December and January are an exciting and joy-filled time for many of us, when we look forward to celebrating and spending time with family, loved ones and friends. However, during this time, emotions are often running high (not necessarily in a bad way) and children will be faced with many unfamiliar sights, sounds, smells, situations and people, which can be a recipe for stress. All this new information they are processing can be overwhelming and can lead to overstimulation when there are too many sights, sounds and people for a child to handle.
As parents, we naturally want to share our joy with our children, and make the holiday season as wonderful a time for them as it is for us, so it’s pertinent to remember that little brains don’t understand and respond to situations in the same way we do. Keep reading for information about how to recognise when your child is overstimulated and the Choklits team’s top tips for managing overstimulation to make these months an enjoyable time for parents and children alike!
What are the Signs that a Child is Overstimulated?
Signs of Overstimulation in Babies
- Feeling tense or clenching their fists
- Making jerky movements, like kicking or waving their arms
- Seeming cranky or tired
- Crying or fussing
- Appearing unsettled, such as turning their heads away
Signs of Overstimulation in Toddlers
- Seeming upset, tired or grumpy
- Having a meltdown or tantrum
- Not being able to use words to communicate
- Refusing to complete tasks they normally do
- Seeming withdrawn or not wanting to engage with others
- Exhibiting behaviours that seem aggressive, such as pushing, hitting, throwing or biting
Signs of Overstimulation in Pre-schoolers
- Heightened behaviours like running around, jumping on furniture or yelling
- Seeming busy or unable to focus on one thing for much time
- Being irritable, such as being bothered by noises or activities that normally wouldn’t upset them. This can look like covering their ears or making loud noises, such as screaming, to cover up the stimuli that is upsetting them
- Meltdowns, particularly if they occur suddenly or without typical warning signs
- Being withdrawn from activities, refusing to join in or removing themselves from busy situations
- Seeming more clingy than usual or needing help with tasks they are usually able to complete independently
How can I Manage Overstimulation in my Child?
The simplest way to manage overstimulation in children, or people of any age for that matter, is to change the environment. This will look different depending on the situation and location, but is almost always helpful in reducing the stressors that are causing them to feel overwhelmed.
Managing Overstimulation in Babies
- Take them somewhere quiet and less bright, to remove the sensory overload.
- Make sure their needs are met – are they tired? Hungry? Hot or Cold? Do they need to move?
- Offer body contact; being held is innately calming for babies.
- If your baby likes being swaddled, the feeling of being wrapped up ca be reassuring and help them to calm down.
Managing Overstimulation in Toddlers and Pre-schoolers
- Reduce the noise and activity around your child by removing them from the situation. For example, turning down the music, switching off the TV or moving to a space with fewer people at a party. If you’re at home, take them to a safe, relaxing space, like their bedroom.
- Let them be near you or spend time with you if they need to; seeking reassurance is a really positive way to handle overstimulation and being near a parent can help your child to wind down.
- Choose a quiet activity to help redirect their focus, such as reading a book, singing a lullaby or even lying down together and stroking their back.
- Help them to express how they are feeling by offering words or phrases to match their emotions, and reassure them that taking a break is okay.
Tips to Reduce Overstimulation in Children during the Holidays
Prepare your child for the event or activity – explain what will happen and what they’ll do, show pictures of the people you’ll be visiting and play videos of unfamiliar sounds they will encounter, like fireworks.
Give them the words to communicate with you – remind them to tell you “I need a break” or use a cue word so they can let you know when they’re feeling overwhelmed and need to take some time to reset.
Pay attention to your child’s behaviour – they may not be able to identify when they need to ask you for a break, so it’s important to watch their behaviour for early warning signs of overstimulation, so that you can help them to reset somewhere quiet. Remember, catching it early is vital to preventing overstimulation from reaching a meltdown point, and will allow your child to take a quick breather rather than needing half an hour to come back down.
Get ready for transitions in advance – let your child know when you’ll be leaving to give them time to prepare in terms they’ll understand, such as “we’re going to have dessert, then give Grandma a hug and get in the car” or “we’re going home after the fireworks”.
Bring activities with you – if you’re going to a party or event, bring a game that they enjoy or a toy they’re interested in so they can focus on something familiar if they need to calm down.
Make sleep a priority – all these fun events, like getting up early to see what Santa has brought or staying up late to watch the New Year’s Eve fireworks, can disrupt your child’s sleep. Try to make sure they’re still getting enough sleep, and supplement with an extra nap nap or quiet time the next day to help them make it up if needed. When a child is tired, their emotional threshold is already higher, and they are more likely to become overstimulated.
Manage your own stress levels – the holiday season can be a super stressful time for parents, between cleaning, cooking, travelling and making time to be present with your family, there is a lot going on! Keeping your own stress levels in check, by allowing extra time to get ready, sleeping enough, eating well and being realistic about expectations will help your child to follow your lead and stay calm.
The holidays are a wonderful and special time to share with your children, and learning to recognise and mitigate overstimulation can help to keep them an enjoyable experience for everyone. We hope these tips give you some ideas about how to meet your child’s needs in the presence of unfamiliar stressors so you can all get back to the holiday fun!