Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why is My Child So Rigid and Controlling?

If your child has a hard time coping with everyday life and has to have his own way all the time, it could be a symptom of sensory processing difficulties. 

In the sensory gym where I have my OT practice, there is a room with a zip cord.  The children climb up a platform, hold on to a plastic handle that runs along a wire suspended over the room, fly through the air and crash down into a ball pit, sending little colored plastic balls flying all over.  I like to use the zip line as a way to begin with a new little friend, by studying his reaction to it.  Some children confidently race up to the top of the platform, catch the handle as I send it flying across the room, and zip across into the pit as if they had been doing it forever.

 Other children take one look at it and run out of the room screaming.  Recently, I had one of those.  It was his first day of occupational therapy and I invited him to try it.  He took one look at it and flatly refused, telling me in no uncertain terms that he would never go near it.

Here is the art of the therapist:  within about five minutes, he was zipping like a pro, having a wonderful time, and asking me if there was any way to make it more challenging.

I had little conversation afterwards with his mother, who was present during the entire treatment, and was frankly amazed at how quickly he had changed.  She had known for a long time that there was something wrong with the way her son was interacting with the world, but had no idea how to help him until someone referred them to me for occupational therapy. We talked about what she could expect to see in the coming weeks.

 She said that she could see how his handwriting would get better, but that there were certain aspects of his personality that she was afraid would never change.

I knew instantly that she was referring to how stubborn and controlling he could be.  He was often quite rigid, refusing to socialize, try new foods or to have new experiences.  He was anxious when life was not predictable.  He had to have everything his way, in a well ordered routine, or he just couldn't cope.  A small change in plans was often enough to send him into a full meltdown.

 Instead of meeting novelty and challenges with enthusiasm and confidence, the way that this child's nervous system was functioning was forcing him to respond to most of what came his way with "NO!" and "I can't."

Why is that?

His skin, mouth, eyes, nose, and ears are overly sensitive, so everything that crosses his path is too bright, too loud, too stinky, and too scratchy.  He has low muscle tone, impaired motor planning, and his balance is poor.

Ergo: much of what he encounters is painful or uncomfortable or feels threatening, he can't rely on his body to do what he tells it to do, his relationship to gravity is uncertain, and he is prone to falling.

 So he responds by being controlling and rigid, trying to keep  danger at bay and to protect his fragile equilibrium.

{When you're at the end of your rope, don't you get a little like that yourself?}

I explained to his mother that the work we were doing would indeed help him be less controlling and learn to be more flexible.  As he gained control over his insides, he would be less driven to control everything that happened on the outside.

In the sensory gym, we work to normalize the way that the child takes in and processes sensory information, by neutralizing and overriding inappropriate perceptions from the eyes, ears, skin, and muscles that inform the child of danger when there is no danger present.  Working on the suspended equipment improves balance, coordination, and motor planning, so that the child knows that his body will do what he tells it to do.

When a child is not feeling threatened by danger signals, nor made uncomfortable by normal sounds and sensations, the need to control is greatly reduced.   When he  develops a sense of mastery over his environment, his confidence increases.   Along with this comes the ability to be more mentally and emotionally flexible, as things don't seem so threatening or insurmountable.


Steven Strauss said...

Food for thought - I kind of have a lot in common with that tot.

Ashley said...

There are a lot of things you've mentioned here that sound like my child and a lot that don't... I have filled out a sensory disorder worksheet for my 4 year old and see some problems but I didn't realize the sensory issues were tied in with control issues! Do you have any recommendations for more information to read or to help me find out what is really going on so I can help her (and myself) cope?

Anonymous said...

The reason is parents are abusive and controlling for no reason. Children want to live their lives and make their own decisions especially when they are adults. You are wondering why children are so rigid with their parents. Parents deserve it, especially if they treat their children like crap.

Leanne Strong said...


I have Asperger Syndrome, and I'd say that I was pretty rigid with other people when it came to rules and codes of behavior. I did however, notice that it became more of a problem in my late elementary and middle school years. Everybody had to follow the rules and codes of behavior the exact way I understood them. I did have OT through the school until I was in 11th grade. Then I didn't have OT at all.

But I don't recall the OT ever helping with my rule governed behavior, so sensory issues probably weren't the cause.

It might also have to do with the fact that I'm an oldest child (my parents only had 2 children, so I'm technically the older child). Oldest children are stereotypically more controlling than those of us who grew up with older siblings. This might be because parents/guardians are usually harder on the oldest child(ren) than they are on the younger children. With the first child(ren), even the smallest deviation from the exact rules is enough to reprimand them. After that, as long as it's not sacrificing anybody's safety or comfort, anything will fly.

I don't remember my brother (who is only 2 years younger than me and doesn't have any disabilities) ever being as fussy about what his peers and teachers did as I was about what my peers and teachers did. So it might also be because I'm a lady and he's a guy. Us girls in general, are more controlling by nature than guys are.

I think it would be nice if there was a place like this for older kids (and maybe they could have a few activities that are geared more toward older kids as well). I might have benefited from this.