How to Cope with your Child’s Sensory Overload
by Amanda Mazerall, OTR/L
Kids Place East Clinic Manager and Pediatric Occupational Therapist
Anyone who has children understands that emotions are a part of everyday life. While upset behaviors can often be labeled as “tantrums” stemming from a child not getting their way, sensory overload can often be a better explanation. To effectively help our children in dealing with these big feelings, it’s important that we understand sensory processing and how to cope with external sensory stimuli all around.
What is Sensory Integration?
Sensory integration is the process that our body and brain use to take in bodily and environmental information via the senses, organize it, and attach meaning to it so that we can accomplish meaningful activities in a coordinated manner.
What is Sensory Overload?
Sensory Overload is the feeling individuals experience when receiving more input from their senses than the brain can sort through and process. Difficulty in processing sensory information can negatively impact our ability to complete meaningful activities or occupations.
What Does Sensory Overload Feel and Look Like?
Overstimulation of auditory, tactile, smell, taste, and sight can lead individuals to feel overwhelmed, scared, and out of control. An individual experiencing sensory overload may appear irritable, anxious, restless, and impulsive.
When children become overstimulated and overwhelmed, they may seek more input from movement or pressure to get the feedback they need to help make sense of it, tune out other sensory information so that it does not bother them, or they may present with an emotional response to escape a perceived threatening situation (fight or flight). You may see your child withdraw from activities early, leaving them uncompleted or notice your child getting distracted regularly, often directing their attention to the latest stimulus that presents itself. There are also more clear physical signs of overload including covering ears, closing their eyes, and yelling to help drown out the other sensory information that is overwhelming them.
Causes of Sensory Overload
Causes of sensory overload can include but are not limited to: loud noises, crowded spaces, bright lights, strong smells, unwanted touch, uncomfortable clothing, and unexpected tactile experiences. It can be easy for many people to habituate to certain sensory stimuli such as the sound of a fan in an adjoining room, sight of fluorescent lights in ceiling above, the smell of a co-workers lunch, or the tactile sensation of a tag on your shirt. For others, these sensations may feel unbearable and make everyday activities like school work or meal time impossible to complete.
What can we do about Sensory Overload?
Talk to an occupational therapist to better identify the sensory needs of your child. Parent interview and completion of a Sensory Profile questionnaire can help pinpoint how your child perceives and responds to sensory input in different contexts. The therapist can help you understand which stimuli your child seeks out, which stimuli they miss, and which stimuli they are hyper sensitive. Your occupational therapist and you can create a “sensory diet’ to ensure consistent regulation throughout your child’s day. They can help you and your child better understand which activities are calming, alerting, and/or upsetting.
Model regulation strategies when you experience frustration or overstimulation. For example, “I was not expecting all this traffic today. I’m going to take deep breaths and listen to our favorite music. Which song should I play?”.
Co-regulation is the ability to use your nervous system to regulate someone else’s and can be the most effective tool in helping your child calm. When sensory overload is causing dysregulation, do your best to control the environment, minimize noxious stimuli, and connect to your child and their needs. You don’t need fancy equipment to let them know that you are there, present, and ready to help them feel the best they can.
Remember that above all else, you are their greatest tool and ally!
Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at Kids Place Pediatric Therapy. We have four pediatric therapy locations in Arizona ready to serve you.