It is easy for us to get overwhelmed in the fast paced world that we live in. For children this is also true, some children can suffer more with this than others, particularly if they are neurodiverse or are a child with special educational needs. We are going to take a look at why children get sensory overload and how you can help them.
Why Children Get Sensory Overload
Sensory overload is what happens when a child’s sensory system has too much information to process. The sensory information comes from the five senses, sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste.
Overload can occur when a child is faced with something that is just too overwhelming for them to cope with. This could be a busy street with lots of noise and people, a sudden downpour of rain, bright lights, something feeling different than expected or even the taste of certain foods. There are as many triggers for sensory overload as there are children in the world, it’s an infinite list and every child will be different.
When there is too much information for them to process it can result in a number of different responses. Anything from increased anxiety and stress, to finding themselves in a ‘meltdown’, hiding, irritability, being unable to focus or even being unable to talk. The responses to this again are wide and varied, differing from day to day, in varied situations and depending sometimes on the type of trigger.
How to Help
The most important thing is to understand your child and their triggers. For example, a child who finds loud noises difficult, might benefit from ear defenders when leaving the house. One who struggles with bright lights, may find sunglasses useful (and fun).
It’s not that simple though, whilst you can do everything in your power to avoid those places, things and situations, the unpredictability of life is always there. Understanding is key, prevention fantastic, but managing the overload is where you will probably find yourself the majority of the time.
Managing Sensory Overload
There is as many ways to manage sensory overload as there are triggers, and unfortunately sometimes they just wont help, even if they had before. They trick is to understand your child and what works for them. Every child if different, as is every day and situation, so the learning curve comes through trial and error.
Fear not! We have some ideas to help get you started, all can be adapted in one way or another to suit every child and their specific needs. We are even going to do a mini series all about creating some of these ideas, with step by step instructions, so keep an eye on the Children’s section, or indeed our Dealing With… articles.
Talk To Your Child
If you are able to, of course with some children this is not an option and it wont always be with each situation, try asking them ‘How can I help you?’ Sometimes, I will ask this or perhaps, ‘I can see you feel (use their word here if they have one), what’s made you feel that way?’ or ‘Wow, I understand how you feel, what shall we do to change that?’
These types of questions not only validate your child’s feelings, they show empathy, distract them from the feeling but not their thoughts and allow them to attempt to verbalise the experience they are having. Being able to understand what triggers a child’s sensory overload, will not only help you try to avoid them, but be more aware of when they are likely to occur.
So often children are dismissed as being difficult or naughty, being talked at instead of too. Showing them that you are with them in that moment and giving them the platform to express their feelings, even if they can’t find the words, will help them immeasurably.
Make a Calming Bag
A calming bag has items in that can help your child calm down when they are feeling out of sorts. Ideally it should contain something to touch, smell, taste, see and hear. We have a more in depth article coming up about putting one of these together very soon, we have one for adults already up.
A calming bag doesn’t have to be a bag, it can be a box, a pocket, anything. If your child wants to use a shelf, cubby hole or drawer that is absolutely fine, but we’d suggest having a mini calming bag in your handbag or glovebox, just in case it’s needed when you are out.
Distraction is an absolutely fantastic technique to use when you notice that your child is becoming overwhelmed. It generally only works in the early stages, but can be incredibly powerful.
Essentially all you need to do is give your child something else to focus on. Ask them to name five green things they can see, count the flowers as you are walking, how many animals can they name, things along those lines.
It draws the child’s focus to a task that is fun, different and not a demand surrounding them needing to calm down.
Give Them Space
If sensory overload is a regular occurrence for your child, then providing them with a calming corner, or spot could help when you are at home.
This doesn’t need to be elaborate or a huge space, it could be a special corner, their bed, a spot with a cosy cushion. Just ensure the calming spot is away from the busyness of the household, somewhere that is going to be just for them.
The point of the spot is that your little one has somewhere they can take themselves off to and be able to have that all important time to regulate themselves, or at least try to. Have a comfy cushion, perhaps a soft fuzzy blanket, a favourite cuddly toy, or a fidget there, whatever can bring comfort to them.
These are just a few ideas and we will write more about them, as well as some how to guides to make things at home that can help your child calm, refocus and feel just a little happier, in the coming weeks in more detail. Do you have any strategies for sensory overload? Share them with us in the comments or over on TikTok, Instagram, Threads, Facebook and Twitter.
Remember, it can be tough having a child who is struggling with anything, especially when it affects their mental health and behaviours. You are not alone, us and the community are here, feel free to reach out and speak to people who’ve shared your experiences, because it affects you too! It can be a lonely place wanting to help your child, but not sure how to, or having tried so much that doesn’t work. We’ve been, and are there, as have many of our readers and support can be everything. Look after yourself too, because you matter so much to your little one who is struggling, together we can help each other.