Is it a tantrum – or a sensory disorder?

Your child’s outbursts could be a sign that he’s struggling to process sensory information. By Lisa Witepski

Tantrum or sensory overload

Are you experiencing angry tantrums? Constant fidgeting? That feeling that you’re repeating yourself endlessly because your little one never listens? Is your child really just badly behaved, or could sensory overload have sent him into fight or flight mode?

What is sensory overload?

Sensory overload occurs when one or more of the body’s senses experiences over-stimulation from the environment.

ALSO SEE: Sensory integration dysfunction explained

The difference between a tantrum and sensory overload

The difference between an ordinary tantrum and a sensory meltdown is that one can be controlled and the other can’t, according to non-profit parenting resource, Think about it, if your child’s mood spirals into full-on apocalypse in the middle of a busy mall because he can’t have an ice cream, he may be easily be coaxed back into angel mode if you give in. But if that same child starts screaming for no reason, it may be because the noise, lights and bustle have become overwhelming.

ALSO SEE: 10 ways to calm an overstimulated baby

How to tell the difference? The Anonymous OT acknowledges that this is a tricky question, because a tantrum can always get your attention as a parent (even if it’s negative attention). That said, bad behaviour caused by sensory overload will continue even if you’ve meted out punishment, as your child can’t stop himself.

The Anonymous OT suggests keeping an eye out for triggers. You’ll eventually be able to tell if certain situations (like too much noise or meals with too much texture) cause an outburst, or if your child really is just acting out.

These tips may also help:

  • Ask your doctor or child’s school to refer you to an occupational therapist who specialises in sensory integration. She can conduct an assessment to see if there are any issues with the way your child processes sensory information.
  • If your child is oversensitive to sensory input, or – on the opposite extreme – actively seeks more input to feel calm and alert, ask an OT about following a therapeutic brushing protocol.
  • Include sensory activities at home. It’s a good idea to set up a sensory retreat. Play soothing music, pile up cushions, and offer chewy snacks like dried fruit and biltong.
  • provides some steps to calming sensory meltdowns. Start by breaking the pattern by helping your child to get moving – it might be best to go outside, so that he can run around. The change in light will also help. Deep pressure is also soothing, so a big bear hug might do the trick. Otherwise, bend down so that you’re a little lower than he is, and whisper right into his ear.


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