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Hypersensitivity and Anxiety: How to support my highly sensitive and anxious kid? 

What is hypersensitivity?

Hypersensitivity is also known as sensory avoiding behavior. Kids with hypersensitivity are over sensitive to sensory input. When they receive too much stimulation, they often feel very overwhelmed or uncomfortable and try to avoid certain sensations.

Common signs of hypersensitivity/sensory avoiding behavior:

  1. Sensitive to noise or light

  2. Dislikes haircuts or nail trimming

  3. Dislikes certain textures, such as clothing tags

  4. Poor balance, afraid of fast movement (airplane, car, roller coaster ) 

  5. Selective eating, avoiding foods with certain textures

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is the body’s natural defense system. When we are under stress and overwhelmed, unable to regulate input in the brain, we demonstrate anxiety or “fight or flight” response. Most of the time, we are not able to control anxiety.

It is common to see anxiety in kids with sensory sensitivity. Children may not understand their emotions or how to calm themselves when presented with overwhelming stimuli.

What to see on kids with anxiety?

  1. Fight or flight response

  2. Covering ears or ears in certain situations or environments

  3. Shortness of breath

  4. Fearful facial expression

  5. Saying “no” or rejecting to do something or go somewhere 

  6. Vomiting or diarrhea 

  7. Telling you that they feel “hurt”: My ears hurt, my skin hurts

How to help my kid with anxiety?

First of all, it’s important to understand what triggers the anxiety. And it is important to explain that it’s okay to have anxiety or fear of something. 

  1. Identify triggers and label emotions

  2. Is the light too bright? Is the environment too loud? Are there too many people?

  3. Help kid to label the emotions: “I see you being anxious”, “I see the light/noise is bothering you”

  4. Listen to you child and help them explain what they need

  5. “It is too loud” “It is too bright” “I am scared”

  6. Ask your kid what they need: “Do you need to go outside for a break?”

  7. Giving expectations

  8. Verbal and visual expectations to help your child prepare mentally (we are going to go to the store, the lights will be bright, it will be loud)

  9. Offer a visual chart or schedule 

  10. Show pictures of the places

  11. Modification

  12. If your child is getting overwhelmed, help them take a break away from the environment

  13. For example, go outside of the restaurant for a break

  14. Use noise canceling headphones, earplugs or underwater earplugs for kids who don’t like headphones

  15. Decreased duration and frequency of triggering environments.

  16. Use security and comfort items – stuffy, toys, calming music

  17. Exploration – sensory exploration

  18. Offer your child opportunities to safely and comfortably explore in the sensory environment. Proper and safe stimulation can decrease sensitivity.

Example of a visual schedule

**Do not push if your child is showing avoidance or rejection. Avoid causing negative experiences

An example on how to help the highly sensitive kid:

If your child is sensitive to loud noises or sound, take them to the non preferred place on a regular basis and explore in baby-steps. For example, if your child is scared of airplane or car sounds, take him to the playground where he may hear the sound. Prepare headphones (noise cancelling headphone) or earplugs if he needs it. 

Noise cancelling headphone

Start with a short period of time, 10 mins, and gradually increase the duration as the child is able to tolerate the environment. Bring your child out on a regular basis as fits your schedule (once a week, twice a week? Every Tuesday at 3pm?) 

If the kid hears the noises and gets scared, identifying the trigger by using “I spy” game. “I spy the airplane and that is where the noises come from”. Identifying and locating the triggers will help your child to understand and decrease their level of anxiety.

OTEllaBella does not assume responsibility or presume to act as a replacement for therapy services from a certified OTR/L. Consult your OT for recommendations and treatment. Occupational Therapy does not treat psychological conditions or engage in psychological counseling. Consult a certified psychologist or counselor for recommendations and treatment of anxiety.

I am proud to be an occupational therapist. Ella Wu, OTD, OTR/L Doctor of Occupational Therapy
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