My alarm goes off and the feeling of dread comes over me. I am about to begin the morning battle with my 9-year-old. I tiptoe into her room and place a gentle hand on her back. With a soft sing-songy voice I recite:“Hey sweetheart, it’s morning and time to get up.” After a long silence, she pulls the covers over her head and rolls away from me with a “Nooooooo, aaaargh, rrrrrrroarrrr, I’m NOT getting up!”
I tell myself that she is just not a morning person. I change her bedtime to make it earlier. I make agreements with her. I plead with her. I buy her a special pillow, and a blanket, and a stuffed animal. I make her favorite breakfasts. I dangle a “cookie” in her lunch. Nothing works for very long, until, I find a magic key.
Maybe it is the deep and long sleep I had last night, but something in me shifts on this particular morning. I stop and study the writhing bump of blankets. I listen to the discomfort in her voice. I explore the wrinkled forehead and the cringing muscles of her face when she peers at me. The fight in my response softens and my shoulders exhale. I can see that she is enjoying this even less than I am. She does not want to feel like this. She is not willfully resisting me. She is in distress and the intelligence of her neurological system requires her to get out of distress, and as a last resort to fight, flee or freeze. This response is a process that has been designed over millennia to keep her first alive and second to help her expand (learn). The first order of business is physical safety or comfort.
My daughter’s sensory sensitivities seemed to rule our lives when she was younger. That is until I found the key that unlocked the causes of her meltdowns, and there was more than one key and more than one door. It became an ongoing tracking adventure.
The solution to the morning dread was not all of my acquired verbal skills and persuasions but instead a simple and ancient one: the olfactory system.
This particular morning, disharmony was solved using this equally simple and complex sensory system. I discovered if I first lit an incense stick before waking her up, she woke up with relative ease. The possible reason for this change in emotional behavior?
Science tells us that emotional regulation can be supported by certain scents. Scent and emotion are related in that they are deeply connected with experience, meaning, that an association is made deep in the brain between an experience and a particular smell.
I chose the incense based on the fact that when my daughter was younger and I read her bedtime stories I also burned incense. When I did this she often said: “I like that smell”. Once I got out of my own way, I thought about all my training in sensory processing and integration. I applied that to what I learned about the fight/flight/freeze response, and then I figured I would lean into the science and try my own little experiment… and it worked!
The olfactory system, or our sense of smell, can be one that when triggered, calms or alerts. It can however be overloaded with too much information in a highly sensitive child. Some smells can cause aversion while others can be like a warm bath for the nervous system.
Try engaging the sense of smell as a way to support a child who seems to over-react to normal situations such as; getting up in the morning, coming into the classroom, transitioning from playtime to bedtime, etc.
Some things to know when trying this out with your children or the children you work with:
- The olfactory system is a fickle system and what is pleasant for one child, might disgust another. Tread slowly and track behavioral changes.
- Be careful to only use high quality, natural essential oils or incense. Artificial oils and artificial, chemical incenses can be toxic and increase negative behaviors. Here are two reputable sources: www.mountainroseherbs.com, or www.rockymountainoils.com
- Ask children what smells they like.
- Do a “smell test.” If using essential oils, place a few drops of 4 different scents on a piece of cotton fabric. Then, have the child (or children) smell each one and tell you what they like and don’t like.