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Tips to Help Your Child Cope in a Busy Environment

Does your child get overwhelmed in busy environments?

Do you worry about going to the grocery store, mall, or even a birthday party with your child because you know they will meltdown?

These challenging moments can be filled with embarrassment and worry because you just don't know how to help your child. There is hope. With a few tips and strategies, your child will feel more comfortable, have more fun, and everyone will benefit.

First, let's look closer at what's happening at a birthday party from a child's perspective to understand what sensory input they have to process. Typically, when you arrive at a birthday party, you are greeted by many little friends; they run up to you so excited that you came, sometimes touching you and speaking loudly with excitement. Birthday parties are naturally more unpredictable, as they are not as structured as a typical school day, so there are a lot of unknowns and children running around (bumping into you) without a clear picture of what's happening next. Sometimes there's a bounce house, and you have to navigate the crowd of children all trying to bounce at once, and other times, there are structured games, and you have to cope with winning or losing. Then, let's not forget the loud barrage of singing "happy birthday" and everyone excitedly waiting for those sweet treats. As you can imagine, for children who are sensitive and have trouble processing sensory input, the loud noises, unpredictable touch, and the constant worry about what "scary" thing will happen next are overwhelming.

It's important to recognize the signs of a child feeling overwhelmed. They might not be able to verbalize what they are feeling, so keep an eye out for the following:

  1. Controlling the situation— can be interpreted as bossy

  2. Frequent meltdowns and tantrums

  3. Behavioral challenges, such as whining, clinginess, and not listening.

  4. Increase in arousal level- high energy, giggly, or difficulty calming down.

If you have a child who is easily overwhelmed, here are some tips for supporting them.

  1. Look at the day as a whole and determine if your child can handle it - Every child only has so much they can handle in one day. Picture your child's capacity to regulate as a cup. All the daily internal and external demands (cognitive, physical, emotional, sensory, etc.), add liquid to your cup. If you add too much liquid, it will overflow. For example, if you want to go out to a restaurant for dinner, but your child went to the mall and had a playdate and already seems a bit overwhelmed, it might be best to order dinner in. Being aware of their cup capacity is a helpful way to make decisions to ensure success.

  2. Schedule downtime during busy days- If you know your child will have a busy day and staying home isn't an option, make sure to give your child calming opportunities. Whether it's heavy work (using their muscles- monkey bars, pushing and pulling objects), cuddling up under a blanket with a book, or lots of hugs from a parent, providing an opportunity for your child to reset is important and makes more room in their "cup.”

  3. Prepare your child for what to expect- We can't see the future, and we can't always prepare our kids for everything that comes their way, but giving them a general sense of what's to come will help them cope. If you're going out, find out as much as possible about the experience, and if there are potential challenges, you can offer suggestions for ways to make it easier. For example, "We're going to a restaurant tonight, it will likely be loud, and the lights will be dim. Would you like to bring your headphones to help with the loud noises?”

  4. Know when it's time to leave- Parents look forward to seeing the joy on their kid's faces when they're on vacation or at a specially planned event, and sometimes it's hard to acknowledge that these expectations of "fun" we put on our children might be too much. It's important to recognize when your child is starting to feel overwhelmed and address it. Sometimes is possible to take a break and implement regulating strategies, but sometimes you just need to leave before things get out of control.

Overstimulating environments can be very challenging for sensitive kids to manage, but it doesn't have to result in a meltdown every time. Having a better understanding of your child's signs of overwhelm and their limits will help you implement strategies to ensure more success in your everyday life.

Lily Baiser, MS, OTR/L, is Co-Founder and Lead Therapist at Kinspire and a pediatric occupational therapist with 14 years of pediatric experience in sensory-based clinic, home, and school-based settings.