As a parent of three kids aged six and under, I’ve gotta be honest: There are days when the near-constant singing, sob-whining, and mess-making of my children is… too much. In those moments, I have to remind myself that I’m not a bad mom—I’m just completely overstimulated. The good news is it’s very normal, and it doesn’t last forever (meaning you won’t always primal scream at the sound of a Magna-Tiles box being dumped on the floor for the fifth time). Learn what the experts have to say about overstimulation—what it is, why it happens, and how to cope.
Sensory overload is real for both children and parents
“Our sensory system is constantly taking in information from the environment and our bodies, processing it, and responding,” explained occupational therapist Larissa Geleris. “Overstimulation happens when our sensory system is flooded with input in a way that we cannot process effectively, such as too much input (like noise or touch) too quickly, or a sustained amount of input over time. When our nervous system reaches its maximum threshold of information, we can have a sympathetic nervous system response—fight, flight, or freeze mode—because we think we are in danger.”
Here’s the tricky part: While parents are accustomed to thinking about what might set their kids off from a sensory standpoint—the itchy jacket, a broken banana, loud scary noises—we’re sometimes less focused on our own triggers because our bodies have often been conditioned to ignore them. According to parent and teacher coach Chazz Lewis, that’s where the hard work around emotional regulation begins.
“As parents, we are so busy getting from point A to point B to do the next thing, so a lot of times, we have blinders on,” said Lewis. “When our children are experiencing big emotions, we have to ‘catch’ those feelings, but parents can have a hard time stepping back to their feelings and regulating in order to handle their own emotions. Even though many of us are learning about different ways to help our children through big emotions with scripts, validation, and acknowledgement, which is great, it is also difficult, because part of teaching children emotional regulation involves modeling it ourselves.”
If it feels like parenting got harder over the past few years, you’re not wrong
“Raising children is a stressful activity,” said mental health therapist Dr. Courtney Glickman. “Without support provided from extended families and friends, parents find themselves having to run a household and be attentive to their children without the assistance, validation, and companionship of other adults. When overstimulated, stressed, and burnt out, parents are less likely to muster the patience and resilience that would help them cope with the endless demands. The energy, the defiance, the overlapping noises—it can feel overwhelming.”
However, most experts note they’ve seen an uptick in support needed by parents in recent years, particularly due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on childcare availability, general health, and other stressors and fears. Geleris pointed out that parents also added another layer of constant risk analysis to their usual mode of trying to keep kids safe, which increased the need for additional sensory regulation support.
Overstimulation looks different for everyone, so pause to check in first
“Everyone has a different threshold for the amount and type of sensory input that they need, both to stay alert and that they can handle,” said Geleris. “This is why some people can focus better working in a coffee shop, while others need complete silence. But this also means that some parents might have a smaller sensory ‘bucket,’ which can overflow more quickly. They may be more sensitive to sound or touch, so they are more likely to be triggered by noise or feel touched-out.”
Everyone has a different threshold for the amount and type of sensory input that they need, both to stay alert and that they can handle.
Some signs of overstimulation might include feelings of anxiety, irritation, and frustration, along with lack of patience, difficulty focusing, and a sense of being about to “snap,” said psychologist Dr. Emily Guarnotta. Parents may notice shifts in their minds or bodies or changes in behavior, or experience overstimulation as a range of emotions from distraction and forgetfulness all the way to agitation and anger.
“When we’re overstimulated, we might go to a response not aligned with our values,” said Lewis. “Often, we’re just trying to do the next thing, so we react—but our reaction is not thoughtful or intentional. Instead, try to stretch your reaction into a response: Pause, acknowledge the moment, and become aware of what you’re feeling and experiencing in your body. It takes time to recognize patterns of when these things are happening, but pausing is your best friend in terms of learning how to understand and navigate your own emotions.”
Know your limits
How you react to stimulation depends on a variety of factors, and some parents are more impacted than others, said Michele Goldman, clinical psychologist and Hope for Depression Research Foundation media advisor. This can be related to childhood and family dynamics, career experiences, life events, or even how individuals recharge across a spectrum of “introvert” versus “extrovert.”
“Everyone has different limits for stimulation, and these limits can shift throughout the day,” added Dr. Guarnotta. “Your mood state, health, hunger, and sleep can also impact your sensory limits in a particular moment, so being aware of the health of your own internal ‘battery’ is important. For example, do you notice that you tend to argue with your partner, get a headache, or feel on the verge of tears? Overstimulation can present differently for different people, so try to take some time to identify your own personal signs of overstimulation.”
Identify what helps you decompress
Aside from standard self-care strategies, Dr. Guarnotta suggested keeping a list of things you can turn to when you notice signs of overstimulation, which might include deep breathing, short meditation practices, exercising, scheduling solo time, or taking mini-breaks to recharge when possible. Depending on the circumstances, no single approach will work perfectly every time, so giving yourself options can be helpful to fill up your cup in advance.
What works in one family or household may look different in another, said Lewis, and talking about overstimulation can invite a larger conversation about how we care for each other in community. “What we want to teach children and learn ourselves is that everyone’s got different needs,” he continued. “And you as a parent have very real needs, so it’s about how we can help everyone meet their needs, not with shame or putting emotions on other people, but by coming up with a plan together. It’s an important lesson and skill for us all to learn to be aware of what we each struggle with and figure out how to best support each other.”
“When you expect something to happen, it becomes less disruptive to your nervous system,” said Geleris. “So validating that it is okay for your children to be big and loud and rambunctious, knowing when they might be more prone to meltdowns, tantrums, or loud play, and knowing that your needs may be different than that of your child or your partner’s, are the first steps in making peace with that. It is important to know your needs, take care of them proactively by putting on your ‘sensory armor,’ and know your in-the-moment strategies so that you can care for yourself when your kids are particularly overstimulating.”
Remember it won’t last forever and no parent is perfect
Even though feeling overstimulated is really hard, each moment usually has an endpoint. “Know that the type of stimulation you are experiencing changes as your child ages—babies equate to crying, preteens to loud music and friends’ voices carrying throughout the home,” said Dr. Goldman. “Not all sensory overload will have the same effect on you or your nervous system, so find the stimuli that are most triggering for you and target how to cope with that. Remind yourself that this is very overwhelming and that it is temporary.”
We’re also not meant to be perfect parents who get it right every single time, especially when we are having a hard moment and feeling overwhelmed. “Sometimes when we’re overstimulated, we do things we wish we hadn’t done,” said Lewis. “But an even more powerful lesson than keeping it together 100 percent of the time is to show our children that we’re human and mess up sometimes. It’s a never-ending process of learning to navigate emotions in a healthy way, with empathy for our children and ourselves.”