What is Overstimulation? 7 Red-Flag Signs & Symptoms in Kids

What is Overstimulation: A little boy in front of a brick wall hugging two Star Wars stuffed toys

If you’re wondering, “What is overstimulation and what does it look like in my child?” you likely already know more about sensory overload than you think.

Years ago, as a first-time parent, I noticed my baby would become fussy and restless after 45 minutes of having company over (even when I was holding him!).

But when I moved him to the other side of the room and placed him in his swing, he would begin to calm down. Like clockwork, he would need a 10-minute “swing break” to reset every hour.

I didn’t have the words for it then, but now I know he was overstimulated. 

This post will cover 7 of the most common symptoms of overstimulation in kids and how adults can help prevent and intervene when sensory overload occurs.

Dealing with overstimulated children can sometimes be overwhelming. Learn what is overstimulation, how to recognize the signs and symptoms, and how to properly handle the situations. By Such a Little While LLC.

This post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you make a purchase using this link. We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, which is an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.comPlease see my disclosure for more details.

What is overstimulation?

Overstimulation happens when the brain receives more input from the body’s senses or other environmental factors than it can process at one time, often impacting a child’s behavior, cognitive ability, and executive functioning.

What is Overstimulation: 8 Types of Sensory Input. (1) Visual (e.g., bright lights, fast-moving or changing patterns). (2) Auditory (e.g., loud, high-pitched, or overlapping noises). (3) Tactile (e.g., undesired textures, physical contact, changes in weather). (4) Olfactory (e.g., intense smells or odors). (5) Gustatory (e.g., food with undesired tastes or textures). (6) Proprioceptive: (e.g., rough play, heavy lifting, or tight clothing). (7) Vestibular: (e.g., spinning or swinging). (8) Interoceptive: (e.g., inner-body sensations such as hunger, pain, or emotions). More information at suchalittlewhile.com. Graphic by suchalittlewhile.com

The eight forms of sensory input that can contribute to overstimulation include:

  1. Visual (e.g., bright lights, fast-moving or changing patterns)
  2. Auditory (e.g., loud, high-pitched, or overlapping noises)
  3. Tactile (e.g., undesired textures, physical contact, changes in weather)
  4. Olfactory (e.g., intense smells or odors)
  5. Gustatory (e.g., food with undesired tastes or textures)
  6. Proprioceptive: (e.g., rough play, heavy lifting, or tight clothing)
  7. Vestibular: (e.g., spinning or swinging)
  8. Interoceptive: (e.g., inner-body sensations such as hunger, pain, or emotions)

It is important to note that triggers for overstimulation vary greatly from child to child. Interestingly, some forms of sensory input will overwhelm some children yet calm others!

Overstimulation vs. Sensory Overload

The terms “overstimulation” and “sensory overload” are often used interchangeably, as they both describe an experience where an individual’s sensory input becomes overwhelming due to excessive stimuli.

Overstimulation and sensory overload can impact all children; however, those with hypersensitivities often have a lower threshold for warding off overstimulation.

For example, a child may be hypertensive to sounds. Conversations in a quiet room may sound very loud to them; however, they can still function.

Let’s say the same child attends a 45-minute parade where people are talking, music is playing, and fire truck sirens are blaring. Cue sensory overload and possibly a meltdown.

What is Overstimulation: 7 Hidden Signs of Sensory Overload! By suchalittlewhile.com

Text overlay a stock photo of a mom raising her child in the air ont eh shore of a beach.

What causes overstimulation in children?

Now that we know about the different forms of sensory input that can lead to overstimulation, let’s discuss environments or scenarios that can often trigger sensory overload:

  • Crowded Environments: Busy places like shopping malls, amusement parks, or crowded classrooms can bombard children with a lot of sensory information, especially when those places are new or unfamiliar. “Preschool overstimulation” is common when young children begin school.
  • Sensory-Rich Events: Events with intense sensory elements, such as fireworks displays or concerts, can be particularly overwhelming for some children. Sudden loud noises, bright flashing lights, and large crowds can trigger sensory overload.
  • Environmental Changes: New and unfamiliar environments can be challenging for children. For example, moving to a new neighborhood or attending a social gathering where they don’t know many people can increase the chances of overstimulation.
  • Highly Interactive Activities: Some activities require a lot of social or sensory input and be exhausting for sensitive children. Video games, intense physical sports, or group activities with multiple stimuli can contribute to overstimulation.
  • Overwhelming Visual or Auditory Stimulation: Environments with extremely bright lights, flashing screens, or blaring sounds can quickly lead to sensory overload.
What is Overstimulation: A young boy crying while holding on to the side of a bed.

Overstimulation in ADHD, Autism, and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

Neurodivergent children, particularly those with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) are often more susceptible to overstimulation, along with children with anxiety.

Everyday sensations that others may not notice can trigger strong reactions in neurodivergent children, leading to sensory overload.

Children with ADHD often have heightened impulsivity and difficulty in filtering distractions, thus leading to sensory overload in stimulating environments. They may find it particularly challenging to focus with excessive sensory input.

What is Overstimulation: A little girl kneeling on the floor, playing with a yellow toy bus in front of an indoor tent.

Due to intense hypersensitivities, overstimulation for children with ASD can involve a cascade of sensory experiences overwhelming their ability to adapt and respond.

Similarly, children with SPD have difficulties regulating sensory input, making them more prone to overstimulation.

Finally, children with anxiety can also be highly susceptible to overstimulation. Their heightened alertness and sensitivity to potential threats can cause even minor sensory input to feel overwhelming and contribute to feelings of unease.

Understanding the specific challenges faced by neurodivergent children and those with anxiety is crucial for providing appropriate support and creating environments that minimize sensory overload.

By recognizing and addressing their unique sensory needs, we can help children navigate the world more comfortably and confidently.

7 Key Signs & Symptoms of Overstimulation in Kids

7 Red Flags of Overstimulation in Kids by suchalittlewhile.com

Recognizing signs and symptoms of overstimulation in children is pivotal for preventing sensory overload and intervening once it has already begun to unfold.

What is Overstimulation: 7 Signs of Overstimulation in Kids. (1) Covering Ears or Eyes, (2) Irritability or Restlessness, (3) Crying or Meltdowns, (4) Difficulty Sleeping, (5) Avoiding, Triggering Environments (6) Difficulty Focusing/Following Directions, (7) Anxiety. More information at suchalittlewhile.com. Graphic by suchalittlewhile.com.

Let’s discuss seven of the most common sensory overload symptoms in kids:

#1: Covering Ears or Eyes

Children often instinctively attempt to reduce overwhelming sensory input, such as bright lights or loud noises.

Remember, everyone has a different sensory threshold. Just because it doesn’t feel too loud or too bright for you, it’s possible your child experiences those stimuli differently. Validate their perspective and emotions.

Potential ways to help (varies from child to child):

  • Offer noise-reducing headphones
  • Provide sunglasses for bright sunlight
  • Limit screen time (particularly fast-paced shows or games)
  • Take a break and relocate away from the loud or bright environment
What is overstimulation symptoms in kids: noise reducing headphones

Noise-reducing headphones can be a game-changer for kids who are sensitive to sound. We love these by Dr. Meter on Amazon!

What is Overstimulation: A young child covering her ears while closin her eyes.

#2: Irritability or Restlessness

When sensory input becomes too intense, it can lead to heightened emotional states, causing children to feel on edge or easily frustrated.

Furthermore, you may notice a visible restlessness in your overstimulated child.

Irritability and restlessness in an overstimulated child may look like:

  • Constant movement
  • Pacing the room
  • Tapping on nearby objects
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Inability to stay engaged or follow directions
  • Impulsivity
  • Excessive talking or interrupting
  • Tense or stiff muscles
  • Difficulty waiting
  • Restless hands (frequent touching of nearby objects/people)

Potential ways to help (varies from child to child):

  • Adopt a predictable daily routine
  • Take a break and change their environment
  • Deep pressure hug (for some kids, with consent)
  • Drink cold water
  • Deep breathing
  • Provide hand fidgets
  • Validate feelings (e.g., “It’s okay to feel worried.”)

#3: Crying or Meltdowns

What is overstimulation?  7 red-flag signs and symptoms in kids.

Stock photo of young toddler crying, wearing a birthday hat while being served cake.

Crying, emotional outbursts, or meltdowns can be common symptoms of overstimulation in kids.

Often, sensory stimuli are compounding. On the outside, the outburst can seem wildly out of proportion or over one trivial event, when on the inside, the child has been struggling to process a slew of sensory input.

Potential ways to help (varies from child to child):

As caregivers, we must first recognize that children in an overstimulated meltdown cannot “hear” us and are not emotionally available for redirection.

After taking steps to ensure your child and others are safe, create a safe space for them to feel their emotions, co-regulate, and eventually reach a place of calm.

Consider these words:

¨When we learn why the crying is the healing, not the hurting we gain a new level of understanding and skill in responding to crying, temper tantrums, frustration, anger, and grief.”

-Pam Leo

We can empathize and affirm children’s feelings (even when we cannot condone the behaviors that accompany them). Once calm, we can collaborate with kids on how to solve the problem, and if harm was caused, steps to make things right.

You may consider creating a sensory haven in your home. This may look like a sensory tent or a designated calming corner where you can co-regulate with your child and help facilitate the use of calming sensory tools.

What is overstimulation in kids: The Best Sensory Tents for Indoor Calming Spaces

#4: Difficulty Sleeping

What is Overstimulation: A young girl wearing pajamas while sitting on her bed and cuddling her stuffed toy.

If you’ve observed a child throughout a high-energy, event-filled day, you’ve likely thought or heard someone say “They’ll sleep great tonight!”

Unfortunately, these sensory-loaded days can do just the opposite for an overstimulated child.

Children who experience sensory overload may have difficulty settling down and falling asleep, as well as possibly staying asleep.

Potential ways to help (varies from child to child):

  • Create a consistent, predictable bedtime routine
  • Avoid screens before bed
  • Utilize white noise machines to block out distracting bedtime sounds
  • Provide an eye mask to block out distracting bedtime lights
  • Add a compression sheet or weighted blanket to your child’s bed (my top choice brand for both is Harkla, included below).
What is Overstimulation/Symptoms in Kids: Harkla Weighted Blanket
What is Overstimulation in Kids: Signs and Symptoms 

Harkla Compression Sheet

#5: Avoiding or Escaping Triggering Environments

Children may grow to avoid or even attempt to escape certain environments that trigger overstimulation or cause overwhelm. Busy, crowded, or emotionally overwhelming settings can result in sensory overload.

While it may be easy for families to avoid or limit time in certain environments such as crowded playgrounds, other settings such as school are much trickier.

School avoidance can be difficult for students, teachers, and parents alike. Accommodating areas of hypersensitivity in the school setting and properly supporting/addressing any underlying school anxiety is essential.

Some children with Autism Spectrum Disorder may be particularly suspectable to a “flight” response, making attempts to elope from overstimulating settings.

Potential ways to help (varies from child to child):

  • Communication and collaboration with teacher, school counselor, and any other relevant staff to discuss school-based accommodations.
  • If frequent overstimulation at school stems from an underlying disability, your child may be eligible for a 504 Plan or Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  • For children who tend to elope, take safety precautions such as notifying other adults nearby ahead of time, keeping doors locked, and equipping your child with an ID bracelet and/or tracking device.
What is Overstimulation: A young boy sitting at the table in class looking distracted and unfocused while his classmate is drawing.

#6: Difficulty Focusing & Responding to Verbal Prompts

If your child is ignoring your directions, do not automatically assume the behavior is manipulative or defiant. This type of “shutting down” in response to overstimulation is a neurological function to help the brain minimize sensory input.

In other words, your child may not be able to hear you in that moment of overwhelm. They may have difficulty even tracking your voice and finding you when you call their name in a busy setting.

If you have ever heard of the body’s “fight, flight, or freeze” response to stress, this is what “freeze” looks like.

Potential ways to help (varies from child to child):

  • Shorten their total time spent in triggering environments by arriving late or leaving early (e.g., birthday parties, large family gatherings, indoor play spaces).
  • Take regular breaks in overstimulating settings (e.g., getting fresh air, drinking cool water, assisting your child in stepping away from the “noise”).
  • Get close to your child and down on their level before giving directions (rather than calling out from the other side of the room or playground).
  • Give short, simple directions. “Chunk” multi-step directions by giving one step at a time.

#7: Anxiety

what is overstimulation: anxious child

It is no surprise that when faced with excessive sensory or emotional input, children can feel overwhelmed. For many kids, this overwhelm can further evolve into anxious feelings.

Research backs this link between childhood sensory processing issues and lifelong anxiety. Furthermore, children with sensory needs and anxiety often face challenges with emotional regulation.

Potential ways to help (varies from child to child):

  • Validate anxious or worried feelings in children (Research shows invalidating statements like “You’re fine!” and “Don’t be scared!” can worsen fear in kids).
  • Establish a predictable daily routine, leaving periods for quiet, unstructured downtime.
  • Involve your child in creating a designated calming space or peace corner.
  • Identify environmental triggers and adapt them to meet your child’s needs (e.g., provide noise-reducing headphones, reduce total time spent in crowded places, request a school-based intervention plan).
  • Seek professional help, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
What is Overstimulation?  7 Signs and Symptoms in Children

Create Your Own Calming Space by Such a Little While

Photo of young boy sitting on a floor pillow, playing with a poppable hand fidget toy.  Posts are on the wall next to him showing different emotions and coping skills.

How should I deal with overstimulation in my child?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your child’s sensory overload, you’re not alone! Trying to identify their overstimulation triggers is one thing, finding effective tools and how to help is another!

Every child is unique. It takes knowledge, support, and a degree of experimentation to find a “sensory diet” that works. (Note: A sensory diet is not about what they eat, rather a daily rhythm of tools and targeted activities.)

Become a Sensory-Informed Parent with Harkla!

Hands down, as a sensory parent my favorite support organization is Harkla. Not only do they offer high-quality, effective sensory diet tools, but they also provide a wealth of educational resources for caregivers to understand the complex world of sensory processing.

Harkla’s Sensory Diet Digital Course for Caregivers & Kids

What is Overstimulation: Harkla Sensory Diet Course

Led by experts in the field of occupational therapy, Harkla’s Sensory Diet course provides 9 training modules, 3.5 hours of videos, and bonus resources.

Unlike other parent-focused classes, this course is for both parents and kids! If your child tends to resist your ideas about tools and coping skills, this is a great way to bring in a neutral 3rd party and make it fun.

This course is packed full of engaging activities designed to help children with sensory challenges. They’ll hold your hand tailoring a sensory diet to meet your child’s needs and finding the right amount of sensory input they need to thrive.

In addition to Harkla’s resources, always be sure to consult with your child’s pediatrician as they can help guide you toward additional in-person support professionals as needed (e.g., occupational therapists) who specialize in sensory needs.

The last thing you need to know about overstimulation in children

If your child is easily susceptible to overstimulation, know you are not to blame. At the same time, there are many ways to help.

Children often feed off our energy and behavior. Their emotional well-being and ability to navigate the world around them are profoundly influenced by the atmosphere we create.

What is Overstimulation: Stock photo of mother, father, and younger daughter smiling and laying together in a sensory tent.

When it comes to managing overstimulation, a positive approach to parenting and discipline is far more effective than punitive or permissive parenting.

By fostering an environment of patience and understanding, coupled with supportive boundaries, we can best support our children through sensory overload.

I invite you to join Such a Little While’s free 30-day positive parenting challenge. Thousands of parents worldwide have completed our free email course, gaining a strong foundation in positive parenting, along with easy-to-follow daily tips:

Managing Routines & Transitions in Early Childhood: Positive Parenting Challenge PDF Workbook by Such a Little While

Graphic of free PDF workbook.  Text Reads "Positive Parenting Challenge 3.0, must-know positive discipline do's & dont's, 30 powerful, easy-to-follow tips & tools, unlock 10 key features of positive parenting, customizable parenting solutions, master the art of effective consequences).

    Together, we can create environments where children can not only cope with overstimulation but also flourish in their emotional development. You’ve got this!

    My toddler refuses to brush their teeth blot post, written by Tana from Such a Little While
    Hi, I’m Tana! I’m a mom, certified positive parent educator, and former school counselor. It’s my mission to help you foster social/emotional wellness through positive parenting.
    7 Red Flag Signs of Overstimulation (Loving Parents Often Miss!) by Suchalittlewhile.com (text overlay an image of a smiling young girl wearing a red shirt.)

    Leave a Comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Shopping Cart
    Skip to content