Experiencing sensory overload as a mom needs to be discussed. Sensory overload is obviously difficult enough for the child experiencing it, but it’s also difficult to handle as a mom.
Life as a mom can be overwhelming at times and even more so when you’re experiencing a sensory overload. If you’re not sure if this applies to you, read on to see if any of this sounds familiar.
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Sensory overload as a Mom – How it feels
Imagine this scenario. I am trying to accomplish a simple task like getting dressed because everyone has someplace to be. It can be physically and mentally exhausting!
This simple task can easily feel like what you would imagine an exorcism to be like, only with pants and a shirt. They’re screaming, trying to get their shirt off. I’m trying to help get the shirt off, their arms are flailing, now one head is coming out of a sleeve hole, and kicking legs are everywhere.
Sounds familiar? Unless you’ve experienced it, you probably didn’t know you could work up a rolling sweat down your back just trying to get a kid dressed…or undressed, re-dressed, etc.
Then comes the mom guilt because you feel mentally and physically exhausted from what should be a simple task. As a mom, all the feels are there!
You feel bad for your child, you are overwhelmed that you don’t know exactly how your child feels and you can’t help them because they can’t communicate to you what exactly the issue is because they aren’t sure themselves.
You feel frustrated because you can’t just leave the house like a “normal” family. Then you feel bad because you are a “normal” family, you just have a child who’s “normal” looks a little differently than someone else’s “normal”.
It can also feel isolating if none of your family or friends understand.
Hopefully, some of the information below will help people to have a better understanding of sensory overload and you won’t feel quite so bad, guilty, frustrated, isolated, or overwhelmed the next time you need a mom break.
What is sensory overload?
Sensory overload is when one or many of your five senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste, take in more information than your brain can process at one time. Sensory overload can happen from one of these things at a time or a combination of some or all of these things at a time.
Let’s look at these 5 senses individually and some of the common everyday things that may cause sensory overload with them:
- Sight– bright flashing lights, smartphones and TV screens, intense video games, TV shows, and movies
- Hearing– loud intense music, loud machinery, crowds or screaming voices, loud sports games, hearing multiple sounds at once
- Smell– cigarette smoke, perfumes, food being cooked, stores with strong smells like bakeries or coffee shops
- Touch– video gameplay; computer and touchscreen use, rain, wind or strong weather, unwanted personal contact, clothing, tags, how something feels against your skin
- Taste– rich food that triggers sense memories, spicy or salty meals that incite thirst, bitter foods or medications, foods that are too hot or too cold
If you’ve ever turned the radio down in the car because you are trying to figure out where you are going, this is a little glimpse into taking away from one sensory (hearing) so that you can focus on another (sight).
Many everyday situations can lead to sensory overload in children. Here are some child-specific symptoms that may be a sign your child is experiencing sensory overload:
- Crying and screaming
- Covering their faces and eyes
- Shutting their eyes and refusing to open them
- Having a meltdown over something that is seemingly simple
- Completely shutting down
How does sensory overload feel?
Sensory overload can feel like you just need to pause everything around you. It’s like a bunch of things are happening at once and you just can’t make sense of anything. You start feeling overwhelmed, maybe even anxious.
When your brain is overwhelmed by everything that is trying to come into the process, it can enter the fight, flight, or freeze mode in response to what feels like a crisis. This can make a child feel unsafe or even panicked.
If you’ve ever tried to hop on one foot, pat your head, rub your belly, blow kisses, blink your eyes, and do math facts all at the same time then you can probably imagine a little bit of what sensory overload might feel like for children.
Sensory overload can feel like a merry-go-round
It can feel like being trapped on a merry-go-round. All the lights and sounds come and go so quickly you can’t make sense of any of it. All you can hear is that annoying carousel song and that extra loud bell that rings obnoxiously every time this thing goes around one full circle. How many times does this thing go around anyway?
You’re up and then you’re down, around, and around. The smells of fake nacho cheese, cotton candy, and an overfilled trash can swarmed by bees all hit you in the face as if the spinning and going up and down weren’t enough to make you want to vomit. No matter what you do you can’t get off. You just have to wait for the ride to be over.
Can you imagine feeling like that in the middle of the grocery store, a restaurant, or in a math class at school? (I bet you are starting to see a pattern here with that math thing aren’t you?)
Now that you know some everyday events that can cause sensory overload and how it can feel to be trapped in an overloaded state. Let’s move on to what you really want to know:
How to avoid sensory overload with your child
- Stick to a routine to create stability. Sticking to a routine might help you plan how to deal with an upcoming overload. You might not be able to prevent it, but you might be able to manage its severity.
- Identify triggers to learn how you can avoid them or prepare for them ahead of time.
- Practice calming techniques ahead of time to help their mind learn to relax when they are feeling overwhelmed. The time to try calming techniques like counting or taking deep breaths is NOT in aisle 5
- Know distractions that work for your child! If a pop-it toy or certain stuffed animal, song, or rocking back and forth is what works for your kiddo then have some of those things available to them.
- Optimize your living space to remove things (like- bright or harsh lights, loud speakers, or noisemakers) that trigger sensory overload.
There are many ways to help manage symptoms and when they emerge. One of the most effective ways to help your child cope with sensory overload is to recognize their triggers and learn how to avoid them if possible. However, we all know this is easier said than done, especially when it comes to kids and their sensitivities.
I’m not saying to go through life avoiding doing things and going places because it might be triggering for your child. What I am saying is, that if you know the grocery store can be overstimulation for your child on a typical day, then it’s probably not the best idea to take your child to the grocery store on a day like this.
When they are already hot, tired, and hungry because they’ve been at their big brother’s baseball game for the last 3 hours in the heat and they haven’t had any food because they were “too busy” to stop playing and eat the snacks you packed and now they are STARVING!
And then it happens, the meltdown.
You only need 3 things, so you think it will be quick and easy but you underestimated all the stimuli that can hit a child with a sensory processing disorder right when you walk in.
Little did you know that a complete and total sensory meltdown is about to happen in aisle 5 because they want the box of cookies (and that dang balloon at the front of the store) and you said they don’t need the cookies because you are going home to make dinner with the 3 simple things you came in for, and you still have the snacks in the car so they can have some of those. You just have to GET TO THE CAR.
Everyone is staring and judging silently. They think your child is a spoiled brat but little do they know your child is actually just feeling a sensory overload. You don’t even care about the cookies or the 3 things you came in for. You just want out of the hell that aisle 5!
When dealing with sensory overload it is important to optimize our coping mechanisms. Be prepared with some tricks in your parenting toolbox so that aisle 5 never happens again! Or at least not on the regular.
How to Deal with Sensory Overload as a Mom
- Identify your own triggers – If I know what creates sensory overload ahead of time, I can be better prepared to deal with it as it arises.
- Walk away! It is ok to leave the room for a moment and take a deep breath, go throw a pillow in your room, or just take a break for yourself.
- Tag Team another member of the family like a spouse or an older sibling. It takes a village mama, let your village help you.
- Turn off all the noise, The TV, your phone, that annoying toy adding to the crazy. Try to just get some calming silence and then bask in it.
- Simplify your life – yes I know, we live in crazy times. But it’s important to try and simplify our lives where we can in order to reduce our family’s stress level.
- Prioritize self-care – time to yourself, meditation, listening to soft music, going for walks alone – these are all things you can do for self-care.
- Get plenty of sleep – lack of sleep can be a trigger for many parents. I can become overwhelmed more quickly when sleep-deprived. (I know, easier said than done!)
- Give yourself some grace! We are all trying to do the best we can. Sensory overload is hard. It’s hard for you, it’s hard for them. You are doing a great job and you will continue to learn, take deep breaths, find improvements, and move forward. You got this mama!
Please note: this is not intended to be medical advice. If you have any concerns about your child’s development, please consult with a doctor or occupational therapist. Always supervise your child during play.