How to Help Your Child with Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload is experienced with great intensity, as the brain is "invaded" by numerous stimuli, trying to provide a response.
How to Help Your Child with Sensory Overload?
Maria Fátima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fátima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 27 June, 2023

Lights, sounds, voices, messages from applications, aromas, and textures. People’s daily lives are exposed to all these experiences simultaneously. It may seem “normal,” and most people are used to it. However, this sensory overload or overstimulation doesn’t go unnoticed by our brains and it impacts our health.

Sometimes it feels difficult to control as if everything is exploding. Here’s what sensory overload is and strategies for coping with it.

What is sensory overload?

Our senses are responsible for picking up signals or stimuli from the environment through receptors located in our body. These transmit the message to the brain, which analyzes and interprets the information so that we can understand the experience.

Sensory overload refers to an excess of information from one or more senses. It’s experienced as an “invasion,” as multiple messages try to attract our attention at the same time. This phenomenon occurs more frequently in people who have some sensory processing disorder (SPD) or difficulty.

In general, the perception of overload is more frequent in people with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). However, they can also occur in other cases. For example, in people with fibromyalgia and highly sensitive individuals (HSP).

There’s also talk of sensory overload in the early years of motherhood. Mothers who spend a lot of time caring for their children, exposed to sounds, games, lights, contact, and more, often report this overload, added to stress and fatigue.

During this sensation, new mothers report difficulties in decision-making, concentration, and emotional management, among other situations.

When can you feel sensory overload?

  • In a situation of extreme fatigue. Any stimulus can become more significant or overwhelming.
  • In a room where there are many stimuli present simultaneously. It can be associated with a single sense (for example, many lights moving at the same time) or it can be stimuli perceived by several senses (lights, people very nearby, and very loud sounds). Undoubtedly, the context has a great influence on the “saturation” of the senses, as explained in the article published in The American Journal of Occupational Therapy.
A boy covering his ears.

Some of the symptoms that may occur are as follows

  • Irritability
  • The avoidance of eye contact
  • Changes in activity levels: Hyperactivity or hypoactivity
  • Restlessness and nervousness
  • Discomfort from noise and touch, among others

As a consequence, your child may feel anguish, anxiety, and stress. It may also involve isolation, as they feel that the situation is beyond them and therefore, they decide to be alone.

Also, according to Bellefeuille (2006), in many cases, sensory processing disorders are often not well diagnosed because their signs are subtle and often coincide with other difficulties or disorders.

Recommendations if your child experiences sensory overload

Here are some tips to keep in mind when dealing with sensory overload.

Teach your child to identify the warning signs

This way, they can learn to withdraw in the face of certain situations. In those cases where it’s impossible to avoid the situation and you know that there will be intense stimuli, you can explain to them what they’ll find when they arrive at a certain place. In this way, you help them to prepare.

Give them some strategies to find peace of mind

For example, if they feel overwhelmed, they can try to withdraw from the place. They can also focus on breathing exercises. In some cases, it may also be helpful to suggest doing an activity. For example, painting mandalas.

Find a quiet place in your home, where your child can relax when needed

Try to adapt certain spaces in the home, with soft lights, ambient sound, and soft colors. This way, your child will feel at ease and less “exposed” to the environment. Together, you can also get rid of some objects that are “too much” in their room. Minimalism can help a lot, as they’ll be in a quieter place with little or no stimuli.

At the same time, contact with nature is also recommended. You can even warn the school about this difficulty so that it doesn’t become an obstacle to learning. This way, teachers can collaborate in the search for strategies to avoid exposing your child to overstimulation.

Choose with your child a single stimulus on which to concentrate

In a highly invasive environment, you can suggest that your child use headphones and listen to music. This way, they’ll be able to focus on the sound instead of being hypersensitized to other stimuli present.

Schedule “micro” moments of silence during the day

For example, these can be 5-minute breaks. The important thing is that during different times of the day, your child can “turn off” everything that’s happening around them and give themself space for silence.

Keep in mind that all these recommendations to combat sensory overload can also be applied to people who feel exhausted and overloaded. They’re not reduced to those cases where there are sensory processing difficulties.

A girl performing relaxation exercises.

Schedule downtime during the day

Today, many little ones live “full-time” lives. They go from school to soccer practice, from soccer practice to language class, then they visit their grandparents, and so on. It’s important not to plan so many activities and allow children to have some free time during which they’re not obliged to comply with directives or obligations.

Avoid or limit the use of objects that cause sensory overload

For example, a toy car that has colored lights, moves, and also makes sounds. It doesn’t mean that your child can’t use it, but it might be a better idea to reserve it for a few minutes of playtime. You should also take into account clothing and avoid certain fabrics and textures.

Avoiding sensory overload can be a challenge

Although sensory overload is more frequent in the cases mentioned above, it’s worth stopping to think about the conditions of everyday life. A simple scene can help highlight what we’re permanently exposed to. Imagine the following…

You leave your house in your car and start driving down a main road. You have numerous vehicles in front of you to pay attention to, as well as a screen advertising the best offers of the day in a supermarket. You have the radio on and, as you stop at the red light, a car with loud music stops next to you. In the back seat, your child is playing video games…

This scene, even if reduced in stimuli, is the daily scene of thousands and thousands of people who, in addition, live with their thoughts, worries, and emotions. So, how can we disconnect in a world that constantly invites and “forces” us to a vertiginous and super-stimulated rhythm?

Perhaps it’s time to think of strategies to find calm in the midst of the sensory storm in which society lives.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.