Emerging from Hibernation: Awakening the Senses to New Days, Seasons, and Experiences

We are all sensory creatures! We all have our unique sensory preferences and avoidances. We may frame our thinking about many of our likes and dislikes in different ways, but we all have certain sensory input that helps to calm or alert our neurological systems. Consider how the aroma and taste of a tall cup o’ joe in the morning might help to jumpstart your day, while a few minutes with the sounds & imagery on a mindfulness app after a long day with your toddler or an anxiety-provoking medical appointment might help to soothe your frayed emotions. Learning healthy sensory strategies that support our daily function and emotional regulation can be a process that we are often still working to discover and tweak well into our adulthoods. So it would be understandable that our little ones need extra help and support as they encounter new days, new seasons, and new experiences.

Living in the Mid-Atlantic region has provided an opportunity for my family to experience four full seasons each year. Although some may prefer longer seasons of warmth, I really enjoy and feel blessed to experience the variety of temperatures and vegetation cycles that occur with the seasonal changes in our small state of Delaware. Although I love each season for its unique offerings, the season I look forward to most is the arrival of spring. Following the cold, often drab, days and weeks of winter . . . the start of longer daylight hours, buds sprouting on trees, and flowers hinting of their future blossoms… are inspiring symbols of new life and hope. 

When I think of this “emerging from hibernation” stage from winter to spring, images of a bear cub awakening from a long winter’s rest come to mind. Our family loves the Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman “Bear Wants More” collection. With similar mental images of Jane Chapman’s beautiful illustrations, it’s important to highlight that not every bear cub awakens from hibernation with the same readiness for new experiences.

It is often natural to envision the energetic, playful bear cub that is ready to burst out of his den and take on every new experience with a zest for all things new and sensory-rich (ie, sunlight, birds chirping, fresh green grass, juicy berries, water play). So many new experiences for every sensory system….Visual-sunlight, auditory-birds chirping, tactile-fresh green grass, olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste)-juicy berries, vestibular (movement)- tumbling in the water, proprioception (body awareness/deep pressure)-climbing a tree, interception (internal organ sense)-hunger/fullness. We might consider this type of exuberant bear cut a “sensory seeker”, feasting on every new experience as a new-found delight that should be experienced to its fullest intensity.

It can be less natural to envision the timid, worrisome bear cub that is not ready to peek out from the safety of his cozy den, and is intimidated by all things new and sensory-rich. These new experiences may create anxiety, or even elicit a “flight, fight or freeze” response. The bear cub may feel overly sensitive to this new sensory stimulation and exhibit behaviors that make emerging out of hibernation difficult.

And then there can be the tricky little bear cubs that appear eager and energetic, but become quite dysregulated by the amount of sensory-rich experiences that they are trying to process after emerging from hibernation. They may display a mixture of sensory seeking and sensitivity/avoidant behaviors to different stimuli or experiences (ie, seeking and craving movement opportunities, but overly sensitive to new sounds and the tactile stimuli of the grass). Their overactive responses can cause meltdowns or safety concerns that can make emerging out of hibernation difficult.

So what does this have to do with us humans as we prepare to “emerge from hibernation” with the little ones in our lives? Well, if you have a child with sensory processing differences . . . you may already be following this analogy. And if you don’t, the strategies that will be detailed below will still be pertinent to help support your child and family through the transitions to new days, seasons, and experiences. See, even within each unique family, different family members use various strategies that help support “readiness” for new days, seasons, and experiences. And for many of us adults, we have learned to utilize effective strategies to support our “readiness” for daily, seasonal, and life transitions. For adults that use effective strategies, we often eagerly await new experiences, and want the children in our lives to experience similar positive emotions during that period of anticipation and “newness”. And out of a well-intended desire to share that excitement and joy with those we love, we can often make the misjudgment of assuming that our children will eagerly and rapidly adjust as they emerge into new days, seasons, and experiences. Read on to learn a few strategies that help support these transitions into new experiences.

Discover Signs of Your Child’s Readiness

Does your toddler bury their head into you when you enter a new environment or meet a new person? Does your child resist the change into different types of clothing when the season changes? Does your school-age child verbalize apprehension about joining a new spring sports team? It is important to pay attention to these cues to determine your child’s “readiness” for the changes and transitions that accompany new experiences. Be mindful of their cues and don’t disregard a “reluctant starter” by pushing them into new experiences before they are ready. There are ways to ease in without abandoning an attempt to try something new.

Emerging into New Days

Does your child pounce out of bed, seeming ready to embrace the day while in the comfort of home, but then jam on the brakes when it is time to transition out of the house for school or an outing? Does your child have a predictable routine that flies into a tailspin if there is a need to change course? Despite the boundless energy of so many young ones (we all wish we could bottle that energy!), emerging into a new day can be tricky for families that are trying to set the day into motion. Parents and caregivers, myself included, can attest to the mismatch of energy levels that often occurs in our homes shortly after awakening. For myself, I prefer dimmer switches, a hot shower, a hot cup of coffee, and limited auditory stimuli when I initially wake up. That doesn’t always bode well for me in a house with my energetic, often inattentive, tween that begins his day with boundless energy and sooo much noise, all while trying to get it together to remember his belongings and head out the door for school. Attending to the patterns that help us achieve a well-regulated state as adults emerging into a new day can make a world of difference for the children in our lives. In our household, getting up an hour before my kids can help support a more successful start for myself and them. I can enjoy the hot shower, cup of coffee and ease into the lights and sounds of the day, before my boundless-energy bear cub awakens from his den. And that can make all the difference for my ability to calmly support his emergence and “readiness” to start a new day successfully too. To the contrary, if you have a kiddo that emerges into their new days slowly and it becomes a necessity to “rush them” along, consider other strategies. Consider waking them up earlier, making sure their belongings are set by the door before bedtime, or even having them dress in the clean t-shirt they plan to wear the next day. Take the time to recognize in your own home, whether your humans emerge from daily hibernation with boundless energy or a slower start. Neither is right. Neither is wrong. Just different, and adapting and supporting those differences can promote healthy regulation strategies for bears at all ages and stages.

Slow Down and Build in Extra Time

If you are sensing anxious energy related to their readiness, slow down and build in extra time to prepare them for these “emerging” experiences. Carry your toddler or buckle them into their “safe space” in their stroller when you approach a new friend at the playground. Don’t force them to engage with others before they are ready. A sensory-sensitive child will be more likely to greet and engage with a playmate after they have had ample time to observe and warm up to their new environment.

For a school-age child apprehensive about joining a new sports team, travel to the field where their 1st practice is scheduled, when fewer people are there. Spread out a comfy blanket, and break out their favorite snack. Spend some time in the new environment without the pressure of a full field of athletes, parents, and coaches. Explore the space playfully (with or without sports equipment), in a way that is light and emphasizes the fun in trying new experiences.

Emerging into New Seasons

For a child resisting the change to different types of seasonal clothing, start with small, incremental changes. Try just switching from long-sleeve shirts to short-sleeve shirts, leaving the lower body clothing the same until the upper body clothing transition is successful. Pack away the long sleeve shirts during this transition. Encourage your child to practice wearing different seasonal clothing as part of a playful dress-up activity in the home for short periods, instead of pairing it with a necessary outing where they might have to wear it for longer periods (ie, wearing a raincoat or rain boots and pretending to stomp through pretend rain puddles). Make these experiences fun and low pressure, so that your child has additional time to adjust to these new sensory experiences. Try the same for sun hats, sunglasses, and sandals. Grab your seasonal clothing items too, in order to actively participate in the dress-up alongside your child. Chances are they will want to try your sun hat and sunglasses too! Turn on fun, playful music and don’t forget to practice putting on sunblock (without the lotion initially)!

Label Emotions and “Readiness”

Children closely observe their parents and caregivers (even when you might think they aren’t). Tune in to your observations and label them with a paired emotion, out loud, in front of your child (ie, “Mommy is excited that we can meet Jaxon and his Mommy at the park”). Keep your descriptions simple and concise, but acknowledge the emotion that accompanies the circumstance. When your child displays cues of apprehension, use the same method and model labelling their emotions (ie, “I see you are nervous to go to the new park”, “I see that you are scared to meet a new friend”, “You can sit with me and go play when you are ready”).

Note: It is developmentally-appropriate for toddlers to have tantrums, as they don’t yet have the ability to manage those BIG feelings when they arise. Labeling emotions is an important 1st step in modeling a healthy way to identify feelings and sets the stage for communicating a need for help. (A therapist can help assess if tantrums are becoming a concern-typically based on how frequently they occur, how long they last, and how intense they are).

Emerging into New Experiences

When a child seems reluctant, or even resistive, to trying a new experience, slow down and modify the expectation. Forcing participation has a tendency to back-fire, and can make future experiences even tougher. As an Occupational Therapist that lives a short distance from the beach, I often encounter parents that are so disappointed and frustrated that their sensory-sensitive young child doesn’t like the beach. They might dislike the tactile experience of the sand, the temperature of the water, auditory stimuli of the waves or busy boardwalk…all while the rest of the family adores every minute of their seaside experience. It can make the experience challenging for the entire family when that mismatch occurs. The key to working through these new experiences is to take it slow and incrementally, creating a plan that helps the child build their tolerance and a foundation for steady successes. Visiting a location during non-peak time frames, planning outings mid-morning or after naptime when your child is not already overtired or overloaded, preparing shorter outings, bringing a favorite transitional object that helps to add a feeling of safety and security during new experiences . . . are all strategies that support a child’s transition to a new experience. Talk to your child when they are calm, and reduce auditory prompting or “over talking” when they are irritable or upset. In those moments of sensory overload, they are often not processing your words and reasoning is not effective. If emerging into new experiences feels like a ongoing challenge for your child, consider working with a therapy professional that can help create a plan, guide and support your child and family with positive strategies, and expand your child’s “readiness” for new experiences.

Christina Connors, OTR/L has 20 years of experience working as an Occupational Therapist with children and adults throughout Maryland and Delaware. Inspired by her son’s medical journey, and her desire to ease anxiety and improve developmentally-appropriate communication for children and families facing various challenges, Christina founded Child Inspired, which is an emerging family-centered, pediatric wellness practice in Southern Delaware . Christina is so proud of the inspiring group of pediatric therapists and educators that are working collaboratively to bring help and healing to children and families with in-home, outpatient therapy services and community outreach workshops. The Child Inspired team takes their work very seriously, but does make sure to sprinkle in moments of silliness and laughter, as we all need strategies to cope with the challenges we are often helping others navigate.

Thanks for being part of our village! We’d love to hear from you!