By Rebecca McCarthy, Co-founder and Occupational Therapist
As we take a moment to reflect on how our lives have changed since Covid-19 and the social distancing rules that have come into effect, one of the biggest changes that we have come to recognise is the change to our everyday routine. We are no longer getting up and getting ready for school, work, preschool and social events. Unfortunately we are not allowed to take kids to the park to play, see their friends and have play dates. Mum’s, dad’s and carers have now gained the new role as a ‘teacher’ and we are confined to the 4 corners of our house. When we have the chance to stop and reflect on these changes, the implications of these changes can be/have been or are, huge!! Just as it took us, and by us we mean parents, caregivers, adults, a moment to adjust or come to terms with the ‘new’ way of living, it is important to consider how these changes have impacted our children's ability to regulate their emotions and their behavioural response to all of these changes.
Our sensory system is comprised of 8 senses, vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch, vestibular, interoception and proprioception. It is responsible for processing and interpreting sensory information and relaying our response from our brain to actions. This allows us to determine an appropriate response based on how we feel about what we are experiencing in our nervous system. For some of us it is more difficult than others to respond appropriately and this is definitely the case for our little ones and teenagers who may have limited speech or struggle to communicate their emotions effectively. The information we receive from our sensory system gives us our sense of security and calm or if these senses are overstimulated we can feel scared, anxious, confused etc and our fight, flight or freeze response will be activated. Our sensory system communicates to our brain how we experience the world around us. When this communication is positive our bodies will release serotonin and dopamine which are our feel good hormones and we will have a positive associate that experience, alternatively when we have a negative response to sensory input being relayed to our brain we will respond with flight, flight or freeze. So, our sensory nervous system is crucial in impacting how we process and interact with the world around us.
Our bodies thrive on structure and routine as our sensory system is happiest when we feel secure in our surroundings. At the moment our previous routines have been thrown in the air, flipped upside down and become somewhat non-existent. Changes to routine and one's environment adds unpredictable sensory experiences ie; feelings of anxiety, worry or stress, lack of visual stimulation (being in the same place constantly), increased noise at home, increase fear inducing information being received into our awareness etc., This makes it hard for us to interpret and make sense of, as the usual parameters of our daily lives have shifted so drastically. We now don't have a ‘base-line’ or ‘go-to’ response as we have not been in this situation before so we have not determined the best response to our situation as yet. When we are lacking our sense of security, which is present when we are confident in the regularity of our life experiences and we have established a sensory understanding of our world, our ability to appropriately respond is impacted and this increases our level of stress which negatively impacts our sensory system and ability to self regulate.
Within a ‘typical’ environment, our children’s regulation is continually changing however certain events or experiences can impact on their ability to function. Stressful and prolonged repeated experiences, such as what we are experiencing with COVID-19 and the social distancing rules, children can experience changes to their sensory system. This creates difficulty with self-regulation meaning they rely more heavily on loved ones to help co-regulate them. We often refer to this as dysregulation, their body stays in an over-responsive state. Examples of how dysregulation maybe present within your child include:
Increased frequency and duration of ‘meltdowns’
Reduced attention and focus, meaning they are easily distracted and less able to concentrate on their school work and working from home
Increased feelings of anxiety and unexpected emotional outbursts, ‘shorter fuse’
Increase in aggressive or violent behaviours.
More frequent and intense fighting with siblings
Disruption to sleep routines
We want to be clear that although Covid-19 does not neurologically impact our sensory system, the lifestyle and routine changes we are experiencing does affect our sensory system, causing the dysregulation we may be seeing in our little ones. Our children’s body is constantly being in an over responsive state which easily triggers the flight, fight or freeze response, hence the increase in examples above.
As adults we may struggle to understand why these changes in lifestyle and routines affect our children’s ability to regulate. The reason for this is that as adults our bodies have learnt how to adjust and regulate over time. Let's think about some things that have changed in our community in relation to specific senses:
Long lines at grocery stores
More people at home
People wearing protective items
Hearing worry in tone of voice
More people in the house therefore increase volume and pitch
Decreased noise at the shops
Limited food places open
Shops low or out of certain foods
Increased use of cleaning products, soaps and hand sanitizer
Washing hands and hand sanitizer
Clothing and bedding textures
Limits to opportunities for movement such as at the park
Increased stress affects bodily functions such as hunger
Decreased access to movement in the environment
Not wearing backpack to school
No team or individual sports
Did any of these examples come as a shock to you? If yes this is because our body has developed overtime and has learnt how to adjust and regulate in response to change. Although in times like these with prolonged stress and trauma as adults we can also experience dysregulation, feeling anxious and overwhelmed. This is okay, you are not alone. It is important to look after yourself during this time so you are able to support others. Consider the strategies we are about to discuss and how you can integrate them into your new adapted routine.
Let’s talk about some activities you can do with your children and yourselves to support sensory regulation:
It is important to keep routines and structure. You may need to create new routines but being consistent creates predictability and a sense of calmness for children and yourself. For example getting up at a similar time, having breakfast, getting dressed, doing some movement …. And keep it similar everyday.
Using weighted blankets: they provide deep pressure touch to our body which has a calming and organising affect. They are a powerful tool in reducing stress and anxiety, prompting sleep, reducing on the go behaviours and intensity of emotional outburst. Head to our website if you would like more information or to own a weighted blanket today, it'll change your children’s and your life.
Movement and regular breaks: our bodies rely on input to our muscles to send messages to our brain to organise our body and releases serotonin which is our happy and calming chemical. Movement needs to be focused on push, pull and carrying activities providing heavy work to the body. This can be doing animal walks, climbing, jumping, push ups, obstacle courses or carrying something heavy (no heavier than 10% of a child's body weight). Our body's sensory system resets every 2 hours so make sure you are giving your children and yourself frequent movement breaks throughout the day to stay well regulated.
Some activity ideas specific to our senses.
Crawling over pillows and cushions
Weighted blankets or toys. This will help children who may struggle to sleep, sit still, focus and attend or experience Anxiety. Check out our website for more details www.wildflowerholisticservices.com
Bear cuddles - big tight squeeze cuddles.
Log rolling over cushions and pillows
Rolling your child up in a blanket and providing big squishes to their body
Yoga and breathing activities - cosmic kids yoga is great!
Keeping mealtimes the same
Turning lights off where possible and just use the natural light to create a calming effect
Reduce screen time and tv at night time
Get messy make play dough and slime
Make a sensory bin with lentils, pasta, rice and toys
Using essential oils to shift mood, improve sleep and increase attention and focus
Going outside and smelling things in nature
Playing calming music throughout the day
Have TV and music off when doing school work - reduce noise distractions
Chewing gum and mint can reduce anxiety
Eat chewy and crunchy snacks.
Please be kind to yourself and your loved ones during these times. Be a safe place for compassion and kindness, it will help everyone cope so much better right now. Most importantly don’t forget to give that compassion and kindness to yourself as well - we can only care for others to the degree and quality that we care for ourselves. Prioritise your self care to stay ahead of any stress or lack of self awareness that may arise in your home. Try to be more patient with your children and understand that these changes in behaviour are not their fault and are out of their control. They are trying to cope and adapt to these changes as much as we are but need our help to do so.