Is Low Self-Esteem and Sensory Processing Disorder Linked?
One of my absolute favorite books is The Out of Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz. If you haven’t read it yet, and you want to learn more about SPD in a really easy-to-understand way, then check out this book.
One of the post-its notes that I have from when I still read it was the one with the quote, on page 28, “low self-esteem is one of the most telling symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder.” and this is in the section of the book where she talks about all the social and emotional challenges that are often associated with SPD.
Today I want to unpack that idea and call to light some of the reasons why I think this is the case, based on my personal experience as a parent to a child with sensory needs, and as a clinician who’s worked with hundreds of kids over the past 7 years.
At the end of the episode I’ll leave you with some tips on how you can help your child’s self-esteem (hint: SWS- open for enrollment right now at theotbutterfly.com/swswinter )
The low self-esteem deep dive
Now to start this off, I want to admit that I actually had to take a deep dive and learn about self-esteem, because what I had been thinking was self-esteem all along was actually self-confidence.
There’s a difference between the two and I’m going to summarize what I learned from add.org
Self-confidence is the projection of someone’s belief in their capabilities and skills; for example, I am very confident in my ability to talk about neurodiversity and other sensory-related things.
You can build confidence by building skills and self-confidence is what others can see in your attitude and the way you speak and carry yourself.
Self-esteem is actually quite different, and it’s fascinating to hear about it. Self-esteem is internal and unspoken and no one can really see someone’s self-esteem.
“Self-esteem does not result from who you are. Self-esteem results when you believe in your inherent goodness.”Add.org
Doesn’t that just hit you right in the feels? Now, I’m not sure when Carol Kranowitz wrote about self-esteem as a key to SPD if she knew this differentiation, but I can see how both of these can be impacted in children with sensory differences.
The article from add.org goes on to talk about how self-esteem comes from the interactions you have with people in your environment and how they treat you which impacts how you think about yourself.
How do they relate?
This doesn’t mean that if your child has low self-esteem it means you don’t show them enough love, but it does mean that maybe they need to hear it/feel worthy and good a little more than an average child.
I also think this is where teachers and other caregivers can help us build up self-worth in our kids- remember, a lot of kids with SPD are often thought of as misbehaving, bad kids- the ones who can’t control their impulses or lash out, are aggressive or hyperactive- all stemming from sensory needs but seen as poor choices.
Even without a teacher or any adult saying “hey you’re a bad kid”, I think it’s safe to assume that enough time outs, punishments, calls home, bad behavior marks and notes can add up for a child.
Now for self-confidence, I could totally see this impact in sensory kids, especially around daily tasks that become too hard for them- anything from getting dressed to feeding themselves, writing their name, or climbing the playground structure.
Kids with sensory processing challenges often have associated motor delays or challenges and/or their sensory processing challenges prohibit them from participating and enjoying parts of daily life that seem easier and more fluid for neurotypical kids.
With less participation in those tasks that are hard for them, they get less practice, so don’t get the chance to build skills and it becomes harder to build self-confidence.
Are you accidentally hindering their confidence?
I think there’s also a big part impacting self-confidence when we think about how many times we (people outside the neurodivergent individual) question the ND person’s emotions or sensations.
Again, I’m not innocent here- I do these things too sometimes, but I’m thinking about times when I question my daughter’s hunger cues, bathroom cues, body temperature, and feelings. For example “you can’t be full you barely ate” “it’s so cold you must be freezing, put on a jacket,” and “that’s not a big deal, stop crying”.
It’s so easy to slip into those phrases as an adult with an agenda to get through to the next thing and to follow social norms that mean more to us than it does to our kids… but overtime the message this can send kids is “I know your body better than you” and if that doesn’t impact self confidence, idk what does.
This is really the main reason why I love using the just right challenge so much in my therapy practice and with Liliana.
If you’re not familiar with it, the just right challenge is basically a way to break down each task or environment, or activity into smaller, more accomplishable tasks.
The Just Right Challenge
Think of like when you have a huge project due and instead of just staring at that on your to-do list, you break it down into like 10 or 12 mini tasks so it can feel really satisfying to cross them off and you can feel like you’re making progress rather than staring at the one thing on your list you can’t cross off until it’s done.
Let’s think about the example of food- for our selective eaters out there- I know many of you have kids who have sensory sensitivities that impact their food variety. Now let’s say your family eats a lot of rice but it’s one of the foods your child won’t even go near.
When they see it on their plate they automatically push it away/throw it/gag/ run away, you name it. You’ve tried bribing, you’ve tried the one-bite rule, all of it- but your kid is not having it.
If your only goal is for your child to chew and swallow a spoon full of rice- and currently your child is running away from the table when they see rice, well… you’re setting both of yourselves up for failure.
But what if your only goal was for them to be able to sit at the table with a few grains of rice in a separate mini-bowl next to their plate? That feels doable to you and your child.
Then maybe after that, the next time your goal is for them maybe have those few grains of rice on their plate but in a separate section, like in a bento box (still not forced to eat it). Eventually that feels less scary to them and then maybe they can work up to touching the grains of rice to make a letter L on their plate.
Each time they accomplish a new goal, no matter how small it is- they feel successful, it builds their confidence and eventually their self-esteem.
And that’s the goal, that’s the REAL goal- not to get them to eat rice (I mean yes- that too) but the real goal is to build their self-confidence and self-esteem. So they know that they can do hard things.
So they know that they don’t have to avoid things that feel too hard for them. That is the just right challenge and it’s a really great way to support neurodivergent kids where they’re at while still building skills at a slow and steady, not too overwhelming rate.
It’s a small win, that sets the foundation of confidence.
You could even use the just right challenge for other things that aren’t so black and white or easy to break down. Like if you’re child feels overwhelmed by joining the soccer practice you signed them up for.
Maybe the just right challenge is them sitting with you for the first 15 minutes. Maybe the just right challenge is them being the coach’s helper and setting up the cones or passing out the soccer balls. Really, the just right challenge means just meeting your kids where they’re at and not expecting them to perform at 3 levels above where they’re at.
Meeting them where they’re at means that you expect them to give it their best, and whatever gap there’s still left between their “best” and the needed output for them to be successful is up to you to help accommodate, make it easier, adjust, etc.
And here’s where it all comes full circle in my work as a trained Occupational Therapist who coaches parents in using gentle parenting techniques and conscious discipline strategies.
No matter what your main “complaint” is about your child- what goal you’re working on (wanting them to eat more veggies, wanting them to sit still at school, wanting them to get through the bath, wanting them to play nicely with their siblings or make friends at school)
… At the end of it all, our BIG picture goal for our kids is all the same- we NEED them to be confident beings with a good sense of themselves.
There’s always that question “oh well what are they going to do in the real world?” “If I accommodate them now, and don’t make them do XYZ now… then they’ll never learn and function in the real world.” “I won’t always be there for them to make something easier for them or to do it for them” You’re right. You won’t.
But the thing that will transcend all of this and will be there consistently for them even when we’re not- is their confidence, their sense of self, their grounding and solid belief in who they are, what they need, their strengths, how to ask for help, how to help themselves- all of it.
We are building those skills NOW BY being respectful of their wiring and BY meeting them where they’re at and showing them that it’s okay to need help or to not feel ready or to feel afraid.
If you want help building their confidence, Sensory W.I.S.E. Solutions can help.
As an Occupational Therapist, I get asked all the time what my thoughts are on ABA, and if I think ABA is harmful. Keep reading to learn more about an OT’s perspective on ABA therapy, some alternatives to ABA therapy, and how to ensure your Autistic child can thrive even if they are in ABA therapy. ABA (Applied behavioral analysis) therapy is a type of intervention where people are trained in behavioral analysis and use that lens to manipulate (either increase a certain behavior or reduce another behavior) behaviors in children, it’s most often used and associated with Autistic children. I’ll be talking about my thoughts on ABA as an intervention for Autistic children, and discuss the practices that have made ABA seem harmful to the Autistic community. As an Occupational Therapist, I get asked all the time what my thoughts are on ABA, and if I think ABA is harmful. Keep reading to learn more about an OT’s perspective on ABA therapy, some alternatives to ABA therapy, and how to ensure your Autistic child can thrive even if they are in ABA therapy. ABA (Applied behavioral analysis) therapy is a type of intervention where people are trained in behavioral analysis and use that lens to manipulate (either increase a certain behavior or reduce another behavior) behaviors in children, it’s most often used and associated with Autistic children. I’ll be talking about my thoughts on ABA as an intervention for Autistic children, and discuss the practices that have made ABA seem harmful to the Autistic community.