ADVICE: Why Does My Kid Struggle with Noise?
A few hours at a local pizza restaurant with singing animals on stage, screaming kids, and the incessant pings of arcade games is enough to put me over the edge. I can usually hold it together, but as soon as my kids start screaming or fighting in the car, I lose it.
The reason for this, like some of our children, is my auditory sensitivity. An auditory sensitivity occurs when we are sensitive to certain sounds or frequencies. Our superpower (as I like to call it) is that we hear sounds others may not pick up on or we hear them more intensely. This can lead to sensory overload, as the brain becomes overwhelmed by all the sounds it must filter and process.
Characteristics of auditory sensitivity include:
- Distracted by environmental sounds (lawnmower, music, people talking, etc.)
- Distracted by background noise (air condition, a fan, a clock ticking, etc.)
- Distressed by loud noises (buzzers at a ball game, a movie theater, etc.)
- Fearful of sounds like a vacuum, toilet flushing, hand dryer, etc.
- May run away, cry, or cover ears with loud or unexpected noises
When our children act in a way that seems unexpected or out of proportion to the stimulus, it is important not to just look at what is happening in the moment, but what was happening prior to that moment. Our children must filter input from each of their seven senses every second of every day. This can leave them with a full “sensory bucket” where all it takes is one more drop to put them into sensory overload (much like me when I leave the pizza restaurant with singing animals on stage).
Sensory overload (in this case, auditory overload) can send a child’s nervous system into what is referred to as a “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This is a stress response that helps us react to perceived threats like a blue light in our rearview mirror or a spider crawling on our leg. It’s great for protecting us, but not great for allowing us to function at our best.
How do we help a child with auditory sensitivity?
Understand. Understand that their behavior is driven by sensory overload and the response in their brain to that overload.
Noise cancelling headphones. Make these available to your child in situations that may be noisy (a restaurant, the school cafeteria, fire drills, etc.)
Reduce sound distractions. When your child needs to focus, reduce sound distractions and the volume of the things that are in your control.
Time to decompress. After being in an overstimulating environment, make sure your child has time to decompress.
Heavy work, exercise, and deep pressure. Activities that allow children to use their muscles to work with or against resistance and provide calming input are great to use prior to or during noisy activities. Examples include animal walks, jumping activities, wheelbarrow walking, running, climbing, pushing, pulling, or carrying weighted objects, and weighted or resistive toys. The best deep pressure activity of them all? Hugs! Hugs provide deep pressure input that calms and reassures kids at the same time.
We all have our sensory differences. The important thing is to help our children understand theirs and equip them with the right strategies so their differences don’t interfere with daily life. If your child’s sensory differences do interfere with daily life, I recommend speaking to your pediatrician about occupational therapy.
CINDY UTZINGER is an occupational therapist, mother of two, and author of Why Is My Kid Doing That?, a book to help parents better understand their child’s behavior.