It may not just being naughty when a screaming child in a supermarket has reached a point of sensory overload.
Too much noise, too many other people and too much visual stimulation can all play a contributing role.
Experiencing the world though their senses
As in the case of adults, children, even in the same family, can have wildly differing ways in which they experience sensory input from their surroundings. Children, like adults, experience the world through their senses. But children have less control over their immediate surroundings than adults do.
When children reach a point of sensory overload – where the brain can no longer process new incoming information – they will send out signals that all parents will recognise. It is an instinctive reaction, and children don’t know why they are doing what they
Genetics and upbringing determine sensory profile
“Your sensory profile is a genetic predisposition,” says Dr Annemarie Lombard, an occupational therapist in learning and development, and CEO of Sensory Intelligence Consulting. She is the author of the book called Sensory Intelligence. ‘This genetic make-up can be moulded somewhat through one’s upbringing.”
Children do not always have the same ability to filter out unnecessary sensory input. They often experience things a lot more acutely. On the one hand, they may react by crying at a sudden noise. Sometimes they are very good at doing things that adults struggle with – such as falling asleep in the middle of a noisy party. By the time we get older, our sensory behaviours are more predictable.
Role of passive education and screen time
Our education system is not helping, says Lombard. It is too passive, and all the on-screen activities after-hours also don’t help. Movement is crucial in helping children’s brains develop, and it is also crucial in helping with self-regulation of sensory input in both children and adults.
Movement helps the body to regain focus. Expecting children to sit quietly for hours is counter-productive and not conducive to helping with concentration. Children can either sit still – or pay attention. Not both, and certainly not for hours on end. Movement helps with sensory-motor input and improves the ability to concentrate.
Factors affecting equilibrium
We use self-regulating behaviours when we are feeling lethargic or anxious to try and regain equilibrium, and children do the same. But their self-regulating behaviours are less developed than those of adults.
When children are unable to escape a situation in which they are confronted with sensory overload, they will whine and cry, and cling, express fear, withdraw and display a lack of confidence. If pushed further, they will have outbursts, react with aggression, they will act out and get to a point where you cannot reason with your child. Every parent sees this behaviour sooner or later.
Tips for parents
Lombard recommends removing the child from the situation when this happens, such as in a time-out session. It gives the child the opportunity to ‘reboot’ itself. Shouting at a child who is in sensory overload will make things worse. Children need breaks too.
Deep touch, such as being held, can calm them down, as can a whisper, soft colours and gentle music. Or just quite simply some silence.
Importance of home environment
She specifically mentions bedtime, the so-called suicide hour from 5 – 7pm, birthday parties, mealtimes, bath time, getting dressed and social interactions as events which are associated with high sensory overload.
Creating a home environment that keeps your child’s sensory profile and sensory development in mind can make both a child and a parent’s life so much easier.
By Susan Erasmus
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