My boys wanted to snuggle. I live for those snuggles.
My husband wanted to chat. I love when he opens up.
The puppy was ringing the bell to go out. I’m thankful she learned the ritual so quickly.
So why was I on the verge of yelling?
I wanted to tell my boys to take two steps back.
I wanted to tell my husband to stop talking (and let the dog out while he was at it).
It was too much at once. All at the same time.
All at the same time while on a work deadline.
I couldn’t think. I couldn’t hear my own thoughts. I felt guilty. Was I really upset about my family existing and wanting to be near me?
I got up casually, trying to hide the feelings bubbling up within. But as I looked around, I couldn’t unsee the evidence of Spring Break. Toys everywhere. Dirty dishes stacked. Radio up. The boys now arguing. My husband still talking.
While nothing was unsafe, everything in my body told me otherwise. My stress response took over. I officially felt overwhelmed.
Parenting Changes Your Sensory Threshold
When we think of sensory overload, we parents often don’t consider it as a reason for our overwhelm, yet research shows that many parents find high-sensory moments triggering.
Maybe it wasn’t as noticeable before becoming a parent. You know those days when your time, energy, and body were your own. Or maybe it was and raising children has amplified it. Either way, parenthood shifts our sensory threshold, causing us to process and regulate this input much differently.
All of the sudden, the lights seem brighter. The sounds seem louder. The mess seems messier. You’re feeling burnt out. Touched out. Irritable. You notice you can’t focus as well. And all you want to do is escape.
Why? Well, for one, we have fewer opportunities to recharge (self-care seems like a unicorn). Not to mention less quality sleep (there is a reason sleep deprivation is a form of torture). And we often feel less accomplished as our to-do list grows (cross one thing out, add ten more).
Sensory Overwhelm And The Brain
When too much information comes in too fast, our brain has a challenging time processing it and our senses become overstimulated.
Triggers may include
- Clinging kiddos, screaming, crying, backtalk
- Clutter, loud background noise
- Unfinished chores, lack of time
- Feeling tired, being hungry, uncomfortable temperature
Our emotional body feels threatened (even if our logical body knows otherwise … no Saber Tooths in sight), and it activates our protective responses.
We fight. Yell, snap, and bark at our kids.
We flight. Runaway, hide, cry.
We freeze. Completely shut down.
These adaptations are communication from your body that says, “I need something to change and quickly.”
Sensory Overwhelm And Guilt
There may be another element that trails your reaction. Guilt.
Guilty for reacting to your children in a way that is totally disproportionate to whatever is happening (likely them acting in age and developmentally-appropriate ways). Guilty for what you said. What you did. What you didn’t do.
And this guilt can become another trigger in and of itself, only furthering the overwhelm.
Keep in mind that while it may seem undesirable, your response is your body’s attempt to keep you safe. And that ghost called guilt? Well, it is a poor advisor. I suggest apologizing where needed, and that includes forgiving yourself.
And because I like something tangible, I write down what I feel guilty for on a piece of paper, and then I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and take it to the recycling bin. After all, every messy situation is an opportunity to recycle into something beautiful.
3 Tools To Manage Sensory Overwhelm
While we can thank our bodies for doing its due diligence when things drown our system, we also have tools to support ourselves in the process. If you feel that you are highly sensitive to input the following tips may help.
1. Check In
Look, no one wants to hug a cactus. I mean, ouch. But those little spines serve a purpose to protect (not all that differently than our body attempts to protect us). So when you begin to feel a tad prickly, pause and listen to what your body is telling you. What is your current emotional and sensory climate? The best thing we can do is listen.
- What is dysregulating you?
- What sounds are you processing right now?
- What is visually overwhelming to you right now?
- Who is touching and needing you?
- What tasks do you feel pressure to finish?
Once you get a lay of your internal land, ask yourself, “What is one thing I could take out of this current moment to return to a regulated state?”
If __ wasn’t happening right now, __ would feel more manageable.
Sometimes just noticing helps us drop back down into our bodies so that we can name it, and then tame it.
If you have the capacity to do so (and only if) then share what you are feeling with those around you. Boundaries are an act of kindness, not only for you but for those you share space with. You may say things like
- “I need a moment to myself right now.”
- “The noise is hurting my ears.”
- “I am having trouble focusing. I need to revisit this conversation a bit later.”
- “I feel anxious because of the clutter.”
- “I am all done being touched right now.”
Now, if you are dealing with small kiddos, you may choose to make things more concrete by empowering them to set a timer or maybe you offer a hand gesture (like to turn down the volume). Or maybe you choose to redirect the overwhelming behavior by offering choices, suggesting what they CAN do, or coming together to share feelings and wants for a win-win solution.
Finding time for quiet with two boys under age five seemed impossible when I believed it to be.
I don’t make promises I can’t keep. So, I decided, “Why not make one to myself?
I promise myself to find quiet time for one minute today.
I found time in the morning or at night. Or when they played outside. I set them up somewhere safe and I stepped into the bathroom. I broke out ear plugs. I took a trip to our family’s Calming Corner. I did what I needed to find that one minute a day. When that became doable, I upped it to two minutes and continued on, celebrating my small successes along the way.
For all of you who deeply love your children AND deeply feel the assault to your senses that parenthood can bring, solidarity. You are not alone.