OVER­WHELMED: A CHILD’S SAFE SPACE

Great Health Guide - - CONTENTS - Deb Hop­per

Cre­at­ing a safe space when your child is over­whelmed.

Nav­i­gat­ing through the day as a child can be an ex­hil­a­rat­ing, yet daunt­ing process. There is the fun and joy of play, friends and fam­ily. There is also the chal­lenge of meet­ing new peo­ple, the so­cial chal­lenges of in­ter­ac­tion with play, the en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenge of cop­ing with noise, lights and move­ment at preschool, school or at the su­per­mar­kets. Just as adults, if the chal­lenges out­weigh our ca­pac­ity, chil­dren can ex­pe­ri­ence stress and over­whelm.

The signs of over­whelm are ex­hib­ited dif­fer­ently be­tween dif­fer­ent chil­dren but may in­clude:

• need­ing to take con­trol of sit­u­a­tions that may be seen as be­ing bossy or dom­i­nant in play

• melt­downs and cry­ing

• ‘be­havioural’ is­sues, whin­ing, clingi­ness or op­po­si­tional be­hav­iour.

Th­ese signs or clues that your child may be over­whelmed may be shown more at home, at school or both. Many chil­dren can ‘hold it to­gether’ at preschool or school, but once safe at home, they feel safe and their emo­tions over­flow. Other chil­dren find the preschool/ school en­vi­ron­ment over­whelm­ing and their stress cues/signs are more pro­nounced at school. Ei­ther way, it’s im­por­tant to be a de­tec­tive and no­tice the signs of over­whelm and once iden­ti­fied, put a plan of re­duc­ing this stress be­fore it es­ca­lates.

It is also im­por­tant to be aware that over­whelm may come from a com­bi­na­tion of at least 2 sources. Men­tal or emo­tional over­whelm – feel­ing that the de­mands of a task are way too dif­fi­cult, or sen­sory over­whelm – with fac­tors of the en­vi­ron­ment be­ing too much to han­dle. Ex­am­ples of sen­sory over­whelm might in­clude too much noise, glare or too much light, not lik­ing the feel­ing of touch of some ob­jects such as tags in shirts, seams in socks or messy glue.

How to cre­ate a safe space when your child is over­whelmed.

When a child shows signs of over­whelm, it’s im­por­tant to pro­vide a safe place. This might be a phys­i­cally safe space, or it may be sim­ply ver­bal ac­knowl­edge­ment that it looks as if things are dif­fi­cult.

Five top ways to re­duce over­whelm for a child may in­clude:

1. Cre­ate a phys­i­cal space in a corner of a room at home or in the class­room such as a small tent. A safe space could in­clude cush­ions, fid­get toys, favourite books, a bean bag half-filled so they can nes­tle in and feel safe, a heavy blan­ket, calm mu­sic and fairy lights or oil timers or oil toys. This can be called the safe space, or cre­ate a fun name for it that your child owns.

2. Have a con­ver­sa­tion about the rea­son why they may feel over­whelmed. Tell them you want to help them, but that you need some clues as to why they feel this way and then tell them you can help think of some ways to make things eas­ier.

3. Use a visual chart such as the Just Right

Kids Tech­nique Model to help kids map and point out how they are feel­ing. A visual map helps them to iden­tify how they feel and hav­ing them be­ing able to com­mu­ni­cate about this, can re­lieve some stress and worry.

4. Give them ver­bal per­mis­sion that if they are feel­ing sad, over­whelmed, an­gry or mad that they can come and tell you, or that they can take them­selves straight to the safe place.

5. Em­power your child or the chil­dren you work with to know that hav­ing feel­ings and emo­tion, in­clud­ing be­ing over­whelmed is nor­mal, but that there are ways that we can help change how we feel, in­clud­ing us­ing a safe space as in point 1 above.

As par­ents, car­ers and teach­ers, we tune in to the needs of the chil­dren in our life. How­ever, some­times we can be­come a lit­tle dis­con­nected or busy and not no­tice the cues of over­whelm. Cre­at­ing a sen­sory safe space is one strat­egy that can be used to help chil­dren cope with over­whelm. Teach­ing a child to have more in­de­pen­dence in know­ing their emo­tions and ex­per­i­ment­ing with strate­gies to re­duce stress, is a great life skill that will be well used through to adult hood.

Deb Hop­per is an Oc­cu­pa­tional Ther­a­pist, au­thor and work­shop pre­sen­ter. She is pas­sion­ate about em­pow­er­ing par­ents and ed­u­ca­tors to un­der­stand the un­der­ly­ing rea­sons of why chil­dren strug­gle with be­hav­iour, self-es­teem and sen­sory pro­cess­ing dif­fi­cul­ties. Deb is the co-au­thor of the CD Sen­sory Songs for Tots, and au­thor of Re­duc­ing Melt­downs and Im­prov­ing Con­cen­tra­tion: The Just Right Kids Tech­nique Model. Deb can be con­tacted via her web­site.

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