Language Development: 5 Tips on How to Handle Stimming

by Rachel

in Language Development

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Flapping hands, spinning, opening and closing doors, and saying the same words over and over again can try the patience of even the most tolerant parents. These behaviors, which are called self-stimulatory behaviors or “stimming” for short, are actually quite common in children with delays in language development.

Sometimes, though, they can be disturbing to watch, or interfere with your child’s ability to interact with the world around her.

What should you do? Is it best to let your child stim whenever she likes? Or should you put a limit on how and where she stims? And how do you help your child engage in more purposeful behavior?

Read on for 7 tips on how to handle stimming in the child with weak language development:

1) Turn involuntary action into voluntary action.

Ever watch a person with a facial tic? Calling their attention to it usually makes it worse. But if you engage the other person so that they smile, the tic goes away. That’s because they are now using those muscles in a voluntary act.

When your child starts stimming, think what you can do to engage them in voluntary action. If your child is flapping their arms, gently take their hands, and swing their hands back and forth as you sing a song together.

If your child insists on opening and closing the door, stand on one side of the door, and pretend to knock, asking, “Can I come in?” Or, you can gently push on the door, with a confused look on your face when you meet resistance.

If your child insists on repeating a word or a phrase over and over again, try to add on a word to theirs. For example, if your child keeps repeating, “The car,” chime in “the red car,” or “the car honks.”

2) Help your child strengthen his motor and visual-motor systems.

Even children who are warm, engaged children, or intellectually bright can sometimes experience a “motor overflow” when they are excited or tired.

Make sure your child is receiving occupational therapy, and be consistent about doing assigned exercises. As your child gains control of his motor system, you’ll see a decrease in repetitive behavior. Some children manage to drop stimming altogether as their language skills and motor systems improve, while others maintain a moderate level of stimming, particularly when stressed or excited.

If your child is one of the latter, you can place limits on where they stim- for instance only at home- but you will have to accept that this fulfills some important need for them, and so they won’t be able to give it up completely. Although you might feel any level of stimming is unacceptable, when you consider how much of an impact learning and communication difficulties present for your child, this level of stimming should be last on your list.

3) Take it in small steps.

Your child is stimming not only because of motor or visual challenges, but also because stimming provides some level of emotional security. That means your child has a lot invested in their behavior.

You won’t be able to eliminate stimming in one fell swoop: not only will you fail miserably, but you’ll have a very angry, unhappy child as well. Instead, choose one specific behavior, and pick the time and place that the behavior is most disruptive, and start from there.

Limit the amount of time per day that you work on this particular goal – 15 minutes is a good start- and try to tie it with a specific activity. For example, you could decide not to allow stimming at bath time. That means that you are committing to redirecting your child’s actions, as explained above, so that your child has an alternate behavior he can engage in.

4) Solve the problem symbolically.

If your child can speak, talk with them about their behavior. What triggers it? Does it usually happen at certain times of the day? Choose a time when you are both calm, and be careful not to lecture or scold. Phrase your questions in a nonthreatening manner; “I was wondering” or “ I noticed,” are neutral statements you can use to bring up the subject.”

Talking about it helps them become more aware of the problem, and also helps them understand why you (and others) find the behavior so objectionable.

If your child is nonverbal, you can use toys or puppets to help your child talk about what’s going on. Have your puppet flap their arms, open and close doors, or engage in whatever stimming behavior your child does. When your child takes notice, you can stop, and ask the puppet, “Scared? Mad?” Turn to your child and give your child a chance to ask the puppet too.

5) Give your child extra together time.

Whenever you need to spend more time correcting your child, you need to balance it out with more together time. That’s because you need to make sure that positive interactions with your child occur about 90% of the time. Correcting your child’s behavior is considered a negative interaction, even if you do it lovingly.

Spending extra time with your child, however, is not only for your child’s sake – it’s for yours too! By making sure you have time just to enjoy them, you’ll be able to maintain a warm and loving environment for both of you.

Flapping hands, spinning, opening and closing doors, and saying the same words over and over again can try the patience of even the most tolerant parents.

These behaviors, which are called self-stimulatory behaviors or “stimming” for short, are actually quite common in children with delays in language development.

Sometimes, though, they can be disturbing to watch, or interfere with your child’s ability to interact with the world around her.

What should you do? Is it best to let your child stim whenever she likes? Or should you put a limit on how and where she stims? And how do you help your child engage in more purposeful behavior?

Read on for 7 tips on how to handle stimming in the child with weak language development:

1) Turn involuntary action into voluntary action.

Ever watch a person with a facial tic? Calling their attention to it usually makes it worse. But if you engage the other person so that they smile, the tic goes away. That’s because they are now using those muscles in a voluntary act.
When your child starts stimming, think what you can do to engage them in voluntary action. If your child is flapping their arms, gently take their hands, and swing their hands back and forth as you sing a song together.

If your child insists on opening and closing the door, stand on one side of the door, and pretend to knock, asking, “Can I come in?” Or, you can gently push on the door, with a confused look on your face when you meet resistance.

If your child insists on repeating a word or a phrase over and over again, try to add on a word to theirs. For example, if your child keeps repeating, “The car,” chime in “the red car,” or “the car honks.”

2) Help your child strengthen his motor and visual-motor systems.

Even children who are warm, engaged children, or intellectually bright can sometimes experience a “motor overflow” when they are excited or tired.

Make sure your child is receiving occupational therapy, and be consistent about doing assigned exercises. As your child gains control of his motor system, you’ll see a decrease in repetitive behavior.

Some children manage to drop stimming altogether as their language skills and motor systems improve, while others maintain a moderate level of stimming, particularly when stressed or excited.

If your child is one of the latter, you can place limits on where they stim- for instance only at home- but you will have to accept that this fulfills some important need for them, and so they won’t be able to give it up completely.

Although you might feel any level of stimming is unacceptable, when you consider how much of an impact learning and communication difficulties present for your child, this level of stimming should be last on your list.

3) Take it in small steps.

Your child is stimming not only because of motor or visual challenges, but also because stimming provides some level of emotional security. That means your child has a lot invested in their behavior.

You won’t be able to eliminate stimming in one fell swoop: not only will you fail miserably, but you’ll have a very angry, unhappy child as well. Instead, choose one specific behavior, and pick the time and place that the behavior is most disruptive, and start from there.

Limit the amount of time per day that you work on this particular goal – 15 minutes is a good start- and try to tie it with a specific activity. For example, you could decide not to allow stimming at bath time. That means that you are committing to redirecting your child’s actions, as explained above, so that your child has an alternate behavior he can engage in.

4) Solve the problem symbolically.

If your child can speak, talk with them about their behavior. What triggers it?

Does it usually happen at certain times of the day? Choose a time when you are both calm, and be careful not to lecture or scold. Phrase your questions in a nonthreatening manner; “I was wondering” or “ I noticed,” are neutral statements you can use to bring up the subject.”

Talking about it helps them become more aware of the problem, and also helps them understand why you (and others) find the behavior so objectionable.

If your child is nonverbal, you can use toys or puppets to help your child talk about what’s going on. Have your puppet flap their arms, open and close doors, or engage in whatever stimming behavior your child does. When your child takes notice, you can stop, and ask the puppet, “Scared? Mad?” Turn to your child and give your child a chance to ask the puppet too.

5) Give your child extra together time.

Whenever you need to spend more time correcting your child, you need to balance it out with more together time. That’s because you need to make sure that positive interactions with your child occur about 90% of the time.

Correcting your child’s behavior is considered a negative interaction, even if you do it lovingly.

Spending extra time with your child, however, is not only for your child’s sake – it’s for yours too! By making sure you have time just to enjoy them, you’ll be able to maintain a warm and loving environment for both of you.

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