Proprioception: The Sixth Sense That Might Cause Tantrums in Your Child

Proprioception: The Sixth Sense That Might Cause Tantrums in Your Child

ParentingUpdated September 10, 2021

by Rachel Tomlinson

Registered Psychologist


If you have a small child, at some point, they will have a tantrum. It doesn’t matter how prepared you are, what a wonderful parent you are, or that your child is (relatively) reasonable or rational. At some point, they will writhe on the floor, arch, shout, or physically express their overwhelm in some other way. A tantrum is developmentally normal in children, but as parents, we get worried, frustrated (you name it!) and are always looking for ways to support and care for our children when they become so distressed, they cannot regulate themselves.

Proprioception: A Lesser-Known Cause of Tantrums

Many things cause tantrums to arise. They often occur because our little people aren’t yet equipped to understand, communicate, and appropriately express their frustration. When a child doesn’t fully understand something, they can become fearful. Or when a child can’t do anything to help themselves, they can become overwhelmed. These types of events can turn into tantrums. These behaviors will subside in time once the emotion’s energy has been expressed or their need has subsequently been met.

What is proprioception?

Another cause of tantrums can be associated with sensory overwhelm. We typically understand that we have five senses; sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, but a less commonly acknowledged sixth sense is proprioception. Proprioception is the body’s ability to sense itself, essentially messages guided by receptors in the body (like muscles, skin, and joints), which tells our brain where our body exists in the space around it (bodily awareness). Proprioception also gives us valuable information about how much force we need to exert to impact things around us, like how hard we press on a pen to write, how tight do we squeeze someone when we give them a hug or a handshake.

Sensory sensitivity to noises, light, touch, etc., can make our children feel overwhelmed, fearful, and confused. The result can look very much like a tantrum. However, it’s important to note that what underpins a sensory meltdown is very different than a tantrum.

How is a sensory meltdown different than a tantrum?

A sensory meltdown is a fight, flight, and freeze response that the body has in response to sensory overload. It generally won’t subside until the overwhelming stimulus is removed, and they can slowly regulate again. Tantrums have the purpose of eliciting a response or outcome. In contrast, sensory meltdowns exist in response to environmental triggers and generally aren’t in your child’s control. Children with proprioceptive processing issues/disorders self-report feeling:

  • Disjointed, scattered, or finding it hard to focus or retain attention.
  • They may be clumsy, demonstrating poor control and bodily awareness, particularly when controlling or coordinating multiple body parts or actions (like riding a bike, etc.).
  • Exhaustion or poor postural control, feeling tired at holding their body upright, slumping, needing to rest their head when sitting or leaning, and has challenges standing on one foot.
  • Seeking sensory input, like tapping, clicking, chewing, biting, fidgeting, pushing/shoving, or playing too rough (being physically intense with others).

So how can you support your child?

When the body struggles to regulate proprioceptive input (info that tells the body important things about where it exists relative to other things, or it struggles to find the right level of pressure or force to use against other things), we need to address this physical need directly through “heavy work.” Although the strategy of heavy work can support those with diagnosed sensory processing disorders, ADHD, autism, etc., it can also be used as a tool for all adults and children to help use their senses to help regulate and soothe after distress.

Okay, what is heavy work?

Heavy work helps our body get the proprioceptive sense to get organized. It is specific activities that push or pull the joints of our body, as this is where our proprioceptor receptors are. When we engage in work that requires us to use our muscles and flex our joints, our body sends messages to our brain, which reminds the brain (and our body) where it exists in the world (body awareness). This message calms our nervous system and helps us feel organized and safe, reducing fear, distress, and overwhelm. In short, we soothe and self-regulate.

How can I incorporate heavy work for my child?

Below are some easy and accessible heavy work ideas that could work for your child:

  • Using a weighted blanket or teddy.
  • Sourcing compression or weighted clothing or putting on socks that are a size too small.
  • Swinging on a swing (using their body to actively move and push their own body weight). Or they could push a loved one/friend in a swing (potentially a teddy or non-living object if they are dysregulated. They may play roughly at first until their senses are soothed).
  • Helping with household chores. (This one’s a winner with many families!) Have them do things that involve exertion and moving their bodies: like sweeping, vacuuming, carrying groceries, etc.
  • Pushing a trolley or cart.
  • Use resistance bands.
  • Squeezing/rolling/playing with playdough or clay.
  • Swimming.
  • Playing hopscotch.
  • Riding a bike.
  • Doing push-ups, star jumps, or other exercises that move their joints/muscles.
  • Kicking or bouncing a ball.

While many things can cause tantrums to arise at any given moment with a child, it is always helpful to know if the source of your child’s distress is something that we, as parents, can help control. Learning about proprioception and how you can help your child regulate his proprioceptive input may make a world of difference for you and your child.

Lin, C., Min, Y., Chou, L., & Lin, C. (2012). Effectiveness of sensory processing strategies on activity level in inclusive preschool classrooms. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 8. 475-481.
Pfieffer, B. A., Koenig, K., Kinnealey, M., Sheppard, M., & Henderson, L. (2011). Effectiveness of sensory integration interventions in children with autism spectrum disorder: A pilot study. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65 (1). 76-85.
Stefan, K., Kunesch, E., Cohen, L. G., Benecke, R., & Classen. (2000). Induction of plasticity in the human motoro cortex by paired associative stimulation. Brain, 123 (3). 572 – 584.
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