Behavior or Sensory?

When my older son reached toddlerhood, I agonized over this question ten times a day. If your child has sensory challenges, chances are you’re in the same boat. So...which is it, behavior or sensory? The not so simple answer: It’s both.

I used to torture myself over the behavior v. sensory question because the answer dictated my response. If my son had a sensory-induced meltdown like falling apart at the playground because he was over-stimulated, I was more accommodating and hands-on in terms of helping him self-regulate.

Poor little guy...the dynamic, unpredictable environment of a playground would send him into a fight-or-flight response, often triggered by something “unexpected” happening like another kid bumping into him or grabbing the truck he was playing with. The last thing I wanted to do was “discipline” him for being over reactive to sensory input!

If the issue was strictly behavioral, like throwing a tantrum because I said no to buying a new toy at Target, I was firmer and more inclined to give him a chance to self-regulate on his own. The typical toddler tantrums didn’t quite pull on my heartstrings like a sensory-induced meltdown did. But, because the answer was not always clear, I doubted my parenting and spent way too much time worrying that I was making too many allowances for his behavior.

Things came to a head when he was three-years-old. His meltdowns were happening so frequently and so intensely that my husband and I were barely hanging on to our sanity. I lay awake at night wondering if my son’s nightmare behavior was less a function of his sensory issues and more a function of my inconsistent responses.

That’s when it hit me. The answer to the sensory v. behavior question was not so black or white, and even if it was, it didn’t matter! Either way, I needed to streamline my response. I wasn’t doing him any favors by making accommodations when he was experiencing a sensory-induced meltdown. He needed to learn how to self-regulate regardless of whether sensory issues were playing a role, and I needed to be consistent in how I responded to his meltdowns.

My takeaway? It’s not behavior or sensory, it’s both! After experimenting with several behavioral protocols, I’ve come to rely on the following steps to managing meltdowns, both sensory-related and not. But, please note my disclaimer:

The following steps are aspirational. It's impossible to respond to your child perfectly one hundred percent of the time! If I can succeed in doing them 30 percent of the time, I consider it a victory.

1. Attune to your child’s experience.

The desire to be seen and to feel understood are core human needs. When your child starts to meltdown, your first job is to let him know that you see him. This entails looking beyond the behavior and figuring out what the underlying emotional experience is. Therapists call this “bypassing the content to get to the process.” Underneath every behavior (no matter how ridiculous it may seem), is a feeling, an emotional experience, that’s begging to be recognized.

Here’s an example:

My boys and I were having a great morning until my younger son, C, started having a meltdown. This particular meltdown was over wanting more apples, even though I had just cut up an entire apple up for him. At first, I tried to reason with C, which just caused him to scream louder, “I WANT MORE, I WANT MORE!!!”

The intensity of his screaming was starting to trigger my own fight-or-flight response, but I caught myself before I went downhill. I took a breath and asked myself, what is really going on here? Taking a moment to step back and tune in, helped me realize that what he wanted more of wasn’t the apple, it was me. He knew I was going to be leaving soon and he was feeling sad, but didn’t know how to express it.

Having this awareness completely shifted my response. Had I continued to focus solely on the behavior, I would have kept trying to reason with him to no avail and would have lost my patience while missing his underlying need and making him feel even worse. Instead, I knelt down, held him close and said, “You’re feeling sad that Mommy has to leave soon.” I held him for several minutes and let him sob in my arms. Then, miraculously, he was fine. He forgot about the apples, and went back to playing. Ah, the power of attunement.

Again: If I can succeed in using these steps 30 percent of the time, I consider it a victory.

On any given day, there are several situations in which I’m completely unable to thwart my fight-or-flight response. I end up being reactive rather than responsive. It’s something I have to work on every day. Just like a muscle, the more we exercise our pause button, the stronger it gets and the easier it is to be attuned.

2. Empathize and reflect back

The definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. So, what does this look like? It’s as simple as compassionately reflecting your child’s experience back to him. It looks the same whether your child’s meltdown is sensory-related or not. “You are really upset right now. You didn’t know your shirt had tags and when you felt them, it made you really upset.” Or, “You are really angry that you can’t have that toy. You really wanted it and I said no.”

Empathy allows you to step inside your child’s experience and convey understanding without judgement.

This is worth repeating: empathy conveys understanding without judgement.

No matter how annoyed we are with our kids or how ridiculous their meltdowns seem, we make our lives much easier when we leave our judgements behind and truly try to understand how they are feeling.

Cut to me screaming... “Right now I couldn’t care less about the tags in your shirt, just put the damn thing on!!!” Seriously. It’s a struggle to empathize with our kids all the time and we can’t expect ourselves to. It’s a work in progress and the important part is that we have awareness and are making an effort. Have I mentioned the 30 percent thing?

3. Set an appropriate limit and hold your ground

This is the key to everything and it’s the hardest thing to do. If you’re attuning and empathizing but not setting a limit, your child’s behavior will continue to escalate and will most likely be repeated. Without limits, our kids end up with too much power. Having too much power is actually anxiety-producing for kids and results in more unwanted behaviors. Attuning, empathizing, and then setting an appropriate limit tells our kids we see them, we feel them, and we have standards for their behavior.

I’m not reinventing the wheel here, and I know many of you are probably thinking, yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this all before. It sounds great in theory, but in real life it’s a lot harder to put into practice. I get it. Those are the exact thoughts that have gone through my mind when I’ve sought out parenting advice on handling behavioral issues.

This may sound strange, but the thing that has helped me the most with setting and holding firm on limits is meditating. Yes, meditating. Something I resisted doing for years. I know I’m losing some of you, but stay with me.

I think the most difficult aspects of setting limits are coming up with an appropriate and meaningful consequence in real time, tolerating my kids’ reactions to them, and being able to stay non-judgemental and calm in the midst of meltdown chaos. I recently saw a greeting card that had this on the front:

Parenting Instructions:

  1. Plan something really fun
  2. Tell your kids about it
  3. Threaten to take it away every single day
  4. Go anyway

How many times have you found yourself in this scenario? As the saying goes, it’s funny because it’s true!

In the heat of the moment with our kids, it’s easy to reactively throw out a limit or consequence that we have no intention of holding firm on. Or, if we are quick enough to come up with a consequence we can easily enforce, we don’t have the willpower to tolerate our kids’ reactions to it. The screaming, whining, and protesting put us over the edge and we cave. Fine! We’ll still go to Disneyland. Just STOP SCREAMING.

So, where does meditating come in? Practicing mindfulness meditation strengthens your ability to create distance between your thoughts and feelings and your reactions. It helps develop a built-in “pause” button that you have immediate access to when you feel yourself becoming reactive. When you can press this internal pause button, you have more control over your emotions and are more likely to be responsive rather than reactive.

It’s the difference between snapping and yelling out some ridiculously disproportionate threatened consequence that both you and your kids know doesn’t hold any weight…

“If you do that one more time, we’re not going to the birthday party!”


Pausing, taking a breath, creating space between your feelings and your impulses, and then calmly and compassionately respond, “It looks like you need a little break. Have a seat and let me know when you’re ready. Your break starts when you’re quiet.”

A regular mindfulness meditation practice improves your ability to self-regulate and stay calm in moments of chaos, which helps you better tolerate your child’s meltdowns and has a positive influence on your child’s ability to self-regulate.

Since I started a regular meditation practice (10 minutes first thing after I wake up), I have experienced a noticeable difference in my patience level. I am yelling less and responding more, which helps me and my kids feel happier and more in balance.

If you’re like the pre-meditating me and even the word meditation causes you to roll your eyes, I completely feel you. It literally took years for me to finally start. One night, tired of feeling anxious and reactive, I decided to download the Headspace app I’d been hearing about. I set my alarm 10 minutes earlier and as soon as I woke up the next morning, I grabbed my phone, queued up the app and meditated. I’ve been doing it every morning since. Ten minutes felt doable to me, but if that seems overwhelming, try starting with five. You can do anything for five minutes!

Shifting from reactive to responsive will go a long way in helping you consistently set and maintain appropriate limits, which is the holy grail for managing challenging behaviors.

4. Connect and reflect

We have a rule that we don’t talk about the behavior or the consequence with my kids in the heat of the moment. Good communication is impossible when emotions are in overdrive.

When the meltdown is over and everyone is calm, make sure to revisit the scene of the crime. Give your child a hug, tell him you love him, and talk about what happened. Avoid shaming your child by saying things like, “I didn’t like it when you..,” or “You were being really bad…,” or “That wasn’t nice,” or “That was really mean when you…”.

No one ever changes by being shamed. That one deserves to be repeated. No one ever changes by being shamed. That being said, I inadvertantly shame my kids on a daily basis...Remember, 30 percent!!

Instead, connect with your child by describing your and his experience. “That was pretty upsetting, wasn’t it? You were really angry and then Mommy got angry too and I started yelling.” If you lost your temper, here is the perfect opportunity to repair the rupture, model taking responsibility for your behavior, and practice the art of an apology. “Mommy didn’t handle that well. I’m sorry I yelled at you, you didn’t deserve that. I need to practice staying calm.”

Then, reflect on what happened by helping him come up with ideas for how he (and you if you didn’t do so well with the attunement and empathy) can handle a similar situation differently in the future. “That was really hard. What do you think we can do if that happens again?” Brainstorming together will help you both feel reconnected.

You can also revisit the consequence- “I know you felt angry when your brother grabbed your toy, but you can’t hit him. When you hit, you have to take a break.” This reinforces the behavioral standards you have for your child.

If you, like me, have been tailoring your response to your child’s challenging behaviors based on an is-it-behavior-or-sensory framework, continue implementing the sensory strategies that work for your child, but take that question out of the equation. This will give your child more opportunities to improve his ability to self-regulate. Better self-regulation equals a happier child and a happier you!

Do you struggle with the behavior or sensory question? What are your child's biggest behavioral challenges? Leave a comment below, I'd love to hear from you.