Sensory Overstimulation & Parenting

Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Are you a highly sensitive parent? Or a parent with ADHD, autism, anxiety disorder, or complex trauma which causes sensory overload? Overstimulation can make parenting a challenge, but there are ways to cope.

Signs of overstimulation in adults

Keep telling yourself you don't have a problem? Unlike children, adults can learn to 'mask' their overstimulation, hiding it from others.

But if you find that you feel overwhelmed or exhausted by sensorial experiences, whether that is visuals (bright lights), noise (chatty crowds, children screaming), smells, sensations, or even certain tastes? Then you might have sensory overwhelm issues.

Let's look at how to deal with the three most common form of overstimulation in adults and parents, which are auditory, visual, and tactile.

Auditory overstimulation

Children definitely bring a lot more noise into our homes. If we feel overwhelmed when the noise rises, or have a reaction like anger or frustration, we might be experiencing auditory overload. And it might be affecting your ability to make decisions.

In a fascinating study published in the Medical Science Monitor, researchers found that auditory overstimulation influences the central processing areas in our brain, the part of the nervous system that makes sense of incoming signals and takes part in decisions.

Managing auditory overstimulation

  • quieten the background noise (switch off the tv, radio, etc)
  • limit your children's screen time
  • teach small kids volume control with games
  • and make sure they have time and space to get their energies out (outside play time etc.)
  • take a moment to yourself if you need to control your emotions. Leaving a child to cry for a couple of minutes to gather yourself doesn’t make you a bad parent, it makes you a conscious one
  • use a low but firm voice if asking your children to be quieter, as shouting at noisy kids will make them noisier.

Visual overstimulation

Hands up if you are a parent who feels like all you do is tidy up spaces. Hands up if you clean when you are stressed. Hands up if the majority of your arguments in the family are about mess.

Research shows that visual distraction (such as clutter) affects your working memory, given that our mind has a limited capacity to process visual things. If we have to process fewer things in our visual field, we function better.

And another research study found that people are more focused and have a better ability to process information after removing clutter from their home.

And a study on Mothers found that those who lived in a cluttered home environment had a higher level of cortisol, the hormone related to feelings of stress.

Managing visual overstimulation

  • turn off unnecessary screens
  • use natural or dimmed lights, if possible, especially close to bedtime
  • allocate certain bins/baskets for toys (making tidying up easy even for the smallest ones)
  • and make tidying up a fun game for the kids (time it, make it a contest, connect it to listening to a fun song)
  • develop a system where for each new toy chosen and bought an old one must be donated to charity
  • if you have an outside space step out when feeling very overwhelmed (nature never seems cluttered!)
  • when very visually overwhelmed try mindfulness, focussing on one thing like the steam of your tea or closing your eyes and breathing for a few moments.

Tactile overstimulation

Have you heard the expression “touched out”? It refers to the feeling when you would like to have your body for yourself, but you have a little (or slightly bigger) person who thrives on close contact with you. These feelings are very common, especially with mothers of small children who are still breastfeeding or contact feeding their baby.

According to the work of neuropsychologist Jean Ayres, some of us are hypersensitive to touch, and will avoid sensory input. Others are hypo-sensitive and seek it out. Issues can of course arise if you are hypersensitive and your child or children the opposite.

It can be helpful to let your children have outside time with physical running around and play, including some play of the 'rough and tumble' variety. It's been shown by research to help kids with social skills. And hopefully after they will want me time instead of to be clingy.

Managing tactile overstimulation

  • check in with your clothing and ensure it isn't too tight or hot, things that can increase your sense of being cloistered
  • if you have a small baby who requires close body contact, ask your partner or a friend/family member to help and take at least 10 to 15 minutes to yourself.

Feel constantly overwhelmed by parenting? And wish you could talk to someone who understands and doesn't judge? A therapist can be that person. Use our easy booking tool now to see the therapists near you who help parents.

Liz Szalai is a freelance writer and a mother with an MA in psychology.

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