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It’s not easy becoming an expert in something. It takes practice. It takes good observational skills. You have to invest a lot of time and energy gathering information from different sources. Sometimes you have to conduct experiments, watch what happens, and try to figure out what it means. You have to be willing to change your mind when new evidence appears. It takes patience, and it takes passion.
Becoming an expert parent takes all of these, and more. Becoming an expert on your own child means learning to recognize her temperament traits. Then you can begin to understand her behaviour, and manage your responses and her reactions.
Let me introduce you to Joey.
There is no doubt about it, Joey is a handful. Even as a young infant, he cried and fussed more than most babies. He hated having a bath. He cried when his clothes came off, screamed and flailed in the water, and then cried again when getting dressed. He seemed happiest when wearing only a diaper. Now that Joey is three years old, there are almost daily battles over what he wears. T-shirts and sweatpants are (usually) acceptable, but most of the contents of his closet provoke loud protests.
He refuses to wear shoes with Velcro, but he is VERY fussy about shoes with laces. He becomes panicky if the shoelaces aren’t tied “just right”. Sometimes his parents tie and retie the laces a dozen times, and the session still ends in tears (theirs and his!) He resists wearing a jacket or hat when it’s cold outside.
It doesn’t stop there. Joey is also a fussy eater. He rejects many foods because, he says, they “taste funny”. He happily eats macaroni, hot dogs, and cheese slices—but only one specific brand of each of these. He spits the first bite out immediately if his parents try to secretly substitute a different kind.
Joey’s behaviour in public is also a problem. Sometimes he enjoys going grocery shopping, or to the park, or to friends’ houses. But often he becomes irritable or collapses in a full-blown tantrum for no apparent reason. Life is becoming increasingly difficult, for Joey and the whole family.
To a casual observer, Joey may look like a spoiled brat. To a novice parent, Joey’s behaviour is confusing and frustrating in the extreme. How can such a small child have so many problems? Why is he so different from all of their friends’ children? Maybe—cue the parental guilt—this is all their fault!
But an expert parent recognizes that there is an underlying pattern to Joey’s behaviours. Joey isn’t a “bad kid”. He isn’t spoiled or manipulative. He isn’t doing these things on purpose to frustrate his parents. And his parents didn’t cause any of these issues. In fact, Joey doesn’t even have many different problems, despite the appearances. Joey’s behaviour actually makes very good sense, when you realize that he is a child with a low sensory threshold.
Sensory threshold is one of the nine temperament traits that researchers have identified. (As explained in a previous post, the others are activity level, rhythmicity, approach/withdrawal, adaptability, intensity, mood, attention span, and persistence.) A child who is born with a low sensory threshold is very sensitive to the way things feel, smell, taste, look, and sound.
Thus, taking a bath can be challenging for him. The sensation of bath water, as well as its temperature, may cause distress. So might the feeling of getting naked, and then of putting clothes back on after the bath. This child’s strong preference for certain clothes isn’t a simple matter of choice. Pants with snug waistbands may be highly aggravating. So may shirts with buttons. Or tags in clothes. Certain materials the clothes are made of may feel quite irritating. And even certain colours of clothing might be quite disturbing. It may feel almost impossible for this child to walk in shoes that are not tied quite “correctly”. As well, a low-sensory child may not experience hot or cold the way others do. So, she may honestly not feel cold enough to wear a jacket when there’s snow on the ground. Or, he may insist on wearing a winter parka in the summer.
This child is very aware of the taste and smell of food. She may easily distinguish the difference among brands of hot dogs or cheese no matter how cleverly her parents try to disguise them. And why does Joey sometimes enjoy outings, but not always? His low sensory threshold makes him very sensitive to light and noise. He becomes upset if a location is crowded, or is brightly decorated. Or if the background music is too loud. Or if it’s windy at the park. Or even if a familiar place is different in some way from what he expects.
It can be a great relief to discover that many of your child’s puzzling reactions or behaviours can be traced to an aspect of her temperament. Knowing that this is the way your child is, that she was “born this way”, you can respond to her differently. You don’t have to feel guilty, or frustrated, or confused by the outbursts and tantrums. You don’t have to try to force her to become someone different from who she is. Instead, you can be sympathetic and supportive. By planning ahead and anticipating potential triggers, you can arrange your child’s world to better suit her needs and hopefully prevent at least some of the problems.
For example, in Joey’s house, many of the power struggles and tantrums centre on dressing and eating. But are these battles really necessary? Joey’s pediatrician declares that he is healthy and growing well. So perhaps his parents can allow Joey to have the foods, and the specific brands of foods, that he likes. And what does it matter if Joey wears only black or grey T-shirts and sweatpants every day? As for tying shoelaces, Dr. Stanley Turecki, in his book The Difficult Child, has great advice. Joey’s parents can calmly inform him that from now on, they will only tie the laces three times. After three times, he will have to wear them as-is, or change to his velcro shoes. (I’ve tried this, and it really works! Learn more about Dr. Turecki’s work with temperamentally-challenging children here: http://www.stanleyturecki.com/index.html)
Joey’s parents may have to experiment with various methods to help Joey cope with his other sensitivities. For example, they might try switching grocery stores to find one less bothersome. They might shop at a time when it’s less crowded. Or one parent might stay home with Joey while the other parent does the shopping alone.
Not all children with low sensory thresholds react so obviously as Joey does. And there are children whose sensitivities aren’t quite so extreme as his. But even if they don’t express it openly, these children may still be anxious or stressed by sounds, tastes, textures, and other sensations. If you suspect that your child’s temperament includes a lower-than-average sensory threshold, it’s worth trying an experiment or two to check it out.That’s what expert parents do.