Sensory Overload in Children

sensory overload children

Sensory overload in children is very common and it may cause physical, behavioral, and emotional issues. This can be very distressing for both the child and his or her family, but there are some things you can do to help manage sensory overload in children.

One of the most important steps you can take is to learn more about sensory processing and how it affects your child. This will help you understand what may be causing your child’s reactions and how to better meet his or her needs. Our guest expert from The Mentor Mom, Jill Urbane, will help us understand it all.

Sensory Overload in Children

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The sensory system is complex and multifaceted and it is one of the most important learning tool that we have. You see when it is overloaded, the corresponding reactions and behaviors in our children are often misinterpreted by parents. 

Screaming, crying, and yelling are often perceived as misbehavior leading to anger and frustration on the part of parents, teachers, and caretakers.  Hey, I’ve been there and I get it.  Those behaviors are tough to deal with, especially when they happen in public.  Can I get an amen on that?

Sensory Meltdown vs Tamper Tantrums

Before I go further, I want to make an important distinction between tantrums and meltdowns.  Those two phrases are oftentimes used interchangeably, however, I see them as two very different things. 

Definition of a meltdown

Challenging behaviors that occur as a result of an overloaded sensory system, such as kicking, screaming, hitting, yelling, or throwing themselves around.  

Definition of a tantrum

Challenging behaviors such as kicking, screaming, hitting, yelling, or being sassy in response to being given a limit or boundary. 

A meltdown can be triggered by a limit or boundary but this often has more to do with the overloaded sensory system.

Let me give a quick example. 

Your normally happy and easy-going child has been at a birthday party with friends all morning.  There has been loud music, yelling, and excitement from the children, balloons, streamers, the smell of food at the buffet, and sugary foods. On top of this, your child normally naps at the time of the party but you decided to forgo it so she could attend. 

You get home after all the hustle and bustle and your child asks for a cookie to which you respond “no.”  Your child loses it.  Kicking, yelling, screaming…she’s inconsolable all because you said no to a cookie. 

What happened to your sweet, happy little girl who would have normally walked away with some attitude you may be asking?   She is on sensory overload and the no to that cookie was the straw that broke the camel’s back pushing her system into a full-blown meltdown.

What Triggers a Sensory Meltdown?

Triggers to a sensory meltdown can be too much of something your child’s system dislikes, e.g., movement, loud sounds, intense smells, flashing lights.  Understanding your child’s sensory preferences is key in identifying their triggers.  These sensory preferences can be compounded by things like lack of sleep, illness, and hunger amongst other things.

Sensory meltdowns are triggered by various sensory preferences which can be different for each of us.  Some kids like to go on swings and carousels, and other kids prefer sedentary play.  Some kids like messy play while others hate it.  See the differences between sensory seekers and sensory sensitive.

For example, when my husband goes in for a massage, he wants deep tissue.  When I go in, I want a relaxation massage.  I find deep-tissue massages painful whereas he finds relaxation massages ineffective.  This highlights the differences we can have in sensory preferences. 

In her book, Beyond Behaviors, Mona Delahooke suggests looking at behavior as an iceberg.  What we see above the waterline (screaming, yelling, shutting down, etc.) is the symptom of what is going on below. 

It’s only the tip of the iceberg

To understand behavior, we need to look at the bottom of the iceberg which consists of internal body processes, emotions, and sensations being processed by the brain and body. Our developmental capacities, ideas, thoughts, and the ability to plan and execute actions. 

If a child is overwhelmed by the sensations being processed by their brain and body, and maybe has a limited vocabulary, they are going to be more prone to have a meltdown.  Imagine you are tired, hungry and everyone in the house is screaming like banshees. You’d experience sensory overload too, right? 

But unlike young children who are still growing and learning, we have the experience and ability to problem solve and use logic to alleviate the overwhelm.   Our children need our patience and understanding during meltdowns.  As L.R. Knost says, we need to be the calm in their chaos.

What Does Sensory Overload Look Like in Kids?

Sensory overload can look different for every child, but they generally fall into three categories:  withdrawal/shutdown, agitated/emotional, and for lack of a better term, unstoppable.

The withdrawn child

Those kids who withdraw or shut down do exactly that.  They retreat to a quiet, calm area.  They are trying to find ways to escape that which is overloading their system.  That could include you! 

Many parents try to hold and console their children during meltdowns.  While this may work for some, it is overwhelming for many. Consider that their system is already in overload. Now they have additional sensory information coming in via your touch, smell, and voice. 

The agitated and emotional child

The agitated/emotional response is the one that we see most frequently.  Crying, yelling, screaming, lying on the floor in a puddle of emotions. Anyone who has or who works with young children has likely experienced this at one time or another. 

The unstopable child

Finally, there is the unstoppable type. This response is sometimes hard to pinpoint or identify as sensory overload.  In my work as an Early Childhood Interventionist, there have been a small number of kids whom I have observed this. 

It’s like a vicious loop where they keep doing the same thing over and over and don’t seem to know how to stop.  For example, I worked with a little boy many years ago who was a sensory seeker, e.g., constantly running, climbing, etc. 

While providing the sensory input can be helpful, if he hadn’t gotten enough sleep or there were other factors below the waterline, his sensory-seeking behaviors would become dangerous and sometimes aggressive.  Mind you, there was no intentionality in the aggressiveness, he wasn’t trying to hurt others. He was actually continuing to demonstrate enjoyment with the sensory play. However, his body was becoming out of control. 

He was on sensory overload and didn’t even know it.  The parents continued to provide more and more sensory input leading to rougher and more dangerous play. In reality, they needed to do the opposite.  They needed to move towards calmer, softer, quieter play to allow his system to calm down.

How Can Parents Help Prevent Sensory Overload?

  • Understand your child’s sensory preferences 
  • Ensure your child is well-rested
  • Ensure your child has a well rounded, nutritious diet
  • Limit exposure to technology
  • Get them outside and moving at least one hour per day
  • Provide opportunities for sensory play such as sandboxes, water play, play dough, and sensory bins
  • Be proactive and develop sensory go to’s for your child in the event of a sensory meltdown, eg, leaving a loud crowded store, having finger fidgets/activities for them in new environments, etc.

There are many ways in which we can help support children to help them AVOID a sensory overload.  The first of these is to have a clear understanding of our child’s sensory preferences.  Do they like sound or avoid it?  Do they like movement and prefer quiet, sedentary play? 

In conclusion, understanding how the sensory system works and, specifically, our children’s individual sensory preferences allow us as parents to recognize their triggers and plan strategies to help them when they experience overload. 

By doing so, we are providing them with the insight to understand and recognize the signs themselves as well as coping mechanisms that they can eventually use on their own as they continue to learn and grow.  This ultimately helps to increase their self-confidence and self-esteem in knowing that they have the necessary tools to handle difficult situations.

Jill Urbane
The Mentor Mom, LLC
www.thementormomblog.co

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.

Other resources you may enjoy:

19 Common Sensory Triggers
26 Signs & Symptoms of Sensory Issues
Sensory Overload as a Mom

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