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Parenting

Coping Strategies for Sensory Overload in Children

What is Sensory Information?

The world is filled with awe-inspiring information that continually filters to all the senses influencing and shaping the interpretation of what children see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. It is through this input that 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, big and small, crunchy and chewy, delicious and yucky through exploration, toys, and food. The ever-changing and rapidly evolving receptive and expressive skills of little ones allow them to articulate curiosities, inquire, and gain an understanding of circumstances and people in their immediate environment.

What is Sensory Overload?

Sensory information dictates how and what we learn, as well as plays a key role in the formation and understanding of relationships. However, there is most definitely a point of satiation where too much information can halt the learning process, create internal stress, and become a detriment to relationships. In children, sensory overload occurs when a child is unable to absorb, process, and make sense of the data coming in from people and the environment. Sensory overload in youth presents in a variety of 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 as 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 Over-scheduled Children

Twenty-first-century parenting styles are ruled and led by hyperattentive moms and dads who are intensely dialed into the developmental needs of their children. School is no longer the primary focus during childhood as parents maintain intense schedules with their offspring, chauffeuring them to afterschool tutoring, soccer practice, music lessons, dance recitals, gymnastics, and the like to ensure 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 get-togethers of little ones known as playdates.

Children are most definitely smarter and more socially savvy as a result of 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 behaviors such as moodiness, impulsivity, clinginess, lethargy, and more as an indication that they are being inundated on intellectual, physical, and/or social levels without opportunities to reflect, breathe, regroup, and obtain ample rest.

Solutions for Over-scheduled Children

The emotional area of self-control is comprised of 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 the rules and expectations of each environment, along with 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 practiced, monitored, and facilitated by primary adults.

Preventing sensory overload means the parental mindset should be on the understanding and quality of a child’s experience in varying environments as opposed to 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 how to navigate the academic demands and social complexities of school. 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.

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 place a priority on daily check-ins with their children. Regular conversations will elicit disclosures from children such as them 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 such as 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 and also educate and empower their children to successfully traverse their environments, 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 that occur 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 the complex subject matter, however, young children do not have enough life experience to be able to emotionally process such involved material.

Inquisitiveness and attuned social awareness drive little ones to want to know why they are not permitted to watch certain television programs and play video games with mature or violent content.  They want to know why their parent is upset about losing a job and why people are 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. While listening and providing specific explanations are often remedies that ease worry and satisfy curiosities, parents must be cognizant of the fact that certain subject matter and conversations are simply not age-appropriate for children and 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, yet common occurrences in households across the country, however, parents need to be aware that these are adult problems that must not be visited upon their children. In the eyes of children, parents represent a range of roles, one of which is that of protector meaning that moms and dads are obligated to defend the physical well-being of their offspring 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, but rather 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/daddy are taking care of everything.” More than the actual explanation, children take comfort and feel safe knowing that mommy and daddy are handling problems in their little world.

Solutions for Television, Movies, and Technology

Movies, television shows, and video games are an engrained part of childhood culture and parents must be both 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 television programming, movies, and video games. Varying degrees of exposure to mature content can manifest into unreasonable fears and inappropriate behavior such as emulating antisocial conduct towards adults and peers.

What children are exposed to and allowed to watch and play will vary greatly from home to home, however, it is incumbent upon parents to not just monitor the response of their children, but to make certain that children can decipher appropriate from inappropriate behavior, fantasy from reality and most importantly, emotionally be able to manage and cope with messages they are receiving 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 not only have the intellectual aptitude to ask complex questions about the people and events taking place in their world but also 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 not only use sound judgment when deciding how to respond to inquisitive minds, in addition to deciphering what programming they allow their children to watch, but to be hyperaware of the behavioral response of their children to ensure they are receiving the information in ways that make their little minds and bodies feel secure and grounded.

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