The most difficult thing about parenting a tween or young teen with sensory processing disorder is constantly reminding oneself that people don’t outgrow SPD. It may feel that way for a few years during upper elementary because it’s likely by then that your child learned successful coping strategies for most age-appropriate sensory experiences. But then the tween years hit, and a whole new sensory world opens up. Puberty, orthodontia, middle school, large growth spurts, higher expectations to meet cultural beauty norms, and ever-expanding social experiences.
It’s enough to make you scream, let alone your child living with SPD.
With large growth spurts and puberty comes a resurgence of hormones. We’ve found that the Tongginator struggles more with sensory issues during hormone surges. The 18 months prior to her first period (when she also grew six inches) felt exceptionally difficult. She struggled to self-regulate, more so than the average tween/ young teen. She still needed her sensory diet, but most of the activities felt “too babyish” or “embarrassing.” The husband and I learned to step back, allowing her to find new and different ways to regulate her sensory needs. And we basically rode out the storm while she did so. Playing on a playground was no longer “cool,” but riding her bike, going for a walk or swim, or jumping on a trampoline seemed okay. No more therapeutic brushing because that’s completely inappropriate now, but using a loofah in the shower rather than a washcloth helps.
Puberty brought with it a gamut of new sensory experiences. I will try my best to be delicate here, so let me simply say that the average tween or young teen girl often finds it difficult to adjust to bras, feminine products and new hygiene requirements. Now add SPD to the mix. If your child struggles with motor planning, teaching her how to shave her underarms can be both challenging and hilarious. If she has tactile sensitivities, bras and maxi pads just aren’t comfortable. Face wash, deodorant and acne cream “feel weird.” As a mom, you have to be willing to go the extra mile to teach new skills, not to mention finding brands and products that “feel okay.” And you have to do all of it with humor, patience and a tremendous amount of sensitivity.
As girls with SPD age, they also have the additional challenge of ever-increasing expectations to meet cultural beauty norms. A nine-year-old girl can wear sensory-friendly clothing and sport a messy hairdo with few social repercussions. Oh, how I wish that were so even three years later. Make-up, fashionable clothing and more complicated hairstyles: it becomes the norm in middle school. For the most part, we allow the Tongginator to take the lead in these areas. We expect her to keep herself clean, and to dress modestly in weather-appropriate ways, but that’s pretty much it. She’s managed to find clothing that is both comfortable for her and fashionable. She now wears a small amount of make-up (face powder, blush, lip gloss), but we tried out several brands before she found one that she couldn’t “feel” on her face. I pay more than average for her to have her hair cut in a salon – her hairstylist does a better job than most, so typically her hair looks neat and cute with little effort. My view is that – when I can – I will go the extra mile if it means minimizing the social challenges that come with SPD and one’s appearance.
And then there’s middle school: larger class sizes, crowded hallways, locker combinations, gym uniforms, navigating more complicated class schedules, the social jungle that is the school cafeteria. It’s a rough road in middle school. The husband and I – and thankfully her elementary school – did what we could to help with the adjustment. For example, the Tongginator felt extremely nervous about middle school lockers, so we started practicing in July. After weeks of unsuccessful attempts, I actually purchased a second combination lock so that we could practice side-by-side. It finally “clicked” when she could watch me while attempting it herself. We found gym shorts that felt comfortable and looked “the same” as the school gym shorts, though there was nothing I could do about the uniform top. For that, she just had to deal. Parenting a tween/ teen with SPD is a delicate balance of compassion and “you just have to cope.” The husband and I walk that rocky path with a lot of prayer and a bit of humor.
Social challenges ramp up in middle school for all tweens and teens. It can be especially tough for our sensory kids. Consider the ever-expanding list of social experiences – church youth group, school dances, more activity-based experiences such as paintball and amusement parks. Talk about sensory overload! Plus, middle school brings with it more nighttime activities – especially difficult for a tween with SPD who struggles to fall asleep after being overstimulated. The husband and I do our best to help the Tongginator select activities that stretch her without overwhelming her. One late night a week – on Friday – is difficult, but doable. Newspaper club and band are a great fit, but the school play? With its scratchy costumes, stage lights and heavy make-up? Yeah – that’s a recipe for disaster. But again, we gently guide and support rather than dictate, even if the Tongginator’s choices scream out “that’s a mistake.” Honestly, we won’t know until she tries it, which means we must have a lot of patience and compassion during a first attempt. After the first go-around, though, it’s all about “you knew what you were getting into, honey, so you just have to deal.”
And then there are parental expectations… there are some things the Tongginator most likely will never outgrow. She’s still a messy eater, often dropping and spilling more food than her five-year-old sister. I sweep under her chair more often than I do her sister’s. She will always be clumsy – watching her help unload and load the dishwasher induces a stress reaction every time. I have to leave the room. (Seriously.) But that’s just reality – she’s most likely not gonna outgrow this – so we have to accept who she is, how she is, with a loving attitude.
Tween and young teens with sensory processing disorder feel even more self-conscious than their typical peers. They know they are different. They feel those differences even more than they ever have before. Middle school kids aren’t known for their tact, so they might even point out those differences, and not always in a kind manner. It’s our job as parents to help our sensory tweens understand why they are the way they are – to give a name to it. It’s our job to gently stretch them so that they learn to accommodate more of the world, since the world won’t stretch to accommodate them as they age. They won’t outgrow SPD, but they will grow in their coping strategies to deal with their SPD.
And it’s our job to love and fully accept them for who they are, how they are, no matter what.