You walk into a busy coffee shop with your child, get in line, and next thing you know they are having a tantrum. You have your family and neighbors by for a little birthday party and your child retreats to their room, closes the door, and doesn’t want to come out. You go to the circus and your child lays in the aisle, face down, and cries. You bring your new baby home from the hospital and your elder child refuses to stop jumping on the couch.

Overstimulation happens when a child is overwhelmed by more experiences, sensations, noise, or activity than they can handle. Your job is to show up as their dependable and safe grown-up…and what? Do you try to solve the problem? Do you ignore it and hope they rise to the occasion and learn to manage the overwhelming feelings? Do you offer them choices? What exactly does showing up for them entail, and how do we know what’s causing this overstimulation in the moment that it's happening?

Children show us what they are thinking and feeling on the inside by behaving a certain way on the outside. As parents, we can observe our child and gather clues that lead us to better understand their experiences . It’s important that we be as objective as possible when observing, or even better, try to see the child as they see themselves. Before asking how or what they are feeling , put yourself in their shoes by watching their physical self-expression. While kids have a wonderfully evolving language ability, they often do not yet have the meta-cognitive awareness required to share what is happening in a given moment. Their language skills may not yet be complete enough to wholly explain their experience.

There are many reasons why a child might become overstimulated. Effectively responding to your child during these tricky moments requires you to stop, observe, and assess. While you may not be able to physically step back and observe them, you can put on your detective hat and do your best to figure out “the why.” 

Here are some reasons why a child may be overstimulated and what might help:

1. Sensory dysregulation

Your child might be experiencing some sensory processing issues or overall dysregulation. Sensory processing has to do with how effectively the brain receives, organizes, and responds to sensory input from the environment. Dysregulation is an inability to control or regulate one’s response to a variety of things, including emotions or the person’s sensory experience.

  • Try: Reducing visual and/or auditory noise. 
  • Sounds like: “Whew, this party is loud and busy, let's pop into the bathroom here and just take a little breather. Want to wash your hands with some warm, soapy water while we just relax for a minute in this quiet space?”

2. Daily hurdles

Your child may consistently have a hard time with certain parts of their day due to negative associations, lagging skills, or other difficulties. Some of these challenges may include: the morning rush, transitioning between activities, afterschool restraint collapse, or bedtime separation issues. 

  • Try: Preemptively take action to prevent or limit the overstimulation. You know it’s going to occur, so get ahead of it. Give your child a warning that something that is often tricky is coming up again. Go a step further and offer something supportive, like trying to put a routine in place that will help.
  • Sounds like: “Have you noticed bedtime has been feeling hard recently? I think maybe you don’t like saying goodnight and goodbye to me. I get that. It’s hard to say goodnight and goodbye. I’m going to say goodnight in our usual way so you know exactly what to expect, and then I’m going to come back to check in on you in five or ten minutes, so you know you’ll see me again very soon.”

3. The big feelings

Kids have big emotions and it’s not uncommon for them to have meltdowns even when they seemed fine just a moment ago. Feelings like sadness, anger, anxiety, restlessness, excitement, or jealousy can often send kids over the edge into overstimulation mode.

  • Try: Co-regulation. Get down to their level, or lower, speak slowly, calmly, limit requests, and then depending on your child and how they’ll react either do something soothing, like a back rub or a breathing exercise, or simply follow their lead for a bit.
  • Sounds like: “Hey. Wow. OK. Let’s just take a second. Hmmm..oh that’s interesting, you really feel that way. I understand. Want a back rub? OK, that’s fine. Let’s see. Hmmm. Oh, yeah, sure, let’s look at that book, nice idea. You turn the pages.”

4. Tired, hungry, or both

Just like that quick flash of light from a light bulb before it goes out, kids often get a burst of dysregulated energy when they are tired and, like their parents, can get cranky when they are hungry.

  • Try: Plan ahead and, when possible, avoid putting them in challenging situations when you know they aren’t up for it. See that overstimulation coming down the path and take a different direction.
  • Sounds like: “I know you want to go to Suzy’s house to play, but I also know that after school you are tired and hungry and need some down time at home. My job is to make sure you get the relaxation time that your body needs. We can make a plan to play with Suzy this weekend.“

You’re all set!
Download NowLet’s Go
By signing up, you accept our Terms of Use and have read our Privacy Policy.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.