Raising The Highly Sensitive Child – Sensory Processing Disorder

There are a set of shared experiences among the parents of children with Sensory Processing Disorder and there is comfort in knowing that you are not alone. As a parent of two and a psychologist who works with parents and children, I understand the unique set of challenges faced by families raising highly sensitive children.

The Highly Sensitive Child

Photo of highly sensitive child with sensory processing disorderThe sensitive child is like a unique and multifaceted gem. This child shines brilliantly sometimes allowing you to see into the depth and clarity at the center, and at times reflecting you so intensely that you are called to see yourself in challenging and uncomfortable ways. At times, these children can project diamond quality strength. Other times, the intensity which with they feel the world can result in meltdowns and tantrums and we must help them through these scattered and intensely challenging moments. That is if we haven’t melted down right along with them! Helping the sensitive child make sense of their inner and outer world can take parents to and beyond their limits.

Raising a Child with Sensory Processing Disorder

There are a set of shared experiences among the parents of sensitive children and there is comfort in knowing that you are not alone in the challenges you are facing.  Here is what parents of sensitive children often say:Photo of distressed young girl

  • My daughter is different than other children.
  • My 6 year-old son disrupts our home with his extreme meltdowns; he always needs to be the center of attention
  • My spouse and I are fighting more and blaming each other for our child’s behavior
  • Raising this child takes everything out of me!  I’m exhausted and sometimes feel that I am not cut out for parenting.

Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder and Highly Sensitive Children

brain traffic for webOnce I understood Sensory Processing Disorder I finally had the information I needed to stop blaming myself or feeling as though I was crazy! My child was having a neurological “traffic jam” that was the invisible culprit behind her behavioral breakdowns and anxious approach to the world.

Technically, Sensory Processing Disorder and Highly Sensitive Children are two different but related conditions. Sensory Processing Disorder was first identified by A. Jean Ayres an occupational therapist who identified that some children over- or under-respond in one or multiple senses (e.g. tactile sensitivity, sound sensitivity, light sensitivity). The highly sensitive child is a related concept developed by Elaine Aron who describes these children as easily overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation, sudden changes, and the emotional distress of others.The sensory challenges shared by parents and children I work with include:

  • My child says that most clothes hurt her. She will only wear two pairs of pants and I can barely get her to school in the mornings if those pants are not clean.
  • If my child gets bumped while standing in line at school he reacts as if someone hit him purposely.
  • There are sounds that I hardly notice but my child puts her hands to her ears in pain!
  • We can’t go to the movies because my child feels everything so strongly like it is happening to him.

Guidance for Parents of Highly Sensitive Children

  • Stop blaming yourself and/or your partner. Sensory processing challenges are real and require tremendous patience.
  • Get a thorough assessment. Children with Sensory Processing Disorder often have other co-presenting neurodevelopmental challenges such as learning disorders (dyslexia), ADHD, autism, and anxiety. However, getting an accurate diagnosis is important as some children are inaccurately diagnosed with ADHD and are medicated unnecessarily.
  • Trust your child! Highly sensitive children often also have a capacity for deep reflection and empathy when given the time to process their environment.
  • Get down to their level. The language of the younger child is play. Most children with sensory challenges feel out of control much of the time. Let your child take the lead in imaginary play, allow yourself to follow, and give your child an experience of being in charge or his or her world.
  • Parent and child connectionBecome your child’s emotional coach. Help older children talk about their feelings and reflect on what they are experiencing. Validate, reflect, and help them develop problem solving skills.
  • Repair your rocky moments. Reviewing our rough times involves admitting when we parents are not perfect and gives our children permission to make mistakes as well. Good-enough parenting involves ruptures and repair that allows everyone to learn from even our most challenging experiences.
  • Get help. It takes a village and when it comes to raising the highly sensitive child build your team. Often a treatment team involves play therapy, occupational therapy, speech language, and parenting support. Find a support group or online forum to talk with other parents raising children with Sensory Processing Disorder. I am available to help.

Further reading:

Dealing With Grief and Loss – Hanuman’s Story

A Story of the Courage and Healing

Graphic showing the hindu god hanuman Ocean and Shadow Self Dealing with grief and loss

Stories and poems offer metaphors providing a language for the soul.  In many stories there is a demon, dragon, or monster that needs to be conquered, a reminder that we need to face our fears and turn towards our challenges rather than avoid our problems. As a Yoga Instructor, I draw upon eastern philosophy as a source of insight. In this story form the Hindu tradition, Hanuman’s journey offers guideposts that help orient us when facing difficult times. These stories comes from the Hindu tradition; they teach us about how to find courage and healing when dealing with grief and loss.

Hanuman and the Ripe Fruit

catch upward spiral build resilience

When Hanuman was a child, he was quite curious (as all children all). He saw an orange globe in the sky and decided it must be a ripe fruit! He began to reach higher and higher and was about to swallow the sun when the gods became quite concerned. To save the sun, the king of all the gods, Indra, struck him with lightening which hit him in the jaw deforming his face. What a mischievous monkey, trying to eat the sun thinking it was a ripe fruit.

Upon learning the news, his father Vayu (the god of the wind) was angry! In his rage, he stopped all of the wind from flowing. All of the people in the land began to complain; they felt as though they were suffocating, they couldn’t breathe. (Sound familiar?)

To appease Vayu, all of the gods came to make amends. In doing so they endowed Hanuman with many special gifts and powers. Yet, to avoid him from becoming too full of himself, Hanuman was forced to forget all of the strengths that were hidden inside of him…until he faced a variety of challenges in his life and he discovered his abilities.

A hero’s journey, isn’t it?

Hanuman and the Long Journey

Somatic Transpersonal Psychology Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Another well known Hanuman story involves his journey to Sri Lanka  to ease the wounded heart of his dear friend, Rama who had lost his beloved Sita.  In his journey across the ocean, Hanuman faces three challenges; challenges that are often set in motion by loss or trauma.

Hanuman’s First Obstacle

The first challenge Hanuman encounters is the seemingly unsurpassable obstacle. As Hanuman prepares to take his leap across the ocean a tremendous mountain rises up from the middle of the ocean. Hanuman could not fight, could not run around this mountain, nor could he fly above. He felt hopeless and despairing. He felt he could not go on.

Without any reserves, his only choice was to let go.

As he allowed his weight to rest upon the earth, the Gods spoke to him and he discovered that the mountain offered a place to rest in the midst of the long journey. While he could not stay there (as he did need to continue on his way) he learned the importance of rest; that he must pace himself when faced with great a challenge.

Hanuman’s Second Obstacle

The second challenge faced by Hanuman is that of a fearful serpent demoness who swallows all who come across her path. Trying to avoid this fate, Hanuman tries in every way to enlarge himself…he grows larger yet the mouth of the serpent grows larger as well. He expands even larger and she expands along with him until she swallows him whole.

Hanuman was swallowed by the serpent. He thought he might die…and in his grief he began to shrink until he was so small that he was as small as a grain of sand, and still he shrinks until he is as small as the tiniest atom. Now, he was small enough to squeeze out between her teeth, beyond her lips and escape. Sometimes it is only in this well of sorrow that we find our way through.

He could not avoid the truth and had to surrender. This was also the moment that he learned of his power to shape shift; to adapt the meet the demands of a difficult situation.

Hanuman’s Third Obstacle

Exhausted, Hanuman is released forth to continue his journey, but at this stage he moves forward as if in a dream; in disbelief that he will ever make it through to the other side. He feels unable to proceed and is depleted and yet at this very moment is faced with his third challenge; this time a demoness who has the power to possess the shadow of all who she encounters and pull them into the ocean. She takes hold of Hanuman’s shadow and begins to drag him into the sea.

What is required of him in this final phase of the journey is courage.  Against all odds, he gathered his strength to turn towards his past and his pain. As long as he can see clearly the murky, avoided, or disowned places in himself he can prevent the demoness from having the power to drag him under by his shadow. He takes hold of his shadow and is released to arrive at his destination, complete his journey, and return love to the broken heart.

Dealing With Grief and Loss

In Hanuman’s story, we are reminded that at times that which we perceive as an obstacle is really a reminder of the importance of rest, slowing down, and the careful pacing that is needed to when moving through the disorientation of trauma or grief.  This story also suggests that we cannot outrun or avoid reality as it is. Despite our need to feel powerful and in control there are life events that we have no control over. We cannot bring back a loved one who has died. We cannot reverse time. In these moments we are asked to surrender. However, in doing so, we also find our courage and strength that is often hidden deep within the recesses of our being.

When dealing with grief and loss there is benefit in turning towards the pain, to feel what we perceive is unbearable, even if we are afraid that we will break in two. In these moments we may discover a new found strength, our courage, and a new sense of self more capable of living in this unpredictable yet exquisite life.

Build your Resilience

The Post Traumatic Growth Guidebook Dr. Arielle Schwartz

You might like The Post Traumatic Growth Guidebook. Within this book, you will find an invitation to see yourself as the hero or heroine of your own life journey. A hero’s journey involves walking into the darkness on a quest for wholeness. This interactive format calls for journaling and self-reflection, with practices that guide you beyond the pain of your past and help you discover a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. Successful navigation of a hero’s journey provides opportunities to discover that you are more powerful than you had previously realized. Click here to order the book on Amazon.

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook,follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts. Dr. Schwartz is the author of four books:

Resilience Psychology and Coping with Grief

Finding Hope after Facing Loss

Grief Dr. Arielle Schwartz

At some point in our lives all have had to or will have to confront the loss of a loved one.  When facing the death of a loved one we can feel disoriented, uprooted, and isolated. Sometimes, the loss doesn’t feel real, we feel lost in the dark, or we feel as though the grief will never end. This post shares a very personal loss and offers tools for coping with bereavement.

“My husband and I were married less than a year. We had plans. I was applying for my doctorate in clinical psychology and we were talking about the timing of our first child. Then tragic loss changed everything.  The call came in the middle of the night. A helicopter had gone down during a routine mission and my husband’s brother (a military pilot) was aboard…”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz Continue reading

EMDR Case Study – Marie


Depresses woman EMDRMarie’s Story* How EMDR Can Change Your Life

*Marie is not an actual person, but a composite of several patients Dr. Schwartz has seen over the past several years. Identifying details have been changed to protect their privacy. The treatments and outcomes are real.

Phase 1 – Taking a In-Depth History

Marie had been date raped while in college. Now as an adult, Marie is suffering from anxiety and finds it challenging to develop a meaningful long term relationship. She had been in talk therapy for some time without success. In fact, she never really dealt directly with the trauma surrounding the incident. Marie was very skilled at avoiding dealing with the trauma of this incident.

In order to continue to function after a traumatic event, as a coping mechanism, it is common to bury or avoid dealing with the painful feelings or memories. I will take a thorough life history to provide the foundation for successful EMDR treatment. History taking includes life events, family systems and the strengths and resources that are currently available.

Phase 2 – Preparation for EMDR

Marie had lost a sense of choice or control over her emotional life. She felt flooded with anxiety and needed some resources to help her fell safe again. In our therapy I helped Marie identify times and places in her life where she felt safe. We also gave her tools to use between sessions to help her manage her anxiety. When Marie came back for her next session, she shared that she felt calmer and more in control of her emotions throughout the week.

As we prepare for EMDR therapy, you will build your own tool kit to help you manage overwhelming emotions and your reactions to stressful events. In addition, you will choose the form of bilateral stimulation that works best for you. The methods used are: eye movements, tactile sensations, or bilateral sounds.

Phase 3 – Assessment and Setting an EMDR Target

Marie realized that the rape had a much more profound impact on her life than she had ever allowed herself to feel. She understood that she had internalized the helplessness of that moment and would repeatedly feel helpless when faced with triggering stressful situations at work with her boss and when she was home alone in the evenings. She recognized that she had compensated for the vulnerability she was feeling by pushing people away when they wanted to get close.Marie identified that she wanted to feel capable of taking care of herself and she wanted to allow herself to develop a loving nurturing relationship.

At this point in EMDR treatment we will identify the trauma that will be worked on during desensitization. This trauma is referred to as your target and we will identify the image, emotions, beliefs and body sensations that are associated with that event.

Phase 4 – Desensitization  

Using bilateral eye movements, I asked Marie to think about the rape and the image that represented the worst part of her experience Marie noted that she felt disconnected and numb when she thought of the event. Through careful pacing she began to tolerate the vulnerable and uncomfortable emotions that came up when she thought about the rape. As Marie began to feel the emotions she had a series of memories come forward about what happened that day and associations to other times in her life when she felt helpless. Eventually Marie was able to think about the rape without experiencing any upsetting feelings or thoughts. Furthermore, she began to feel stronger in herself and arrived at a sense of how this event contributed to who she is today.

We know that trauma is primarily stored in both the limbic or mid-brain and in the right hemisphere of the brain. However, we need our entire brain to access the integrative functions of reflective thought and meaning making in order to heal from trauma. By using bilateral stimulation, we rhythmically alternate between the two hemispheres of the brain while thinking about the traumatic event. This process allows the associations, feelings and memories from the past to be brought forward so they can be experienced and resolved. Desensitization of a target can occur in a single session or across multiple sessions.

Phase 5 – Installation

Now Marie was able to think about the rape and feel strong and in control. She recognized that what happened was not her fault and there were changes she could make in how she approached the world today that reflects this new experience of herself. Marie thought about being home alone and the vulnerability she used to feel and allowed a new sense of strength of to infuse her being. She felt more open to the possibility of taking the risk associated with allowing someone to get close to her. She visualized what this would look like in her life today.

During the Installation Phase, I guide you to connect the positive beliefs and sense of self that is achieved through the successful completion of desensitization. We have you imagine the past and present life triggers as you would approach them with this new found sense of capability.

Phase 6 – Body Scan

I invited Marie to scan her body for any lingering areas of tension and to allow any residual distress to release.

We use the body as a gauge to verify the successful completion of the EMDR process.

Phase 7 – Closure

Before leaving the session, I made sure that Marie felt grounded and complete with that day’s process.

Closure is essential to successful treatment in that it allows the challenging work of desensitization to be contained between sessions. Containment is built upon an agreement that we will return to address any remaining distress associated with the traumatic event. This also frees you up by asking you not to think (worry, obsess) about traumatic material between sessions.

Phase 8 – Re-evaluation

In the following session, I asked Marie to check in about how she feels now when she thinks about the rape. Marie shared that she no longer felt any disturbance. She also spoke about feeling lighter throughout the week and that she felt less unprovoked anger toward her boyfriend.

The purpose of re-evaluation allows us to assess the effectiveness of the treatment and address and residual or unresolved feelings.

In Marie’s case EMDR was a very successful treatment of choice. While it is not for every client or every presenting condition, EMDR has been well researched and is considered an evidenced based trauma treatment.

Happy couple

Additional Reading:

Looking for a mind-body approach to healing PTSD?


Connect to this post? The Complex PTSD Workbook, is now available on Amazon! Click here to check it out and increase your toolbox for healing. Whether you are a client or a therapist this book will offer a guided approach to trauma recovery.

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz Complex PTSD, EMDR Therapy, Somatic Psychology

Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.

Somatic Psychology Interventons and EMDR Training

Attend an EMDR Training in Somatic Psychology Interventions and EMDR Taught by Dr. Schwartz with Maiberger Institute!

What: Two day Training on Somatic Interventions & EMDR (Boulder, CO)
When: July 26 – 27, 2014
Where: Maiberger Institute
2995 Baseline Road, Suite 206
Boulder, CO 80303

Learn More About EMDR

Why Somatic Psychology and EMDR:

The field of somatic psychology explores the relationship between the body and psychological states or processes.  Somatic psychology centralizes body awareness as a primary healing agent in psychotherapy. We cannot always think our way out of a trauma response because the physiological reactions are so central, the heart rate quickens, there are feelings of panic, we feel tension throughout the body, or perhaps we feel stuck and unable to move. Somatic interventions are valuable tools within the therapeutic arena because they work directly with how traumatic events impact our bodies through breath constrictions and tension patterns that are held pre-consciously (just under our conscious awareness). When working with either recent of historical traumatic events, the body provides tremendous feedback about the psychological impact of that event. Tracking the somatic experience in trauma work also gives clear feedback about when the traumatic incident no longer holds power over us. As a result, we have increased access to choice and a greater range of healthy ways to respond to present day challenges.

Photo of Dr Arielle Schwartz teaching EMDR for attachment injury at Maiberger Institute

When combining somatic interventions with the 8-phase treatment model of EMDR, body awareness greatly enhances the effectiveness of both. Adding the technology of bi-lateral stimulation that is central to EMDR amplifies the processing of traumatic events. Likewise, somatic awareness in EMDR brings mindful awareness to the subtleties of trauma release with careful attention to nervous states, the pacing of process, and the relational exchange between therapist and client.

Somatic Interventions and EMDR Training Description:

This two-day workshop is an opportunities for therapists already trained in EMDR to introduce them to somatic interventions for trauma treatment.

As a result of this training, participants will be able to:

  • Summarize a basic understanding of Somatic Psychology in relationship to EMDR
  • Demonstrate at least one somatic intervention for each of the 8 Phases of the EMDR protocol
  • Recognize how self – awareness of nonverbal communication increases therapist’s trustworthiness and facilitates therapeutic alliance.
  • Exhibit how Somatic interventions facilitate client’s ability to self regulate.

Register Here