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I'm a father of two children (5,3) and I happen to be "gifted" with a high sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). We also have reason to believe that this applies to our kids, too, but not to my wife. As a consequence of this I feel a great amount of stress when my kids do things that are perfectly normal for kids of that age. This in turn occasionally leads to certain reactions on my side which I tend to regret later. It's not that I ever physically hurt my kids, but I raise my voice more than I should (without actually shouting), clench my fists while breathing heavily, take myself out of the situation by leaving the room without a word or - very rarely - physically hitting something like a pillow or a door frame.

After I've calmed down a bit, which usually happens within a minute or two, I feel the strong urge to give my kids an explanation of what just happened and that it's something about me (which I'm working on) and not about them. The relationship with my kids is quite good as far as I can tell and not only do I feel like owing them an explanation - I also think they'd want and appreciate one. Unfortunately I'm already having trouble explaining this issue to adults...

So how can I explain this rather complex psychological issue so that my kids can understand? Both of my kids are pretty smart, but of course they're still (pretty young) children... Answers that might be useful for older kids (as they will eventually get older) or not my own are also appreciated. (Since my wife is present most of the time, maybe there's also something that she can say or do, but I don't want to extend the scope of the question too much.)

  • Maybe you find an illustrated childrens book about this topic. Because you are not the only one with the wish to explain SPS to children, there may be another one who made the effort to write a story... – Allerleirauh Aug 22 at 13:33
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I am autistic and got diagnosed a couple of years ago. I am childless but have siblings of a rather young age (early teenagehood) to whom I sometimes had to explain my sensory processing issues. The key to me is to focus on what you already mentioned in your question, that is how that affects you and that they didn't do anything wrong.

For instance, when I have a shutdown because my sisters are playing music rather loudly in the living room, I will isolate myself and wait for it (the shutdown) to pass and then tell them something along the lines of

Hey girls, I am sorry I had to leave/reacted strongly/wasn't feeling well when you were enjoying your music earlier. I have a hard time processing loud noises as they can be overwhelmingly painful to me, which is why I need to withdraw myself from the situation that causes it for a while. I am feeling better now and I hope you had a great time - these are great tunes you're listening to!

As I can't always prevent shutdowns on time, I explain why I reacted the way I did if I have to. I then explain how I process sensory information differently than the majority of people - that helps them understand why I might suffer from something they love doing. I then finish by engaging with the pleasure they had while doing so - that shows I care about their wellbeing and do not want them to stop in any way (they need to be told they didn't do anything wrong), just that I cannot share this happy moment with them in particular. That also might be a good idea to try to find an activity you all enjoy doing together (and that doesn't trigger your SPS) so that they don't think you don't want to play with them.

Finally, you said you would rather not involve your wife in the process and I understand this position, but depending on the time you need for the shutdown to end and on the force of this latter, it might be helpful for you all if she is able to answer the questions your kids might have when they see their father suffering from something they enjoy doing and that most people don't seem to have any issue with. This will prevent any feeling of guilt they might have and they will not try to engage with you when you're going through this tough phase of sensory overload.

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  • I don't mind involving my wife - in fact she is involved quite a lot already. I'd just rather focus on what I can do and let her do it her way. It may not be exactly what I'd suggest, but that doesn't mean it isn't good or even better. I think that by now she has a good understanding of my emotions and is able to answer any questions that may come up. – Thomas Jul 20 at 12:11
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I am also sensitive to certain stimuli, such as repetitive noises (which kids are prone to) and smells.

In the case of repetitive noises, after the first couple, when it's obvious the kid is entranced by what they're doing, I am able to say (calmly but very firmly) "Mom can't stand repetitive noises, you need to stop right now." My kids always complied, even my autistic kid who has a hard time putting herself in other people's shoes. Kids can and do care about their parents' well-being. That being said, they do forget in about 30 minutes and will always forget until they are older. Be patient and tell them to stop as many times as it takes--always calmly and firmly. My kids are 18 and 12 now and I don't remember the last time I had to ask them to stop.

I found that being straightforward and specific with my needs was enough. I didn't have to explain why. They never asked, they just accepted it. Don't feel compelled to explain to them beyond "it really bothers me" or maybe "makes me very unhappy." Do acknowledge they're doing something normal for kids to do, but that it's something they can't do around you as a matter of compassion and politeness.

It sounds like you want to explain to them partly because you feel guilty. So--frame challenge--how do you stop raising your voice and behaving angrily when you're so sensitive? One, know your triggers and act as soon as you realize it's happening. Do not wait until you can't stand it anymore. Two, know your "levers"--things that you can do to return to a normal state. It sounds like you know how to take a time-out, just take it before you get upset (but yes, you have every right to ask them to stop what they're doing, even if it's normal kid stuff; they'll have plenty of opportunities to do whatever it is and it's okay to teach them compassion by having them stop something they're enjoying because it hurts someone else).

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I also have challenging traits I've passed along to the next generation! What I've found helpful in communicating with my children about those is to frame it less as helping them understand my issues --why would they care? --and more showing them that I understand THEIR issues (because I share them). It's the same end result, but it starts from where they are, not where I am.

For instance, I've always struggled with insomnia. My parents never really seemed to understand it when I was a kid, but when I see my son experience the same problem, I know exactly what to tell him. Similarly, both of us require a large amount of physical activity for optimum mental health. I can always tell when he hasn't had enough. It took me years to discover the connection, but I've been able to share my coping mechanisms with him from an early age.

Occasionally, there will be something --for instance, if I lose my temper, or am grumpy --that isn't directly related to something they are also experiencing at that moment. In that case, I just apologize, and explain that even grown-ups have to work hard sometimes to do the right thing. Going much further than that, I think, would just teach them to make excuses.

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For children in this age it is not possible to understand the theory of SPS (or other complex things). Try to find a simple picture, that represents the most of your trouble. For your case I could imagine something like an invisible shield or fur every person has. Something that protects persons against loud noises, powerfull emotions and so on (Use the things, you have to struggle with). Then you could talk with them about the thickness, or the seize of this special protection, and that no one has the same like others.

Now you could explain, that your shield is not as large, or that you sometimes need time to find it. Maybe you could explain your reactions at triggers like "fighting" the emotions because the shield is missing. Children know strong feelings and that one could be overwhelmed by them. You could use any symbols/pictures you feel good with and your children know from children-stories. (The shield for example from knights tales.)

As your children grow older they will ask more detailed questions and you could give more detailed answers. If they ask, you could try the simplest answer and let them ask again, if it is not enough information.

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