Sensory Processing Disorder and the Tween Years

April 30, 2016 April 2016 Feature - Sensory Processing, Sensory Processing Issues, TongguMomma 15 Comments

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.

15 responses to “Sensory Processing Disorder and the Tween Years”

  1. Courtney says:

    This was so incredibly helpful. For my girl, but also for me. I felt like I was the only one who had fallen into a false sense of security as we finished elementary school. Middle school (and puberty) has arrived and it’s like we’re back to square one. These words were so comforting and encouraging. Thank you for sharing.

  2. A's Mom says:

    Oh my goodness… I’m crying because I’m not alone!! You have described my daughter. I had hoped she had outgrown (or been “healed”) of her childhood SPD… uh, nope! The onset of puberty has once again changed everything. We did have a five year (wonderful) break from SPD but we are experiencing a complete revisitation of her SPD with the added bonus of hormones, oy vey! Thank you so much for sharing. This article was so encouraging.

  3. Christine says:

    “… 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.”

    She “just had to deal” and “you just have to cope”. Sorry, those options do not exist with true, severe SPD :(.

  4. A says:

    i am 35 now but this totally was my experience at that age. only i didn’t have a diagnosis. i developed anorexia & self harm as a means to cope & took decades to unlearn these behaviors. now i have two diagnoses: SPD & aspergers. your daughter is so lucky to have you. thanks for writing this.

  5. Snow says:

    Thank you for this. There isn’t much information on the web about SPD and puberty. I’m prepping myself. I gotta work on the smell issue with my girl a lot. And personal space will become a big problem again as well as her volume. Oye it will be a long couple years. Thanks for the encouragement!

  6. GM says:

    My daughter who is now 11 and in puberty has mild SPD. Her hormones are all over the place and it seems extreme. After reading this post and the comments I guess her SPD is back in full force? We try to encourage, reassure and pray but we are almost at our wits end and not sure what to do. We’ve even started brushing her again! Are there any natural remedies we can try? Thanks for any help!

  7. Gaye says:

    Have you heard of Trust Based Relational Intervention TBRI? I hear it’s supposed to help but can’t find a therapist who specializes in it in my area.

  8. Sherry Becker says:

    Thank you! Reading this has reassured me that what my daughter and I are going through right now probably is exactly This! She is 9 years old with SPD and in the 4th grade. I have seen a decrease in signs/symptoms lately until the last month or so when she has had total meltdowns and inability to cope with a situation to the point of almost pure panic. I stop what we are doing, wrap my arms around her until she collapses, and I pray. Then we talk and solve the problem. She is a sweet, wonderful girl being wrecked by hormones right now. How can I help her?

  9. Kim says:

    This is such an answer to prayer. After her ability to cope improved I set the diagnosis in a back burner. She us now 10 and having so much difficulty with impulse control and anger some kind of pain ever hour if the day Even brushing her teeth is hard again. Would be nice to have more info in this age. My daughter has the move around kind of sensory disorder and it’s stressing me out and her. Understanding Che’s not alone is so helpful thanks

  10. Deanna says:

    Thank you for this… My son is a verbal Aspie, but who has a really hard time communicating… He was doing so much better sensory-wise until six months ago and now he’s beginning to whine again(we used to go through screaming fits) during haircuts… He’s constantly needing to be busy and can’t sit still and is so overwhelmed by everything around him, he’s again having issues concentrating… Even a light change bothers him, smells- although not his smells, clothes… He wants to nest in his blankets here at home, but that’s not possible at school… He’d stopped using his fidgets, his squeezie and his things he used to keep him grounded and he is majorly having issues being around more than four people and at school, there’s more than four kids in the halls when changing classes… nobody prepared us for any of this… Thank you, it made me feel not alone in this…

  11. Erin says:

    Hi!! Do you have any bra suggestions for my 10 year old with SPD?? We are struggling….

    • Darcy says:

      Thank you I’m not the only one! We been through sport bra type, adjustable back, padded and non padded and have yet to find one. She can still get away with lose fitting shirts and no bra for the most part, but when she gets into 6th grade I’m not sure what to do! She’s 11 now.
      Also need suggestions.
      Also trying to get her out of wearing leggings as let’s say her booty is too much for leggings and we are getting comments. But seriously trying to find comfy jeans as been a struggle for years!

      • Jessi says:

        Did you figure anything out regarding the pants and bras? I’m in the same boat with my almost 11 year old! Kinda desperate over here.

  12. Tobriah Dunlap says:

    Thank you for sharing. It’s so validating to hear this from other parents of children with SPD. Most people don’t understand and think we’re just coddling our 14 year old daughter. We are struggling with acne. She uses Panoxyl but we have yet to find any other products that don’t feel/smell weird. Do you have any brand suggestions?

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