We've all been there – our children are overstimulated, and nothing seems to work. Whether it's too much TV, playing with friends, or a trip to the store that has them on edge, calming an overstimulated child can feel overwhelming (and often triggering for parents, especially if you're in public.)
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But don't worry. I've been there and done that. A ton.
In this article, we'll explore what overstimulation is in young children and how you can calm your little one down when they're overwhelmed. We'll also look at strategies for preventing overstimulation.
What is Overstimulation?
Overstimulation is a state of being overwhelmed by too much sensory input or stimulation. It can affect children and adults alike, but it’s especially common in young children who are still developing their coping skills.
The causes of overstimulation can vary from individual to individual but some potential sources include loud noises, bright lights, large gatherings or events with many people present (e.g., birthday parties), changes in routine or environment (such as going on vacation), certain foods and drinks that contain caffeine or sugar, and excessive screen time.
Overstimulated child symptoms can be things like…
The major signs of overstimulation in children can vary, but some common ones include:
- Irritability or moodiness: Children who are overstimulated may become easily frustrated, irritable, or upset.
- Hyperactivity or restlessness: Overstimulation can also cause children to become very active and unable to sit still. This can also cause difficulty sleeping.
- Difficulty concentrating: Children may have trouble focusing on tasks or following directions when they are overstimulated.
- Sensory overload: Overstimulation can cause a child's senses to become overloaded, leading to physical symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, or nausea.
- Avoidance or withdrawal: Some children may try to cope with overstimulation by withdrawing from social situations or avoiding certain activities.
- Tantrums or meltdowns: Overstimulation can sometimes lead to emotional outbursts, such as tantrums or meltdowns.
What is the impact of overstimulation?
The effects of overstimulation on a child's development can be significant. Overwhelmed children may become easily frustrated when they cannot complete tasks due to lack of focus, which could lead to low self-esteem if the child feels like they're not good enough because they “can't do anything right.”
They may also have difficulty regulating their emotions, resulting in frequent tantrums and meltdowns when faced with stressful situations.
Finally, prolonged periods of feeling overwhelmed can cause physical exhaustion, further impacting the child's ability to cope with daily activities such as schoolwork and playtime with friends.
Overstimulation can be overwhelming for children, but by understanding the signs, causes and effects of it, parents can better equip themselves to help their children calm down.
Now let's talk about how to calm a child that is overstimulated.
How to Calm an Overstimulated Child
It can be difficult to manage an overstimulated child. It's especially difficult if we, as parents, are triggered and not regulating our own emotions. So first and foremost, make sure you regulate yourself before attempting to help calm an overstimulated child. You'll be able to be more helpful if you are in a good head space.
There are several strategies that parents can use to calm an overstimulated child in the moment:
- Provide a quiet space: Find a quiet space for your child to relax, away from any loud or overstimulating noises.
- Offer comfort: Provide comfort by holding your child, cuddling or offering a favorite blanket or stuffed animal.
- Deep breathing exercises: Teach your child some simple deep breathing exercises like inhaling and exhaling slowly to help them relax.
- Sensory activities: Sensory activities like playing with playdough, a stress ball or kinetic sand can help a child to focus on that and calm down.
- Offer a snack or drink: Provide your child with a healthy snack or drink to help regulate blood sugar levels which can sometimes contribute to overstimulation.
- Reduce visual and auditory stimulation: This simply means to reduce the amount of light and noise. You can do this by dimming the lights, turning off screens, or closing blinds. You might even consider bringing in white noise or calming music (depending on the child this might make it better or worse.)
Strategies for Preventing Overstimulation
While calming an overstimulated child is important (obviously), it's equally as important to learn how to AVOID overstimulation as best you can. This is going to look different for each family, and even different for each child in the same family.
Here are some general strategies for preventing overstimulation in children.
Establish Routines and Boundaries:
Establishing routines and boundaries is important in preventing overstimulation in young children. A consistent daily routine (not a strict schedule!) helps children understand what to expect throughout the day, which can help reduce stress and anxiety.
Setting clear boundaries for behavior also helps keep kids from becoming overwhelmed. Parents often feel guilty for setting boundaries, but it's important to understand that boundaries actually help children feel safe and secure (even when they are pushing them!).
Monitor Screen Time and Media Exposure:
This is huge, and I know it's controversial, but I will always share my expert opinion based on research and what we know about child development. Too much screen time is not good. Period. Now there are MANY nuances to this conversation, but as a general rule, limiting screen time is a good idea.
The research shows that too much exposure to screens can be overwhelming for young brains (it's overwhelming for adult brains, too!). So it’s important to limit their time with devices, and it's also important to monitor what type of content they consume on these devices; make sure that it is age-appropriate and not overly stimulating or violent.
Reduce noise and visual clutter.
Excess noise and visual stimulation can be overwhelming for children. Try to create a calm and quiet environment by reducing background noise and visual clutter. This means organizing your space and often parents can get rid of about 75% of their toys (this also helps children play more independently!)
Provide sensory breaks (preferably outside).
Children who are easily overstimulated may benefit from sensory breaks throughout the day. This can include activities like deep breathing, stretching, or spending time in a quiet, calming space. Being outside is also a naturally calming environment for many children, so taking breaks outside can be great. Here are a bunch of activities you can do outside with your kids that are free or low cost.
Encourage physical activity
Exercise can help children burn off excess energy and reduce stress. Encourage your child to engage in gross motor activities like running, jumping, or playing outside.
Mindfulness can help children learn to regulate their emotions and reduce stress. Encourage your child to practice mindfulness techniques like deep breathing or meditation. Incorporating yoga is also a great way to incorporate mindfulness and movement into your child's day.
Create a calm-down kit.
Put together a collection of calming sensory items like a stress ball, a fidget toy, or play dough. Even including a weighted blanket can be helpful for children who need a little extra support when they're feeling overwhelmed.
Providing opportunities for playtime and exploration.
Allowing children plenty of free play where they can explore their environment without adult interference will give them a chance to process all the new information they take in during the day without feeling overwhelmed by it all at once.
Additionally, providing toys that stimulate their senses naturally vs. artificially is best. Basic toys like blocks, dolls, trucks, and play silks will provide enough stimulation. You do not need toys that flash, dance, or sing.
When to Seek Professional Help for an Overstimulated Child
When it comes to parenting, there are times when professional help is needed. Knowing when to seek out a doctor or pediatrician for an overstimulated child can be difficult, but understanding the signs of severe stress and anxiety in children can make it easier.
If these behaviors persist despite attempts at calming techniques and strategies for prevention, it may be time to consult a doctor.
Signs that your child might need professional help include difficulty sleeping, frequent nightmares, sudden changes in behavior such as becoming withdrawn or aggressive, persistent fearfulness and/or clinginess, physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches without any medical cause, excessive worrying about everyday situations such as school performance or social interactions.
Parents should consult with their doctor if they notice any signs of severe stress or anxiety in their child that don't improve with simple interventions like reducing stimuli and providing play opportunities.
A pediatrician can assess the situation more accurately than parents alone can and provide advice on how best to manage the problem. Depending on the severity of the issue, they may refer you to other professionals, such as psychologists who specialize in helping children cope with overstimulation issues.
FAQs about calming an overstimulated child
How do you calm down a child with sensory issues?
Calming a child with sensory issues can be challenging. It is important to understand the individual needs of the child and create an environment that will help them feel safe and secure. Start by creating a calming space for your child, such as dim lighting, soft music or white noise, and comfortable seating. Identify activities your child enjoys and use them to distract them from their current state of distress. Additionally, provide deep pressure input through gentle hugs or weighted blankets, which may help reduce stress levels in children with sensory processing difficulties. Finally, talk calmly to your child about their feelings so they know you understand their emotions.
How do you soothe overstimulation?
When a child is overstimulated, knowing how to help them can be difficult. Providing a calm and quiet environment is one of the best ways to soothe an overstimulated child. This may include dimming lights, turning off screens or loud noises, and removing toys that could further excite the child. Additionally, comforting words and physical contact, such as hugs or holding hands can help reduce stress levels in an overwhelmed child. Lastly, distraction techniques like singing songs or playing simple games can also help calm down an overly stimulated kid.
What does an overstimulated child look like?
An overstimulated child may appear overwhelmed, agitated, and irritable. They may have difficulty focusing on tasks or conversations, become easily distracted, or display signs of restlessness. They may also be prone to tantrums and outbursts of emotion that seem disproportionate to the situation at hand. Parents need to recognize when their child is becoming overstimulated so they can take steps to reduce stress levels before it becomes a bigger issue.
Parenting can be challenging, and it is important to remember that overstimulation in young children is common. With the right strategies, parents can help their child manage their emotions and feelings of being overwhelmed. By understanding what causes overstimulation and how to calm an overstimulated child, parents can create a safe environment for their little ones where they feel supported and secure.