This week’s question is from Carrie,
“I really struggle with my own sensory needs when my kids get loud and upset, especially when it goes on for a while. I have auditory sensitivities, and I just feel overwhelmed when they are crying and carrying on. How do I meet my own sensory needs when my kids are getting loud and chaotic?”
In this episode, I will address effective tools and strategies for adults when they experience sensory processing overload due to their children being dysregulated, loud, etc. We often only think about the child and their emotions when they are dysregulated, but it is just as important for us to check in on our own emotional state.
Sensory processing disorder in adults is common to some degree. Even if it isn’t a diagnosed disorder, it’s likely that most parents struggle with this at some point. Whether you’ve been home with the kids all day or you’ve come home from a stressful day at work, it can feel like major overload for parents when their children are dysregulated and upset. The simple strategies I discuss in this episode should help!
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Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Listener’s Question … 00:00:55
Parents Struggle with Sensory Processing Disorder Too … 00:01:20
When Kids Get Louder, Parents Need To Get Quieter … 00:03:20
How To Mitigate Auditory Sensitivities for Parents … 00:06:15
Vagus Nerve Reset Activities … 00:08:22
Proprioceptive Input & Tapping … 00:10:50
When Parents Need to Step Away … 00:13:08
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Hi everyone, welcome to the show. I’m Dr. Nicole, and today I’m answering a question from one of you. We are going to talk about what you can do to support your own sensory needs when your child is loud and dysregulated and distressed. This is an issue for lots of parents, whether or not you have specific sensory processing issues. So this specific question today comes to us from Carrie, who writes: “I really struggle with my own sensory needs when my kids get loud and upset, especially when it goes on for a while. I have auditory sensitivities, and I just feel overwhelmed when they are crying and carrying on. How do I meet my own sensory needs when my kids are getting loud and chaotic?” Great question, something that I know many parents deal with, in one way, shape, or form. So, let’s talk about some big picture ideas and then some specific strategies.
First of all, it’s pretty common, if you have a child who’s easily dysregulated and who has a lot of their own sensory needs, for parents to have some of those same sensory kinds of needs. Those tend to run in families, and so I find in my work with parents and kids that when there’s a child who tends to have maybe auditory sensitivity or other kinds of sensory sensitivities or processing issues, that often one or both of the parents will say, “Hey, that is me, too. I struggled with that as a kid/still struggle with that today as an adult.” So just know that that is pretty typical, and usually we focus on what we need to do to support our kids when they are struggling and to support their sensory systems, but it’s really equally important for us as parents to understand and take care of our own sensory needs during this time because kids are looking to us to guide them through these difficult moments, and we can’t be a good guide to them if our sensory systems are totally overwhelmed and if we are struggling to function in those moments because we are not meeting our sensory needs. And this does not mean that you are not a good parent or that you aren’t prioritizing your child’s needs. It means that you are doing a good job of being aware of your own needs and what you need to figure out how to handle for yourself, so that you can best support them. So, taking care of your own needs is a really important part of being able to support your kids during these moments, because you can’t do that if your sensory systems are getting overwhelmed and your brain is struggling to process and regulate your emotions and behaviors as a result. That is not going to work.
So let’s talk about a few things that I think may be helpful here in terms of specific strategies. The first, especially if you have auditory sensitivities, but really for anything that is feeling overwhelming to you with your kids, I first want you to think about this idea of getting quieter and quieter as they are getting louder and louder. So we are thinking about this contrast and this idea of as they are ratcheting up and they are vocally getting louder, maybe they are getting faster paced, their actions are getting more chaotic, you’re going to focus on doing the exact opposite. You’re going to focus on bringing down your volume, even to a whisper sometimes even to not talking at all. Why is that helpful? It’s helpful to you and them for a couple reasons: First of all, there’s a lot of auditory input in the environment if the child is getting loud. Us adding to that with our own verbalizations, our own loud auditory, maybe we are trying to be heard over them or whatever, now we have just, like doubled the amount of auditory input that both our child and we are having to deal with, and it just makes the whole situation much more overwhelming from an auditory perspective and just an overall sensory perspective. So that is one reason why it’s really helpful as they get louder, we get quieter. The other thing is that when we get quieter, it has this effect through modeling for kids to calm and bring their volume down as well. Now, I’m not saying that works every time, I’m not saying it’s instantaneous, but often kids then will regulate and bring their volume down, if for no other reason than they need or are curious and wanting to hear what it is that we are saying. So that is another reason that can be helpful. And we also want to think about that contrast, not just in terms of volume, but also in terms of our pace, the intensity of our actions — again, as they are ratcheting up, they are getting faster, they are getting more intense, we want to focus on ourselves getting quieter, slower paced, and less intense. Again, what that does is it helps to prevent adding to the chaos and the overwhelm of the sensory environment, and it also has this regulating effect for us and for them. So it’s a good visual to keep in your mind of “Oh, they are going up, up, up, I’m going to bring myself down, down, down”, and that can be a helpful visual and a helpful way of thinking about it.
Another tip, for those of you who have auditory sensitivities or just tend to get overwhelmed when there’s a lot of noise. I think that headphones and ear plugs can be really beneficial supports for yourself. Now, I know immediately when I say that some people are going “Oh, I can’t believe you would recommend that. That is ignoring the child or not paying attention to them.” Not at all. Unless you are using industrial strength, complete noise blocking headphones or earplugs, you absolutely can still be aware of what’s going on auditorily in the environment, and honestly, even if you were using total noise blocking headphones or earplugs, you can still completely stay attuned and responsive to your child without hearing everything that is going on. That is absolutely true. We don’t need to look any further than parents with hearing impairment or deafness to realize that inherently that is true. So, if you are easily overwhelmed by auditory input, or you find yourself getting really dysregulated the more auditory chaos or loud auditory input your kids are giving you, headphones can dampen that sound, earplugs can dampen it. They can just help block some of that to support your own sensory processing, your own ability to stay regulated. Now, some parents I work with like to use headphones with some soft calming music for them, some will use just a white noise. You can experiment with what best supports your sensory system and your regulation during those moments, but these can be really, really great tools to support your sensory processing, your sensory regulation, while still staying attentive and attuned to what’s going on with your child.
I also think that some vagus nerve reset or regulating activities can be helpful to parents in this situation. These won’t work for everyone, depending on the nature of your sensory sensitivities and how intensely triggered those sensitivities are by what’s going on in the environment with your child at that moment, but some things that can really support sensory system regulation are things that help to reset our vagus nerve. Vagus nerve is that nerve that runs from our brain all the way down through our body. I did a really interesting episode on this with Dr. Habib Navez several months ago and you can check out that episode. I did a really interesting episode about the vagus nerve and how to support that to support our regulation with Dr. Navaz Habib. That was many, many months ago now, but you can go back and find that podcast to learn more about this. But basically, the vagus nerve is key in helping us to stay regulated and helping our nervous system to not get stuck in this sympathetic mode, this overwhelmed, this reactive mode, and it’s key in helping to bring not only our sensory system but our entire nervous system back to a baseline of more calm and better regulation. So a couple of things you can do in the moment when you’re feeling overwhelmed or stuck in that anxious overactive mode: Cold water is really helpful. So if you are in an environment where you can splash some cold water on your face, drink some really cold water, run cold water over your hands, that can be helpful. Again, depending on the nature of your sensory issues, that may or may not help. Ice can be helpful, icy cold water, holding some ice on your arm or in your hands, and then humming, chanting, or singing can also be really helpful for a vagus nerve reset. So sometimes in these really intense moments with kids, when parents are getting overwhelmed, sometimes just like a humming, doing that you feel that vibration in the back of your throat, that is helping to support that vagus nerve, reset, helping to regulate your nervous system. Those things can be helpful in these moments.
Another thing that can be helpful is to give yourself some deep proprioceptive input. Proprioception is one of those senses that can be calming and regulating. When we activate that proprioceptive sense, that sense of groundedness, that sense of knowing, feeling the input to our joints and muscles, that is a very calming and regulating type of input. So how can you do that for yourself? In moments when you’re feeling overwhelmed? You can massage your own hands, kind of rubbing your hands together and massaging one hand and then the other. You can even rub or massage the back of your neck or your own shoulders, give yourself a firm hug, kind of cross your arms in front of you and give yourself a firm’s squeeze like that. All of these things help provide good deep pressure input to your muscles and joints, which can be calming and soothing for your sensory system, and regulating for your nervous system in general. Some parents also will carry like a stress ball or have something available that they can squeeze to help give that input, and that can work.
Breathing techniques can also be regulating again depending on your sensory needs in the moment, but focusing on taking some deep breaths can be soothing and regulating, and also there is a process called tapping, sometimes referred to as Emotional Freedom Technique. I have got some podcast episodes previously that I’ve done on this, one with Alex Ortner from The Tapping Solution, you can go find that episode to learn more about that. But tapping is basically a process of literally using your fingertips to tap at certain points on your face and on your body. You can even just do it on sort of the fleshy part of your thumb on the side of your hand. And again, that provides some soothing, rhythmic, regulatory input to your body. It also is playing off of these acupressure points which can be soothing and regulating. So some parents find that to be really helpful when their sensory system is kind of getting dysregulated and they are struggling.
Some other things that you may need to consider are stepping away and removing yourself from the area. Now obviously, this may or may not be possible depending on where you are and safety issues with your child. But sometimes you do need to get away from the action of what’s going on with your child in order to let your sensory system calm and regulate and just kind of get yourself back together. That may involve having another adult come and sort of step into monitor while you step away, it may mean you leave your child in a safe space and you go to another room, but taking that time to be able to get yourself away from the stimulation that is stressful and overwhelming to you so that you can regroup, that can be really important. Sometimes that may look like moving the child to another location where it is safe and quiet for them, so that you can be away from them. And if it’s possible, sometimes going outside and getting some fresh air, that can be helpful too. So looking for ways to do that, especially if you are just really, really overwhelmed and know that you are not going to be able to support the situation with your child when you are in that kind of state.
So that gives you lots of tips and tools that you can try to use to support yourself. I hope that this information and these strategies are helpful for Carrie, and for any of the rest of you who are looking for ways to support your own sensory needs when your kids are distressed and dysregulated. Remember, if you have a question you’d like to hear answered on a future show, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you, as always, for listening and for being here and I will catch you back here next time.