Kris’ Corner: Sensory Input and the Fourth of July

August 1, 2023

So this isn’t necessarily Fourth of July specific, although it absolutely has its place at this time of year, which is why I’m including it now. As we’ve discussed before, kids in care always have trauma. Even if you’re told that they don’t have trauma, simply being removed from biological family is a traumatic experience…regardless of what people might try to claim.

But my point is that some kids, as part of their trauma, have sensory sensitivity, which means they crave more input or they are averse to it…so do you see yet where I’m going with this post? I mention it now because there are lots of opportunities for some serious sensory input on the Fourth of July.

So when we consider sensory input, we think of our five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Some common examples of things kids seek and/or avoid from those senses are as follows (and I’ll specifically include Fourth of July-specific examples):

  • Sight: Visual patterns, certain colors or shapes, moving or spinning objects, and bright objects or light; this can obviously include fireworks on both the ground or in the air.
  • Smell: Specific smells. Some kids like to smell everything, while some kids are able to detect smells that others don’t notice…and they are bothered by them. For the fourth of July, this could be the smell of smoke from fireworks, or food on the grill. I personally can’t imagine it, but I know it to be true that some people are averse to those scents.
  • Hearing: Loud or unexpected sounds like fire alarms, or singing, repetitive or specific types of noises (like finger snapping or clapping). Loud booms from fireworks would absolutely fall into this category.
  • Taste: Specific tastes (like spicy, sour, bitter, or minty) and textures (such as crunchy, chewy, or mushy), chewing or sucking on non-food objects (like shirt sleeves or collars); this might be evident by some of the foods often served on this holiday which might not be in the child’s typical menu!
  • Touch: Touch from other people, touching and fiddling with objects, tight or soft clothing, and certain textures or surfaces; this could always include an aversion to or attraction to fire/lighting the fireworks or sparklers. Case in point: how often are you having to tell a child “don’t touch!” when it comes to touching a flame or a lit fuse?

Now not all kids are clearly only sensory seekers or only sensory avoiders. Some kids might show one or the other response based on their situation or surroundings. This can change based on how dysregulated they are, how able they are to self-regulate, as well as the situation overall…and if you’ve never had a current placement in your home on the Fourth of July, you might not know how he will respond.

For example, some kids don’t struggle in familiar settings, but might have a sensory meltdown in crowded or unfamiliar places; for example if you’re downtown for the fireworks, that’s going to be crowded, maybe think through how your child usually handles that kind of situation and then add in all the other potential landmines of the holiday. Or your child might seek out or avoid input to help calm themselves down, when they ordinarily don’t.

Which brings us back to Fourth of July. Now granted…any holiday can be a struggle for a child from hard places…but this holiday in particular (I personally think) has so many varied opportunities for dysregulation that I just want to mention this now so you, as the capable and well-versed foster parents you are, can be on your A-Game for the upcoming festivities.

So what can you do to prepare? Well, if it’s your first go-around with a particular child and aren’t really sure what to expect, I would set the bar low and always have an escape plan. What I mean by that is to be prepared to quickly leave wherever you are if your child is really struggling.

But there are other ways you can prepare so that you might not have to vacate. As always, talk to the child ahead of time about where you are going, what you are doing, what you might see and/or experience, etc.

  • Take noise-cancelling headphones for those loud firework booms.
  • Take water and snacks; this was always a big one for us…if my son was either a) having too much fun to stop and eat, or b) just doesn’t like the different kinds of food at the picnic/bar-be-que, then he wouldn’t eat…and then things would fall apart quickly for him (and us) once that happened.
  • Take a personal, battery-powered fan; the Fourth historically has hot temperatures in much of the US, and at least in our circumstances, my son is more likely to become dysregulated when he’s hot…so a little fan to help cool himself seems like an easy win!

And to piggy-back on ways to prep…consider being ok with the fact that your child might not eat healthy for that day and just let it go. I mean, I’m not necessarily saying a “sugar free-for-all!” but more sugar than usual will probably be ok.

And lastly let me give you with one last suggestion: forewarn any other children in your home that you might have to leave if another child is struggling, so that you can hopefully smooth over any weeping and gnashing of teeth that exit might cause. But at the end of the day, only you know the child and the situation and could know what would/could be best; if planting that seed might make things worse, then obviously don’t do it!

So instead of listing out all the possibilities (because that wouldn’t be possible anyway), I am simply giving you a launching point to help you start thinking things through BEFORE you get to an evening of fireworks at which your child is having a monster meltdown and you’re caught unprepared.

Just know that this holiday might not be at all what you expect (or necessarily want) but you can put the child’s needs ahead of your own for this day/event. Say, for instance, you really love fireworks and this is your one shot each year to see a display in person. But your foster child flips her lid after the first “boom” so you need to pack up and leave before she totally falls apart (or while she’s falling apart). Just be ready to do that…seriously, tell yourself ahead of time that is what you’re going to have to do…but be pleasantly surprised if, in fact, you don’t end up needing to do that.

Bottom line: you won’t be caught unaware! You’ve got this and it’s going to be great…even if it doesn’t look like any Fourth of July in your past.