I didn't understand my son's meltdowns - until I learned he was a 'pressure seeker'

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

Ever since my youngest was a toddler, I knew there was something a little different about him. He liked things rough. He'd throw himself on the floor, even when he was happy. At some point I had this book about preschoolers, and it mentioned something about rolling kids up in blankets, because some like pressure.

I never heard of that before, what I would come to know as pressure-seeking. But when I read it, I knew immediately that was my son, not that I knew what to do about it, except maybe roll him up in blankets every now and again.

At the end of his first school year, his teacher told me he didn't cope with frustration as well as the rest of his peers. I knew he threw fits, and was picky about stuff, but at the time, I thought it was developmentally normal behaviour. As he went into the next school year, I'd hear some of the same. There were good days and bad days, but one especially bad day ended with him in the principal's office.

I was teaching third grade at the same school at the time, and a colleague of mine popped into my room and said, "Let me watch your class," and told me my son was in the office. My heart fell into my stomach as I approached the office and heard him screaming "IT'S A BAD, BAD STUPID DAY!" Sure, the day did start with him dropping his shoe into a puddle, but after that he visited a petting zoo, and he even got to ride on a pony and love on some sheep. How could the day be that bad?

As I opened the door to the office, I saw the staff awaiting my arrival. I walked over to my son, put him in my lap, and wrapped my arms around him tightly. Almost immediately he began to calm. I walked the tight rope of comforting him while simultaneously letting him know about appropriate behaviour (while feeling the eyes of the office staff on us.)

I carried such weird feelings that day. On one hand, I was sad for him and the struggles he faces. And on the other, I was insecure as a parent. Like, why is it my kid losing his noodle in the school office?

That day, I filled out a screening request from an occupational therapist. I didn't know much about pediatric occupational therapy, but at this point, I was willing to try anything.

The therapist talked to me about how some children receive too much or too little information through their senses. Those who receive too much information might be very particular about the textures of their clothes, fearful of playground equipment, and overwhelmed by sounds and bright lights. Those who are under-sensitive to sensory information seek out more. They touch people and things constantly and don't seem to understand personal space. They jump, bump and crash. They like intense movement and are often on the go. Sometimes it seems as if they don't understand their own strength, and when I think of this I remember how tightly my son used to hug me even when he was very young. I used to call him passionate, and I'm not saying he's not, but I've also learned he's a pressure-seeker.

When a child has trouble regulating sensory information, it often comes out as difficult behaviour. The child might look like a kid having a tantrum, but the reality is he feels overloaded, overwhelmed and threatened. It's no surprise that kids who are struggling to manage the sights, sounds, and touches coming at them have a difficult time behaving just right. Sometimes just feeling okay in their own bodies can be an effort.

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My son has been diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and has been seeing an occupational therapist. I work with him at home, too. He does a lot of what they call "heavy work," which is any activity that pushes and pulls against the body (think: push-ups, jumping, bike riding, or even chores like raking leaves and pulling laundry out of the washer). Heavy work engages a sense called proprioception, or body awareness, and this type of input not only helps these children know how much force to use when completing different tasks, it gives them the sensations they need to feel balanced and safe.

My son is the kind of kid who looks for this kind of input. My goal is for him to receive the pressure he craves in safe and consistent ways, not only to keep him from jumping off things and throwing himself to the ground, but to help him feel centred and calm, which of course, prevents meltdowns.

At home, I hold his hands and he does huge jumps. I hold his feet and he walks with his hands. I trap him between my legs, and make him struggle to break free. We make forts out of pillows that he crawls through, and we roughhouse on the bed a lot. (If you're wondering who the queen of the mountain is, it's me.) It might look like I'm a super fun mum, but really I'm know I'm providing therapy.

As my child grows, I know he will develop emotional maturity to deal with his discomforts. He will gain greater awareness of himself and will learn to get his needs met on his own. In the meantime, I've learned to be deliberate about playing with him hard, and when I race him to the end of the road with him on his bike, I get equal satisfaction from the sight of his legs pushing the pedals hard, as I do from the smile on his face.

I've learned that his difficulties aren't because he's giving me a hard time, but because he's having one. Being his ally in this requires intentional togetherness. Before I understood my son's challenges, the symptoms seemed to strain our relationship. Now, they're the very reason I do some of my best and most present parenting.

The Washington Post