe, comfortable environment. The lights and sound are adjusted, and the kids can get up and move around whenever they want.
Sensory-friendly activities are becoming more and more commonplace, from skating rinks and indoor play-zones, to adapted Broadway shows and Major League ballgames.
It’s as if too much of anything can overload these kids’ circuits. But which came first? Are they being born with heightened senses, or have we created a world that blasts away at all of us and we’re desensitizing in order to function?
As parents, we have to make zillions of decisions, hoping they’ll be the right ones. And it seems likely that our children are capable of helping us, by giving us the answers themselves – by providing indicators or signs for what they need from us.
It’s as if they know of a keyhole to a safe place inside themselves. And we have to find the key that fits – and then help them use that doorway, as they need it.
One key to help these super sensitive kids might be getting out in nature, where they can calm themselves. It might be music, and they’ll let us know what type they like. It might be beauty, like walking around a museum or a flower market. It might be making art, or cooking, or reading, or riding in the car, or swimming, or running – anything that helps them gather and center their own energy.
Maria Montessori said that the mind of a child is “like soft wax, susceptible to impressions.”
Kids have to acclimate to a harshness that we’ve helped create. And they don’t have the buffers in place that we have. When they aren’t doing or feeling well, it could be that they’re picking up something from the environment they’ve been in, or the people they’ve been around. It’s not farfetched to consider, because kids are wide open, especially in their developmental years. They’re like sponges, absorbing our words and actions. And their intuitive sides are even soaking up our thoughts and moods. And they’re being affected by all of it.
When we become parents, we know that we have to rein in our emotional outbursts, to set a good example. But we also can’t be haphazard about our thoughts and feelings. When we’re fearful, or when we’re worrying – even if our concerns are about our kids – they can pick up on it and buy into whatever worst-case scenario we have running in our worried minds.
When kids are trying to figure the world out in their early years, they need to feel secure. So the household norm needs to be supportive – not only the environment, but also the attitudes.
Sure, stuff happens, and there are going to be moments of chaos. And we all have to figure out how to live in this sometimes-crazy world.
When my granddaughter was crawling around on a dirty floor and my son said to me, “She’s building immunities,” I wanted to grab her up and scrub her, but instead I got onboard with his view-point. And when he asked me to not put store-bought plastic containers on his wooden cutting board, I reminded him that I was the one who taught him about cooties – when he and his brothers were young, I wouldn’t let them go to bed in their clothes, because they were “filled with world-cooties.”
Whatever choices we make and whatever guidance we follow – whether we insist on a sterile environment or we accept that bedlam is inevitable – most important is to create a family culture where everyone knows how to get back to a loving norm as quickly as possible.
When we give the best that we are to our kids, they’re fortified with the best possible buffer, which is unconditional love.
And when we run into a family at a playground or in a store or a restaurant, which is becoming more and more commonplace, where a distraught kid is struggling to get it together and feel OK, and the parents are desperately searching for that moment’s answer, our best choice as passers-by is to be understanding and compassionate, to give them all the space and time they need, and to stay supportive in our attitude and our behavior. Because it’s what we all need from each other.