Parenting and the Sensory Ecology of Child Development

A glimpse into the complex chemistry flowing through our children's bodies.

Posted Mar 16, 2019

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Source: frank mckenna/Unsplash

When our children err, we have a responsibility to respond in a way that meets a developmental need. Yet when my daughters freak out, I freak out. As a therapist, I love to say that to the extent that we fail to go toe-to-toe with our own emotional reflexes, they will go toe-to-toe with the ones we love. Unfortunately, that statement is more descriptive than prescriptive, and I all too often play out the sequence.

Our children have basic needs, such as hunger and safety, and we must meet them. Their needs are like our own, coded with deoxyribonucleic complexity and teeming with self-interest. If we are to do extraordinarily well in meeting our children’s needs, we must see them through a wide-angle lens that highlights critical processing faculties.

Dr. Karen Purvis, a researcher at the TCU Institute for Child Development, says, "If the brain is hungry, it’s going to do some not so smart stuff.” She coaches parents in child development, especially those whose children have endured trauma and those whose brains are hypersensitive to sensory stimulation. While the majority of parents do not face post-traumatic stress behavior or severe sensory processing challenges, to parent well is understand or at least leverage something of the complex chemistry involved in sensory and emotional processing.

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Source: Vanessa Serpas/Unsplash

Sense & Sensibility

Kids need predictability and appropriate levels of control. According to Dr. Purvis, “you cannot create a safe space unless you understand sensory processing.” Some of our kids pick up on aspects of sensory experience that others miss. While we must gain a greater understanding and responsiveness to the needs of those who struggle with unique sensory processing issues, we must also come to respect the sheer power of sense in all our lives.

Touch probably is more powerful than you give it credit for. One study demonstrated that if a waitress touches your hand for one second, your tip goes up an average of 35 percent.

We are wired for touch, but trust is our electrical grounding. There are proprioceptive receptors under the skin. (The word “proprioception” comes from a combination of Latin words meaning “a sense of one’s own body.”) Deep pressure massage on areas less sensitive to touch has been demonstrated to be more than just calming. They can even heal brain damage from trauma. Infant massage every two hours for three to six months has been shown to have the power to heal in-utero drug exposure and change the trajectory of a child’s life. Human touch is potent stuff.

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Source: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

The vestibular sense is involved in physical movement and balance as well as emotional regulation. Vestibular stimulation helps us determine direction, the speed of movement, and the pull of gravity. Vestibular proprioception refers specifically to pressure on the body, and this unique form of sensory input is distinct from the tactile sense. For instance, a weighted blanket releases gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, which has a powerful role in the regulation of nervous system excitability as well as muscle tone. Idiopathic toe-walking is a method some children use to increase input when and where it’s needed to achieve sensory regulation. Patricia Wilbarger created a now widely used protocol designed to reduce sensory and tactile defensiveness in children extremely sensitive to touch.

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Source: Ben Scott/Unsplash

Of course, we have other senses. Our sense of sight can waver as we move into bright light or darkness. Using soft eyes — glancing, rather than piercing contact — alongside a non-threatening tone activates the release of dopamine, which is calming. Our sense of smell is the only one with a direct line to the amygdalae, the nuclear bomb: perfume, tuna fish, aftershave, and all manner of pungency run a risk of lighting the short fuse. Our senses are faculties in an intricate ecology of not only sensation but perception, emotion, and much more.

Fight, Flight, or Freeze

The amygdalae are two almond-shaped nuclei buried deep and medially within the brain’s temporal lobes. The amygdalae’s job is to keep us safe, and to a greater or lesser degree, they remain attuned to what might be dangerous and what may go wrong. In fact, the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve interfacing with the parasympathetic regulation of the heart and digestion, creates trace memory in the amygdalae for a couple of hours, with effect. This hints at, for instance, the process behind associations between food poisoning sickness and lasting food aversions. Just think of the domino effect when kids experience parents as volatile tyrants. Stress activates a reaction in the amygdalae and triggers what has come to be known as a “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction, which involves wirings and firings involving stimulation and conditioning.

Every demand, whine, and protest is a plea for empowerment, not necessarily entitlement. I confess I find myself too often reacting to my daughters in a way that is no less demanding, whining, and protesting than their offense was offensive. In many cases, my behaviors are actually far more automated, or reflexive, than theirs, and that may be the most telling truth in the mix. These are the moments when we find ourselves between an amygdala and a hard place (kudos to Dr. David Cross, another researcher at the TCU ICD, for that turn of phrase).

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Source: Fernando Pelaez Cubas/Unsplash

Promoting Self-Regulation

The best place for sensory and emotional regulation practice to occur is through safe and encouraging interactions. When sensory processing challenges create a significant barrier, therapeutic play and other targeted occupational therapy interventions will help expand capacity for regulation.

We must learn to cultivate a neurophysiological rainforest in our children’s brain when stimulation is low and practice calm, constructive engagement when it’s high. Drs. Purvis and Cross have taught us that pathways to the amygdalae are eight-lane highways, while more mature (better regulated) processes meander through the brain like Amazonian footpaths. Cortisol, the infamous stress hormone, comes down when you engage both of the brain’s hemispheres in playful and adventuresome engagement; subsequently, the brain achieves an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a chief protein required for scaffolding the expansion of concentration, learning, memory, and higher thinking. And when we slow down our overreactions and provide a nurturing sensory environment, it’s good for not only their brains, but also ours.

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Source: MI PHAM/Unsplash

Playfulness is the active practice of regulation. It takes 400 mechanical repetitions to get new synapses — those communicative junctures between neurons necessary to close the circuit for any brain-based activity — but infuse a bit of joy, and the brain learns after only a few tries. Laughter has been shown to transmit calming connections across broad neurological terrain and promote learning. Play and silliness send the message that you mean no harm. You change the tone of the room whenever you find creative ways to have fun together.

Tantrums and aggression can often be stopped by providing choices and opportunity for try-overs. Sharing power doesn’t take away your authority, but proves it is yours to share.

Be wary of giving children medication. Many psychotropic medications change the insulin receptors in the brain and jack up blood sugars, in some cases resulting in diabetes or negatively affecting a child’s capacity for mood and behavioral regulation longer-term. Nourishing snacks help balance body systems. Children will be much more volatile and prone to emotional reactions if they are dehydrated.

Helpful brain chemicals can be released in a number of ways. Regular exercise releases endorphins, leading to feelings of euphoria. It also regulates appetite and assists in the immune response. Exercise, sunlight, and a diet high in vitamin B6 each have the potential of increasing the flow of serotonin, thereby enhancing sensory and emotional regulation. The secretion of oxytocin is stimulated through touch and promotes bonding.

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Source: Michael Mims/Unsplash

And what about basic nonverbal communication signals? If you come close, and someone stands up or backs away, you don’t have permission to engage. Watch reflexor muscles that give signs of fight, flight, or freeze.

This is just a glimpse into the complex chemistry pulsing throughout our children's bodies, an awesome ecology we are just beginning to understand. How are you going to nurture a child's development today?

This article originally appeared at PsychCentral.com.