Everything a child learns is through sensory processing. The world is filled with awe-inspiring information that continually filters to all the senses. It influences what children see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Through this input, children learn about their environment, relationships, and most definitely themselves.
Early on in life, children learn about texture, concepts of hard and soft, rough and smooth. They learn big and small, crunchy and chewy, delicious and yucky. Most of this education comes from the exploration of toys and food. The ever-changing and rapidly evolving receptive and expressive skills of little ones allow them to understand circumstances and people in their immediate environment. But all of this can quickly become overwhelming.
What is Sensory Overload?
Sensory information dictates how and what we learn. It also plays a vital role in the formation and understanding of relationships. However, too much information can halt the learning process, create internal stress, and become detrimental to relationships.
In children, sensory overload occurs when a child cannot make sense of the data coming in from people and the environment. Sensory overload in youth presents various forms such as nervousness, anxiousness, high energy, and hyperactivity. Additionally, overstimulated children often resort to whining, screaming, impulsive behavior, frequent tantrums, meltdowns, and degrees of social withdrawal. This is communication that they are confused and incapable of independently self-regulating.
The two most common causes of sensory overload in children today are overscheduling and a child’s high intellect combined with emotional immaturity.
Sensory Overload and Overscheduled Children
Twenty-first-century parenting styles are ruled and led by hyperattentive moms and dads who are intensely dialed into their children’s developmental needs. School is no longer the primary focus during childhood. Parents maintain intense schedules with their offspring. Most parents spend inordinate amounts of time chauffeuring kids to afterschool tutoring, soccer practice, music lessons, dance recitals, or gymnastics. Parents believe they are raising well balanced human beings who can keep up and compete in today’s fast-paced society. Even socialization is carefully organized, planned out, and marked on the calendar in the now formally titled “playdates.”
Children are most definitely smarter and more socially savvy due to enriching schedules. However, these busy calendars are not without consequence. Preschool and elementary-age children who attend a full day of school combined with regular participation in afterschool enrichment can exhibit unwanted behaviors. Behaviors such as moodiness, impulsivity, clinginess, lethargy, and more can indicate that their senses are being inundated on many levels without opportunities to rest.
Solutions for Overscheduled Children
Self-control comprises a child’s age-appropriate ability to problem solve and self-regulate in varying environments. This includes exposure to a range of experiences and people such as school, baseball practice, and visits to grandma’s house. To properly develop problem-solving and self-regulation skills, children need adequate time and understanding to master each environment’s rules and expectations. They also need to understand the role that they play within it. Additionally, learning to go from a state of excitement to calm, from the physical excursion to rest, from academic focus to play, and from high social engagement to self-awareness and mindfulness are skills that need to be facilitated by primary adults.
Preventing sensory overload means the parental mindset should be on the quality of a child’s experiences instead of quantity. Instead of thinking about how many enrichment activities a child can be signed up for, think about scheduling time to speak to children about navigating school’s academic demands and social complexities. Instead of whisking children off to their sporting events and playdates four to five days a week, create daily space after school for them to have alone time, listen to music, create with toys and art, and/or just to rest, recover and be.
The Art of Daily Check-Ins
It is not uncommon for even the most well-behaved children to struggle from time to time academically and socially during a long school day. This is why parents must prioritize daily check-ins with their children. Regular conversations will elicit disclosures from children. Such as a child confessing about getting into trouble for not sitting still or being disruptive during classroom instruction. Little ones are also more likely to open up about social dilemmas occurring at school. Things like not having any friends to play with or being picked on by other classmates. Daily check-ins are opportunities for parents to support the overall development of self-control. It’s also a chance to educate and empower their children to traverse these environments successfully. And leaving them with a sound sense of competence and confidence.
High Intellect and Emotional Immaturity
Parents and educational professionals encourage children to speak their minds, ask questions, and be curious about people and events in their world. Additionally, access to information and learning are expedited through the Internet and technology in general. As a result, intellect often grows at a more rapid rate in children than in generations past. Youth today have an enormous capacity to absorb and comprehend complex subject matters. However, young children do not have enough life experience to process such involved material emotionally.
Inquisitiveness and attuned social awareness drive little ones to ask questions. Why are they not permitted to watch specific television programs and play video games with mature or violent content? Why is mom upset about losing a job? Or why are people out protesting in the streets?
In an attempt to help their kids comprehend the goings-on in the world and feel safe, moms and dads often provide answers in detail to their children. Generally, listening and providing specific explanations often ease worry and satisfy curiosities. But parents must be aware that certain subject matter and conversations are simply not age-appropriate for children. And they can function to create a sensory overload in the form of stress and anxiety.
Solutions for Inquiring Minds in the Home
Financial hardships, the loss of a job, and marital discord are unfortunate, common occurrences in households across the country. However, these are adult problems that must not be visited upon children. In the eyes of children, parents represent a range of roles. One of them is that of protector, meaning that moms and dads are obligated to defend their offspring’s physical well-being to preserve their very sensitive emotional states.
Children may be attuned to problems in the home and are likely to ask questions. However, in these instances, parents are not obligated to provide children with answers. Rather, they should be compelled to respond in a way that brings comfort and a sense of security to anxious minds. For example, if a child asks about a parent losing his or her job, try saying, “You do not need to worry about anything. All is well. Mommy and/or daddy are taking care of everything.” Children take comfort and feel safe knowing that mommy and daddy handle problems in their little world.
Beware of the Effects of Television, Movies, and Technology
Movies, television shows, and video games are an engrained part of childhood culture. Parents must be thoughtful and vigilant about what they allow their children to view and engage with. Meanness, disrespect, rudeness, aggressiveness, and violence are subtly and overtly mixed into the content of children’s programming and video games. Varying degrees of exposure to mature content can manifest into unreasonable fears. It can also elicit inappropriate behavior, such as emulating antisocial conduct towards adults and peers.
What children are exposed to and allowed to watch and play will vary significantly from home to home. However, it is incumbent upon parents to monitor their children’s responses. It’s also important to make sure that children can decipher appropriate from inappropriate behavior or fantasy from reality. Most importantly, make sure they are emotionally able to manage and cope with the messages they receive from the various media outlets. Adverse responses to movies, television shows, and video games are an indication that children are not emotionally ready and require adults to step in and set appropriate limits.
Children today have the intellectual aptitude for asking complex questions about the people and events taking place in their world and the intellectual capacity to understand the answers. However, this does not mean youth possess the emotional maturity to handle the dramas and intensities that arise in the adult world. Parents are wise to use sound judgment when deciding how to respond to curious minds. Parents should also be deciphering what programming they allow their children to watch. And they need to be hyperaware of their children’s behavioral responses to ensure they are receiving the information in ways that make their little minds and bodies feel secure and grounded.