Simple Sensory Strategies for kids who worry a lot

Final diablog in this series from guest Diablogger Dr Far.

Dr Far: now we want to give you some ideas that kids can use when they feel anxious or their Naughty Brain is stuck on worry. Adults can use the same strategies because everyone has a Naughty Brain that misbehaves like a naughty puppy sometimes.

The main things to remember are:

Attention; getting your attention when you’re Stuck on diStress (SoS brain) is how brain change starts.

Sensory; the language of the Naughty Brain is sensory. Engaging any or all of the senses is the important thing to do when the brain is SoS.

Kindness; always approach with kindness. The part of the brain that is misbehaving is like a frightened puppy. Sometimes you may need to be firm but always be kind.

Approach with curiosity, like you are doing an experiment, because the brain can’t be curious and afraid at the same time. And the message you give the brain when you approach with curiosity is that everything is ok we are just playing. The brain is intensely curious that’s what keeps us learning and catalyzes the brain changing itself.

Mum: that’s great Doc Far but I still don’t know how to translate that into things to do when little Jack is frightened and wont go to school.

Ok here are some things you can try to get you started. But keep in mind every brain is different and some things will work better than others. And what is more effective in the beginning may become less effective later. Part of the experiment is finding out which of the senses is more able to engage the attention to orient to safety and what is familiar, the here and now, or what is usually referred to as mindfulness.

Well Jacky loves the feel of some things. He is very tactile. Loud sounds really upset him.

Yes so it could be that touch and movement, kinesthetic, are strongest for him. But certain sounds might actually be more able to get his attention because he reacts so strongly to it. We don’t assume anything with this approach it’s an experiment. More like a game than a lesson, because that will engage the curious brain,

Ok Jacky will like that.

Here are some Simple Sensory Strategies to try, SSS to go with ASK, but play with them and make up your own variations to suit your child:

Nursery rhymes or simple songs are a great way for the child to soothe the Naughty Brain and get their own attention. Why this is the case is explained in the book, i-brainmap, freeing your brain for happiness, by Rita McInnes.

Tapping; getting little Jack to tap his toes or fingers when he feels anxious and using more and more complicated rhythms can orient the attention to the fingers or toes.

Alternatively he could draw around the outline of the fingers on each open hand with the fingers of the other hand.

He could press each finger in turn against the thumb of one or both hands.

If the anxiety is at school you can give him something of yours, such as a scarf or something with your scent on it that he can smell. Smell is the strongest sense and can elicit memories of safety or fear very quickly. This is also discussed in the book, i-brainmap.

Alternatively you could help him find a smooth stone from the garden or a small toy that he can have in his pocket that he can touch or rub when he feels anxious.

Eating is a good way to sooth the Naughty Brain but can become a problem if it’s the only way a child learns to soothe the lower brain.

Notice these are all things children often do naturally when they are distressed.

Yes is that because the brain knows what to do?

Absolutely the brain knows what to do. But when we try to outsmart the brain and don’t listen to the wisdom of this part of the brain, like a body wisdom, because we are so hooked on the big brain having all the answers we can lose this ancient way of healing that is in all animals. Children can often access it more readily than adults but perhaps the human brain is losing this capacity. And as I said the language of the lower brain is different to the language of the big brain. In other words we cant think our way out of these problems like anxiety that is mainly in the body. The brain changes itself from bottom up.

Like I can’t talk Jacky out of a tantrum in the supermarket?

Exactly. But to help the brain integrate and change we also want to give Jack’s kid brain a cue word rather than just doing the strategies. For adults I use the word “activation” as the cue word to tell the brain it’s in SoS brain. For little Jack I suggested ACT-UP, but you could play with some different words.

No Jacky liked Act-Up, that made sense to him and he understands about the Naughty Puppy Brain. He called it A-U, like calling out to himself. He’s a funny kid.

A-U, I like that. He is a funny kid. Engaging him and getting him to play with things is great. And giving him a way to understand what’s going on that isn’t blaming him but engages his brain more playfully and invites his curiosity is as important as the strategies you try. How he, as you, approach this brain change will prime the brain and give it messages about how to respond. And as I keep saying curiosity is the best primer for brain change.

Ok so let me see if I’ve got this right Doc Far.

I explain to Jacky about the Naughty Brain being like a puppy so he knows it’s normal what his brain is doing and we just need to retrain it a bit. Tick that one.

Yes very important that he knows what is happening and why we are doing what we are doing. Kids brains are very very smart.

Then we give him the cue word, like Act-Up, or A-U, to help his brain make the connection that it’s in SoS but there’s no current threat?

Yes it helps for him to use his words because that switches on other parts of the brain and each time he calls it that the brain is making the connection with the new map. Something I didn’t say but it’s good to do is to give it a number between 0-10 about how strong it is. This switches on other parts of the brain as well and also gives it context. You can read about context in the book too.

Ok and then we experiment with different Simple Sensory Strategies to see which ones are more helpful?

Yes exactly. Strange as it may seem our aim isn’t to stop the anxiety but to reduce it enough and give the brain the right messages that it can change this old pattern. I call it integration..

Let me guess I can read about it in the book called i-brainmap, right?

Yes it’s in the book. But you don’t need to understand more than I’ve told you in the last few days in diablog. And always remember kindness and curiosity because you are dealing with a part of the brain that is just like a frightened naughty puppy. Play with it.


Leave a Reply