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“Helping Your Child Find Calm: Effective Techniques for Sensory Overload and Anxiety

June 27, 2024

Sensory overload is when our bodies struggle to process what is happening around us.  As parents, watching your child struggle with sensory overload or anxiety can be heart-wrenching. From infants to teenagers, all children can experience sensory overload or anxiety that causes them to feel overwhelmed, upset, or “dysregulated.”  These experiences can be overwhelming for children, leading to meltdowns, difficulty focusing, or withdrawal. The good news is that there are many calming techniques and sensory strategies that can help kids find their zen when they’re feeling worked up.

Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing is a simple yet powerful tool to help your child relax. It works by slowing down the heart rate and reducing stress levels. Here’s a simple exercise you can try:

  • Belly Breathing: Ask your child to lie down comfortably and place a stuffed animal on their belly. Encourage them to take slow, deep breaths, making the stuffed animal rise and fall with each breath. This visual and tactile feedback helps them focus on their breathing and relax.
  • Bubble Blowing: Blowing bubbles can be both fun and calming. It encourages deep breathing because your child has to take a deep breath in and blow out slowly to create a bubble. This can be a great outdoor activity on a sunny day.
  • Use a Pinwheel: Your child can practice breathing slowly or more quickly using the speed of the pinwheel as a measure of their breathing.  This could help them figure out the best pace of breathing that relaxes them.
  • Triangle Breathing: Draw a triangle on a piece of paper.  Start at one corner and breathe in for a count of three while tracing one side of the triangle.  Have your child hold their breath for a count of three while tracing the second side of their triangle.  Then, breathe out for a count of three while tracing the final side of their triangle.  Continue tracing the triangle using this breathing pattern.
Sensory Breaks

Taking regular sensory breaks can prevent sensory overload and keep anxiety at bay. These breaks allow children to step away from overwhelming situations and reset their senses. Here are some ideas:

  • Quiet Corner: Set up a quiet corner in your home with soft pillows, a blanket, and some of your child’s favorite calming items, like a favorite book or toy. This space can serve as a retreat when they need a break.
  • Movement Breaks: Sometimes, physical activity can help release built-up energy and tension. Encourage your child to engage in activities like jumping on a trampoline, doing yoga poses, or even just a few minutes of dancing to their favorite song.
Calming Sensory Tools

Having a toolkit of sensory items can be incredibly helpful for children who experience sensory overload or anxiety. Here are some tools that you might find beneficial:

  • Fidget Toys: Items like stress balls, fidget spinners, or silicone poppers can provide a tactile outlet for anxiety and help your child focus better.
  • Weighted Blankets: The gentle pressure from a weighted blanket can provide a sense of security and calm, much like a comforting hug. This can be particularly helpful during rest times or before bed.
  • Noise-Canceling Headphones: For children sensitive to noise, a pair of noise-canceling headphones can be a lifesaver. They help block out overwhelming sounds and create a more peaceful environment.
  • Putty or play-doh: Rolling, keading, flattening, shaping, and squeezing play-doh can provide stress relief and reduce anxiety.  It can also help your child to focus their energy in a positive way.
  • Visual stimulation: Watch the fluid movement of the liquid in a lava lamp which can provide visual sensory input and can help calm emotions.
  • Calming music: Music has the power to calm children of all ages.  Think of how a lullaby soothes a crying baby.  Music can soothe older children as well by placing children in a relaxed state where they can be more mindful of their actions.
  • Chewy Necklace: Chewing can provide oral sensory stimulation which can act as a sensory filter and helps reduce hyperactivity and support regulation. 
Creating a Routine

Consistency can be very comforting for children with sensory sensitivities or anxiety. Establishing a daily routine can help your child know what to expect and reduce anxiety. Include calming activities like reading, drawing, or a warm bath before bedtime to help them wind down.  

Creating a visual schedule can be helpful for children who like to see their daily schedule or consistently ask “what’s next?”.  Allow your child to have some say in the order of the day’s activities to provide them some autonomy and a sense of control.

Mindfulness and Meditation

Teaching mindfulness can help children stay grounded in the present moment and manage their anxiety more effectively.

  • Yoga: Yoga encourages deep breathing and body awareness.  Yoga can reduce stress and help kids practice emotional regulation.
  • Get outside: Sometimes a simple walk in nature where your child can use their senses can be enough to help them regulate their emotions.
  • Five Senses Exercise: Guide your child to focus on their five senses. Ask them to name:
      1. Five things they can see
      2. Four things they can touch
      3. Three things they can hear
      4. Two things they can smell
      5. One thing they can taste
        This exercise helps shift their focus away from anxiety and into the present moment.
Conclusion

Helping your child manage sensory overload and anxiety takes patience and practice. By incorporating these research-based calming techniques into your daily routine, you can provide them with the tools they need to find their calm and de-stress. Remember, every child is unique, so it may take some experimentation to discover what works best for your little one. Keep an open line of communication with your child, and together, you can navigate these challenges with confidence and care.

If you need more personalized strategies or support, don’t hesitate to reach out to our clinic. Our occupational therapists can provide tailored advice and techniques specific to your child’s needs.  Call 402-413-1356 to set up a free consultation today!

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