Triggers for Sensory Overload in Children

By Karen Kleinschmidt
A child can react to sensory overload by covering his ears and squeezing his eyes shut.
A child can react to sensory overload by covering his ears and squeezing his eyes shut.

Although any child can suffer from an occasional bout of sensory overload, children who have sensory processing disorder, or SPD, battle daily episodes that affect their thoughts, moods, feelings and interactions with others. Common triggers that arise for children with SPD include clothing, hair brushing, smells, and the taste and texture of certain foods. SPD can co-exist with other disorders including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or anxiety. While your child is unlikely to outgrow SPD, she can be taught coping mechanisms that can help her manage symptoms to a degree that they are barely noticeable, according to Terry Matlen, author of "Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Sticky!" published on the ADDitude website.

Lights and Noise

Children's senses might be overloaded when they attend events that include large crowds, noise or bright lights. Depending on your child, one sense, such as touch, might be affected or multiple senses might be over- or under-stimulated, according to the SPD Foundation. For example, the noise and commotion at a child's birthday party can cause one child with sensory overload to react by running around, unable to contain his excitement, while another child responds by shutting down and refusing to interact with others or join the festivities.

Physical Triggers

As a parent of a child whose senses are easily overwhelmed, you might find daily routines to be a struggle. You might notice your daughter gags when you are trying to help her brush her teeth or she screams when you wash her hair. Giving yourself an extra 15 minutes to get out the door in the morning can be helpful for the child who has issues with tight or "scratchy" clothes or shoes that are "too tight" due to the seams of her socks or shoes rubbing along the side of her foot. Finding a certain style of clothing or shoes that work for your child can help to minimize sensory overload.


Mealtimes with your little one can be challenging, especially if he resists nearly everything. Tastes, textures and how food is presented can be a trigger for your child's sensitive senses. Be patient and empathic; you might need to prepare food a certain way while slowly adding in new foods to help him adjust to the tastes and textures he rejects. Experiment with kid's recipes that present food with a different twist. If your son loves pirates, for instance, find a recipe that incorporates new foods into a meal shaped like a treasure map. He might unknowingly try something he once couldn't handle.

Assisting Your Child

Getting to know your child's likes and dislikes and teaching her in a manner that introduces the triggers in a slower, relaxed fashion can help your child avoid feeling overwhelmed. Once you've identified her triggers, teach her coping mechanisms before she becomes overloaded. For example, before the fireworks begin say to your child, "Maggie, the fireworks are about to begin. Please put on your headphones. Would you like to sit on the blanket with me or in your chair by Daddy?" This empowers your child and gives her control over her environment. She can cover her eyes if the fireworks are too bright or snuggle up with her parents for comfort and safety.

About the Author

Karen Kleinschmidt has been writing since 2007. Her short stories and articles have appeared in "Grandma's Choice," "Treasure Box" and "Simple Joy." She has worked with children with ADHD, sensory issues and behavioral problems, as well as adults with chronic mental illness. Kleinschmidt holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Montclair State University.