Sensory Sensitivities to Loud Noises and Food: How to Help Your Child
We talked to Jill Fodstad, Ph.D., HSPP, BCBA-D, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology, Indiana University School of Medicine and a psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health on ways parents can help.
Kids with sensory sensitivities have a stronger-than-average reaction to specific items involving the five senses. While all kids go through developmental age-appropriate issues (what three-year-old isn’t a picky eater), for kids with sensory sensitivities it affects their every-day life and can result in temper tantrums, behavior issues and other difficulties. Two of the most common sensitivities include loud noises and food. We talked to Jill Fodstad, Ph.D., HSPP, BCBA-D, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology, Indiana University School of Medicine and a psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health on ways parents can help.
Ways to help with loud noises
For a child who may be sensitive to loud noises, the first thing would be to practice at home or in less loud situations (for example, going to a playground instead of going to a movie theater), and slowly start to tolerate increasingly longer periods of loud noises (start with 10 minutes, then 15, etc.). You should also try to teach your child some positive ways to cope or handle the situation ahead of time based upon where they are developmentally. Some examples might be teaching the child how to appropriately ask you, the parent, to leave the situation; taking deep breaths; or doing something distracting until the loud noise ends. During loud noises, provide your son or daughter with positive feedback, coaching, and praise for a job well done (or a “better” job than usual) is always a good strategy for the parent to use so that attention is being drawn to all the good things the child does instead of only focusing on the negative behaviors.
Start the exposures at a place that is going to be easiest for the child to be successful, and then slowly increase the amount of time the child is expected to “handle” the situation so that they can continue to be successful. Once your child is doing well at these “mini exposures”, then set up the same behavioral expectations for him/her in their bigger situations (like a b-day party). Follow up these practice times with then letting your child do something fun as a way to further reward them for doing something that was hard for them, even if it was only for a little bit of time.
Ways to help with food sensitivities
For a child who may have some food sensitivities or is a picky eater, the first thing parents should not do is “force” the child to eat a food or foods that they know their child will not eat. Do not get into a power struggle with your child as this can often make things worse for the child and also increases stress for the parent. From a health standpoint, parents always want to make sure that meals include things that they know their child will eat even if there are more nutritious, but less preferred foods, also on the menu. Essentially, you want to make sure your child is eating something so that meal times are not an entirely negative experience. Parents should also try to offer and encourage, but not force their child to eat foods they do not like – this can cause a “power” struggle that will not end well.
A good basic place to start to address the “picky eater” is to set up some basic behavior expectations with the child before the meal starts to set them up for success. Some common starting places could be:
- Take one (or a few bites) of a non-preferred food before they are allowed to eat the rest of their favorite foods.
- Allow your son or daughter to get access to a reward during meal time or immediately after meal time (like a a special treat, toy, activity) if they try a new food or one they don’t love.
- Add a favorite sauce/condiment (like ranch dressing) or ingredient (cheese) to the not-preferred food while still making the bite requirement low to make it more likely your child will eat the food.
- Take one (or a few bites) of the non-preferred food before they are allowed to get up from the table.
A good place to start practicing these strategies will always be at home, as home is going to be a less stressful environment. During these “eating” practices, parents should provide the child positive feedback and praise for a job well done and try to minimize focusing on negative behaviors or if the child is unsuccessful. Again, it’s so important to set up rewards or access to special treats (like ice cream) or favorite toys ahead of mealtime to prepare your child. Finally, parents want to slowly increase the amount of bites the child has to take to earn the positive outcome or reward so that the child can still continue to be successful.
While this can be difficult, parents should try to remain as calm as possible. While it can be upsetting for you to see your child having difficulty or if using strategies to help their child don’t go as planned, children (regardless of age) can pick up on if we (the parents) are anxious or frustrated. So the calmer that the parent can be, the better it will go. Don’t get hung up if things don’t go as well as planned. Just take what you learn and make adjustments so that next time things will, hopefully, go better.
-- By Judy Koutsky