As school is winding down, and the weather is warming up the first thing on my mind is heading to the beach. Is there really anything more relaxing than a day at the beach? With the waves gently crashing on the shore, the sea breeze in the air, the palm trees providing just the right amount of shade, your child crying about the way the sand feels….wait, that is not right. Why is my child crying about the way that sand feels? I mean no one really likes sand getting stuck in your swimsuit or between your toes, but is it worth a gigantic meltdown?
The reality is for a lot of children with sensory processing differences, heading to the beach for an afternoon is a nightmare. If you think about it, there is so much sensory stimuli at the beach that can overwhelm the nervous system. Between the noise of other children and families playing on the sand, to the textures of the sand and seaweed, to the bright, and the unpredictability of where the waves will brush up against your body, it is a lot to process!
Tactile defensiveness is the technical term for when the nervous system has difficulty determining which kinds of touch are dangerous and which are not. For example, if I feel a tarantula crawling on my arm, my brain processes that stimuli as harmful and throws my body into fight, flight, or freeze (and you can bet I will be running away from that spider as fast as my legs will carry me). When that filtering process is not functioning properly, stimuli like the sand can be processed as harmful, and red alerts are sent up to the brain triggering a fight flight or freeze reaction.
So, all this information is wonderful, but how can I enjoy a family day at the beach when my child is panicking in the parking lot?
- Do not surprise your child with a beach excursion. No one likes to be surprised with an experience they are afraid of; this can result in increased fear and jeopardize your child’s trust in you.
- Start slow. Start with driving by the beach, or even looking at a picture of sand. Talk about how fun the beach can be, and the activities or foods you would eat at the beach the next time you go. Then maybe progress to having lunch in the parking lot, with no expectation to walk on the sand. Make this clear to your child and perhaps do not even put bathing suits in the car. Then slowly move to touching the sand with hands, and gently increase the exposure to the sand as time goes on and your child’s comfort level increases.
- Validate, Validate, Validate. Remember, even though sand at the beach is not something you are afraid of, or even other children are afraid of, it is still a very real fear for your little one. Validate and gently encourage your child, but never disregard their feelings or fears.
If tactile processing seems to be an issue for your child, and anxiety around textures is impacting feeding, teeth brushing, hair brushing, or other everyday functions, contact Valued Voices for a screening and additional resources.
Kaelyn Green, MA, OTR/L
Kaelyn Green is a licensed occupational therapist at Valued Voices. She is certified by the University of Southern California in Sensory Integration and is an advocate for addressing underlying sensory functioning in order to improve occupational performance. She is passionate about meeting children and families where they are at and seeks to tailor interventions to the unique needs of her clients. When she is not working, you will find Kaelyn taking care of her two goldendoodles, working in her garden, or taking trips to the Central Coast.