As humans, we are always experiencing sensory input, and everyone experiences times when they feel sensory overload. For children with sensory processing issues, those moments may be especially overwhelming. Experiencing sensory overload can happen to any child, but is often more common in children who have ADHD, autism, or other behavioral issues. It’s important to remember that when children are overstimulated, they don’t know how to cope with what they’re feeling. They might not know how to communicate what’s causing them distress. This is where parents and caretakers can step in to help.
Signs of Sensory Overload
While children of different ages will have different signs of overstimulation, there are a few that most age groups have in common. Some typical signs of overstimulation are crying, tantrums, crankiness, and meltdowns. Other things to watch out for are children getting more hyper, excited, or even aggressive. Check out this article that has a breakdown of signs for different age groups.
Strategies for Calming
There are many different strategies to calm an overstimulated child. The first thing you can do is try to look for any possible triggers or patterns that lead to your child getting overstimulated. Are there certain sounds, smells, or activities that lead to sensory overload? If there are, how can you adapt to make these situations less stressful? For example, you notice that your child is often overwhelmed and seems to have a meltdown every time you go to the grocery store. When they get upset they are always covering their ears and have said that it’s too loud. In the future you could try having your child wear earplugs/headphones, to mitigate the noise. Some situations may not be as straightforward, so you might have to try a few different ideas and strategies before finding one that works.
You could also create an exit strategy for your child. This means that you establish a plan to help before they experience a situation that could lead to sensory overload. This could be something like taking a break outside, going back out to the car, or creating a specific space in your home for your child to calm down. Older children, or children who can identify when they are feeling overwhelmed on their own, might play a more active role in establishing an exit strategy. You can work together to make a plan.
Another option is using sensory activities to help your child calm down. Here is a list of Calming Strategies and Sensory Activities for Toddlers. Some examples are creating a sensory bin for your child, wrapping them tightly in a blanket, and jumping up on a trampoline. Not every activity or strategy will work for every child. Pay attention to how your child responds to different activities, and adjust accordingly.
In the Moment Strategies
What do you do though, if your child has a sensory meltdown, and your preventative strategies are not working? You’ve planned out an exit strategy, or you’ve made adaptations, and for some reason, they just aren’t helping today. One option is to try emotion coaching. Emotion coaching is a parenting strategy that helps children recognize and regulate their emotions. The idea is that parents will be aware of their children’s emotions, and coach them through these big feelings. Emotion coaching can be helpful when those preventative strategies are working as well. This Help Me Grow blog post, goes more in-depth into emotion coaching.
Understood has 5 tips for what to do during a sensory meltdown.
- Do a safety assessment: During this step, you can evaluate if anyone is hurt or going to get hurt.
- Be reassuring: Keep your voice and body language calm, and show your child that you are there for them.
- Give some space: Move to a calm or quiet space if possible.
- Tone it down: Minimize extra sensory input, turn down the lights, keep things quiet and try to not crowd your child.
- Consider your post-meltdown plan: How will you reconnect with your child after the meltdown is over, and how can you prevent it from starting up again once they’re calm?
Like all parenting tips, take what works for you and ignore the rest. If you’ve tried different strategies with your child and they aren’t working, it’s okay to move on to something else.