Coping Strategies for Sensory Overload in Children - Baby Chick
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Coping Strategies for Sensory Overload in Children

For children, trying to understand the world can result in sensory overload. Here are some coping strategies for kids who are overwhelmed.

Updated April 2, 2024

by Lori Abosch

Child Behavior Specialist & Author

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 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.1

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 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 after-school 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 consequences. Preschool and elementary-age children who attend a full day of school combined with regular participation in after-school 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 various 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 the 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 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 at school—things like not having 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, the Internet and technology expedite access to information and learning. As a result, intellect often grows more rapidly 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 giving specific explanations usually ease worry and satisfy curiosities. However, parents must know that certain subject matter and conversations are 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 and 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 is that of protector, meaning that moms and dads defend their offspring’s physical well-being to preserve their 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. Instead, 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 their job, try saying, “You do not need to worry about anything. All is well. Mommy and/or Daddy are taking care of everything.” Children feel comfortable and 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 ingrained in 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 indicate 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. They need to be hyperaware of their children’s behavioral responses to ensure they receive the information in ways that make their little minds and bodies feel secure and grounded.

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Lori Abosch Child Behavior Specialist & Author
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Lori holds a degree in Child & Adolescent Development, is the author of the book, Change The Way You Look At Children, And The Children You Look At Change, and… Read more

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