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Sensory Smart Teenagers

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The onset of adolescence is a very challenging time for both teens and their parents. It is a time that is marked with rapid changes, and it is also when many expectations are placed onto teenagers – academic and sporting responsibilities, social pressures, the development of self identity and emerging freedoms. With increased independence come increased responsibility and the pressure to fit into social groups.

The teenage brain is still growing, and it is different to the brain of an adult. Nancy Mucklow, in her book The Sensory Team Handbook, explains how the pre-frontal cortex of a teenager is still developing higher functions of impulse inhibition, emotional regulation, decision-making, attending, and behavior planning and organisation.

The cerebellum, responsible for muscle coordination, is also still changing, as is the Corpus Collosum, a thick cable of nerves that connects the two halves of the brain. Due to this ongoing development happening in the teenage brain, skills such as creativity and problem-solving are not yet what it will be once the brain is fully developed. The brain is an amazing thing and it is teaching itself at all times. Teens need to explore, try things out, look at positives and negatives, and make their own decisions.

In addition to all the challenges they face, teenagers also need to be aware of the impact of the environment on their sensory systems. They need to understand how their sensory systems work and why it matters in their day-to-day functioning. Not understanding the effect of sensory overload and responses to sensory overload may result in one or more of the following:

  • Inability to focus
  • Easily irritable
  • Disorganisation
  • Lethargy
  • Impulsivity
  • Risk taking
  • Forgetfulness
  • Adopting bad habits

First defined by Patricia Wilbarger, a sensory diet is a carefully planned and personal activity plan that provides the sensory input a person needs to stay focussed and organised throughout the day.  Just as you may jiggle your knee or chew gum to stay awake or soak in a hot tub to unwind, teens  need to participate in stabilising, focussing activities too. Everyone can benefit from a personalised sensory diet.

Each person has their own thresholds to sensory input, but they may not have the insight on how to cope with an overloaded and stressed sensory system. Teens need to determine their own unique sensory needs and preferences to promote body and brain function. Creating a sensory diet for teens will help them to develop healthy habits of self regulation that will help them function optimally as adults.

Benefits of creating sensory diets for adolescents include:

  • Increased self-awareness
  • Improved ability to self nurture
  • Increased resilience
  • Increased self-esteem and body image
  • Improved ability to engage in meaningful life roles
  • Improved ability to engage in social activities
  • Improved ability to cope with triggers and stress
  • Improved ability to make informed decisions

Engage your teen in identifying the events and occasions that make him or her feel overwhelmed, irritable and lethargic. Parents, teens and teachers can each keep a journal recording what they have seen and how the teen dealt with the situation. Think of the times at home, school and socially where experiences were negative and what the possible triggers could have been. Also note the activities that help with calming and regulation, and that lead to the teen feeling better. The activities or things that lead to regulation are what the teen will place in his or her sensory toolbox or sensory kit.

A sensory toolbox or kit is a bag, box or container that holds a variety of sensory tools that can be used to both calm or stimulate a person’s sensory system.  A sensory kit is unique to each person as each one is unique in their sensory needs.  Trial and error will result in finding the right tools for each person.  Sensory diets and toolboxes should include and involve all the senses, and the teen should be encouraged to make use of regular sensory breaks to stay regulated.

A sensory break is another way of taking a regular old break from seated activities or sedentary activities. It is a time used to gain the needed sensory input in our bodies to stay alert, on task, and focussed. Sensory breaks for teens should take place at least every 45 minutes.

For the thrill-seeking teenager encourage fun, but safe activities such as rock wall climbing, horse riding, running, and martial arts. These activities add intensity to the sensory diet without putting the teen in danger.

Sensory tools in all the sensory systems can be used as alerting, calming and organising strategies.

Alerting strategies and activities:

Alerting activities are used for those who look for sensory input or who are unaware of the sensory experiences in their environment. Sensory seekers often need to be bombarded with sensory input in order to register what is happening around them or to stay alert.

  • Fidget toys – Play with “fidget toy” for hands, such as small stress ball
  • Crunchy, spicy, sour and salty foods – Pretzels, carrots, apples, granola, and other crunchy foods
  • Fast and irregular movements – Spinning on a swing or other equipment (can quickly become over-stimulating – use caution!)
  • Lively music – Dancing to rock, jazz, rap, or fast kids music
  • A brightly lit room (full spectrum or natural light)
  • Rocking quickly in a rocking chair
  • Running, skipping, galloping for at least 1-2 minutes (any type of aerobic exercise, really)
  • Jumping in place (trampoline, jumping jacks, jumping rope, etc.)
  • Motor breaks during school – stand and stretch, run an errand for teacher, walk to bathroom, etc.
  • Push on wall as if to move wall
  • Do “chair push-up” in sitting by lifting bottom off floor or chair, holding self up with arms
  • Carrying a stack of books, laundry, groceries, or something else approx. 5% of body weight
  • Drinking grapefruit, cranberry or other tart juice – try partially freezing it
  • Drinking through a long, thin straw, or reg. straw w/thick liquids (stimulates deeper breathing)
  • Cold shower or cold water on face or arms
  • Strobe light effects, fireworks, sometimes computer or video games or T.V.
  • Walls decorated with bright, contrasting colours

Calming and organising strategies and activities

Calming and organising strategies are used for those who are more sensitive and avoidant to sensory input from their environment, or for those who have increased activity levels. These strategies will help decrease over-responsiveness to sensory input, and will help develop continued participation in activities while still building coping mechanisms when overwhelmed by sensory input.

  • Deep and firm pressure (hugs and massages)
  • Slow and rhythmical movements (slow stretching, swinging in a hammock)
  • Swimming, a warm drink (milk or tea)
  • Sweet or bland tasting foods
  • Applying lotion
  • Petting a pet
  • Soft music – slow and rhythmical
  • Headphones to cancel environmental noise
  • Chewy and sweet foods
  • Steady, slow forward/back movement on swing or rocking chair
  • Listening to classical music, steady drums, or nature sounds (water, birds, waves)
  • Jumping on a trampoline, doing jumping jacks, or jumping rope
  • Riding a bike up hills (peddling against resistance)
  • Pushing or pulling heavy furniture; putting chairs on desks & taking down
  • Carrying a stack of books, laundry, groceries, or something else approx. 5% of body weight
  • Push on wall as if to move wall
  • Lean on desk for “desk push-up”
  • Hold self above chair seat, weight-bearing through arms, hands to side of seat for “chair push-up”
  • Isometrics: push hands together, hook hands and pull apart, push knee against hand, etc.
  • Push or pull open and hold open heavy doors
  • Erase or wash chalkboards
  • Look at fish tank, snow globes, lava lamp, campfire, or other slow-moving visual
  • Eat chewy foods (send fruit roll-ups, bagels, dried fruit, cheese, gummy candy with lunch)
  • Wear spandex clothing, like bike shorts or long underwear (can wear either under regular clothes)
  • Use a heavy or weighted blanket; read or work lying on floor with pillows stacked on top
  • Squeeze stress ball or other resistive “fidget toy” (putty, beeswax, art erasers)
  • Put hands into container of beans or rice

Creating a quiet and safe space to relax can work wonders. It allows the sensory systems and brain to calm and organise. Placing beanbags and weighted blankets there, as well as lava lamps or a fish tank, will add to the serenity of the space.

Nurturing sensory smart teenagers will ensure happy, functional and focused adolescents, ready to tackle any challenge that is thrown their way.

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