Kimberley King‘s 23-year-old son taps his fingers with a count or mantra when he’s in a car or confined space.
These are some of his coping strategies for when he’s feeling overstimulated — and he’s been using them since he was 11 years old.
Overstimulation can look different depending on the child and situation. Understanding why your child gets overstimulated is important so that you can find ways to decrease overstimulation. It’s also possible for kids to learn how to calm themselves.
Overstimulation in kids explained
We all experience the world through our five senses — what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Overstimulation in kids is basically an assault on these senses.
Overstimulation happens when the brain can’t adequately process sensory stimuli. The brain has trouble deciding what to prioritize. When this occurs, it can make you feel uncomfortable.
Overstimulation — sometimes called “sensory overload” — is not a diagnosis in itself. In fact, everyone is overstimulated at times. But overstimulation may occur more often in children with other disorders that include sensory processing difficulties, such as autism spectrum disorder.
These conditions may be initially suspected or recognized when children exhibit frequent signs of overstimulation characterized as meltdowns, responses to textures of food or clothing, and hypersensitivity to certain surroundings.
But again, everyone is occasionally overstimulated. So if your child is displaying any of these behavioral symptoms but has no co-occurring condition, these behaviors may decrease as your child continues to develop and grow.
Every child responds to sensory experiences differently.
“Some things that your child might do that could be a sign of overstimulation include but are not limited to: refusal to do something, hiding or leaving the room, looking uncomfortable, pickiness, trouble going from one thing to another, or becoming more quiet or shy,” says Kayla Shannon, O.T., MOT, an occupational therapist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
The varying responses can make it hard to identify when a child is overstimulated. Without a professional opinion, caregivers may think their children simply have behavioral problems. This can lead to disciplinary actions instead of appropriate therapy.
King sought medical help for her son when he started having problems at 11 years old.
“Anxiety was a constant problem,” says King, “He was triggered when he’s yelled at, asked too many questions, given too many directions or received harsh feedback.”
Her son was officially diagnosed at 11 years old with autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
How child-led movement helps overstimulation
If you notice your child is easily overstimulated, it may be helpful to get them moving.
“Using child-led movement during the day can reduce overstimulation in a variety of ways,” says Shannon, “When kids can get movement during the day, it can help their body stay calm and increase attention for other play or learning opportunities.”
King says her son uses tapping, breathing, moving meditation, running and skateboarding.
“My son utilizes all of these strategies during different times of the day,” King shared. “Tapping is especially good in the car or in confined spaces to relieve anxiety. Tapping done with a mantra or a count is effective. He also uses yoga and running to manage his anxiety.”
Some kids need more movement and others need less, which is why it is important that all movements are child-led.
“When a movement is child-led, it tends to help most children because they have some insight into their own needs,” advises former Mayo Clinic occupational therapist Jessie Bean, M.S., O.T.
Tips for helping your child with overstimulation
Your child is unique, and helping them manage their responses to sensory overload is specific to each child. Here are some tips that Bean and Shannon want you to keep in mind:
- Child-led activities can be movement and play where the child is able to explore and interact with their environment.
- Opportunities for child-led movements are usually set-up or provided by caregivers. The child is the one who decides how to interact and play within that space and with those toys.
- Movements are not imposed on the child so they can decide what their body wants or needs. For example, don’t strap your child into a swing, but let the child decide how they want to use the swing or try a swing that a child can climb in and out of on their own.
- Child-led play can involve creative use of space. For example, the list of ways to play with a swing at a park include a child pushing an empty swing, a child pushing a parent in a swing, a child going on their belly on a swing and pushing themself with their own feet, a child sitting on a swing and moving, or a child asking a caregiver to push them on the swing.
- Child-led play can be in any environment such as the park, home, backyard, pool, indoor play gyms.
What parents and caregivers need to know
If you notice that your child is overstimulated, Shannon and Bean say, the first thing to do is to help your child calm down in a safe manner. If age appropriate, discuss what led to this situation when everyone is calm.
It’s a good idea to maintain a record of when incidents occur. Take note of possible triggers, time of day or any other relevant information. If the incidents become a pattern, talk with your trusted primary care provider. Ask if this is an age-appropriate behavior, or if seeking further assistance from an occupational therapist with training in this specific area is warranted.
Overstimulation can be complex because of the many different types of sensory experiences that are part of daily life. These can include smell, taste, touch, sight, sounds and movement. If you notice a specific pattern of a child seeking or avoiding a sensation that impacts their day-to-day life, then it may be helpful to explore pediatric occupational therapy.
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