A hidden sense
How do you know you’re hungry, or tired, or cold or spitting mad? These sensations are sent to the brain by your internal organs and other body parts – often accompanied by emotions. We refer to our sensing of things happening in our bodies as Interoception. Like sight, smell, sound and taste, interoception is a sensory experience, needed by us to control our wellbeing and respond adequately.
Children who might not have developed this sense often struggle to know when to go to the toilet or when they are hungry, or how (and why) they are feeling. We pick up on our emotions by sensing the body’s reaction to events. For example, feeling a tightness in our stomachs and a warm glow might indicate that we are angry. An increased heartbeat and tension in our muscles tell us we’re fearful. If we are not tuned in to these sensations, it becomes more difficult to tell when we are OK or not OK. Children might struggle to regulate their emotions because they can’t correctly interpret the signals from the body.
Children (and some adults) may be over-responsive (hypersensitive), under-responsive (hyposensitive) or a combination of both to their physical and emotional state. Some may not know how to verbally label the information their brains receive from the interoceptive sense. They may not be receiving enough data, which makes things confusing or if they are receiving too much information the sensations can become overwhelming.
Children with hypersensitivity to interoceptive input may find that everyday sensations like hunger or having to use the bathroom are distracting or painful. This may result in their becoming preoccupied with the internal sensations and distracted from whatever they are doing. They can easily show extreme reactions to certain sensations (for example, hunger, temperature, etc), are thought to be overly emotional, seemingly anxious for no good reason and tend to worry over small events. They may have frequent meltdowns or display other behaviours viewed as inappropriate. They also have difficulty focusing due to preoccupation with internal stimuli.
Other children may be less sensitive to interoceptive messages. This is when they seem to not be able to pick up on internal sensations. They may not be able to respond to the body’s sensation or feeling in a functional way. These include children who seem to have a very high pain threshold, act out without warning, struggle with potty training, constipation or bedwetting, cannot tell if they are hungry or full or cold or hot.
If a child appears to have these issues, it is understood to be a sensory processing concern and other sensory irregularities might accompany poorly developed interoception. For example, a child might be sensitive to touch or smell or bright lights or loud, shrill sounds. Because there are other senses in addition to the better known basic five, such a child might also struggle with balance and coordination (needing the senses of proprioception and vestibular).
Helping to develop this sense usually requires the assistance of a trained professional but activities like yoga, mindfulness, breathing exercises, deep pressure input (e.g. massage) and vestibular stimulating activities (slow rocking, rolling, swinging) might also be helpful. Heavy load activities are also helpful, such as carrying grocery bags from the car; mowing grass, vacuuming, jumping on a trampoline, wheelbarrow races etc.
A good way of helping all children develop an interoceptive sense is to let them practice recognising input as it happens. For example, ask your child how her body feels before eating or drinking, when the weather is hot or cold, before using the bathroom, after exercise and so on. Encourage him to explore and name internal feelings of hunger, thirst, heat, cold, a full bladder or bowel, an increased heartbeat and so on. The more your help your child feel and recognise these sensations, the better able he will be to act on them independently and appropriately.