The not-so-fun fair

Holidays and high days.  Family time and high expectations for fun time together. Every now and again we’re confronted with scenes that dredge up not-so-great memories from our childhood.  Maybe it’s a social situation.  Sometimes it’s sensory.  I’m not particularly fond of swimming.  I was never a strong swimmer.  We didn’t have a pool at home and I ran across the width of the pool in my Grade 1 gala.  To this day, as much as I enjoy the view, the sound of the waves and the romanticism of the holiday, the beach, sand and wet costumes are not my favourite things.  But I put on my mom-face and my costume and head down to the sand twice a day when we’re there.

So everyone is supposed to like fun fairs right?  Water parks?  Adventure courses? Big slides, rollercoasters, rocking horses and fun fairs are scary. Some little kids struggle to enjoy outings because these typically fun childhood experiences cause them so much angst.  They avoid the swings and jungle gym at preschool which not only affects their gross motor development, but in turn their social development too.  They become isolated and lack self-confidence.

Movement is registered and processed by part of the brain called the vestibular system.  The sensory organs, located in the inner ear, have little hairs and crystals which respond to changes of the position of the head or the speed of movement of the head.  Nerve signals are fired and the brain is able to adjust muscle tone to bring the body upright again.  Some (most) kids love movement and spend the day seeking out movement opportunities – rolling, jumping, swinging, tumbling and sliding.  Movement also has a very close relationship to the limbic system, responsible for emotion. The joy of movement feeds the desire to be active, thereby developing muscle tone and gross motor skills.

For some kids though, those little receptors in the ear are oversensitive.  The rapid fire response of the nervous system to changes in head position results in a fight-or-flight response, rather than the joy we expect.  Not only does the child feel fearful and avoid movement, but they also have a negative emotional response.  These kids have delayed motor developed, poor balance and often low self-esteem to go with it.  This often presents as whiny behaviour on a family outing that was supposed to be fun, and can negatively affect family dynamics.

If this sounds like your child, you could perhaps benefit from consultation with an occupational therapist (OT).  OT’s work with children who have sensory integration difficulties. Some children need help learning how to process movement in a way that is less threatening.  They also need to learn coping mechanisms, and their families need to understand how to help them.  These children often struggle with car sickness. They might have had many ear infections in the past, resulting in thicker fluid in the ear which affects speech as well as movement and balance.

The vestibular system has a huge impact on behaviour – both the highs and lows of emotion.  Fun fairs tend to bring out the best or worst in our little people.  They are an ocean of sensory overwhelm. Noise, movement, hustling people.  Not always the fun day out you wanted for your family.  Here are some ideas to make the day more peaceful:

  1. Go early when there are less crowds
  2. Find a quiet corner to unwind between activities
  3. Take some calming snacks : chewy dried fruit, biltong, popcorn
  4. Drink a thick drink like a milkshake through a thin straw
  5. Consider ear plugs or headphones to reduce noise
  6. Know when enough is enough and time to go home.

Hope that helps!