How to help kids cope with visual overstimulation during the holidays
Visual overstimulation is common among children, even if they don’t have any conditions associated with overstimulation. Their brains are still developing and figuring out the world around them, including how to deal with various forms of stimulation.
With holiday lights, decorations, movies, and gatherings, visual overstimulation can easily happen at home or at events, which may cause kids to feel overwhelmed and have a hard time listening, staying focused, or regulating their emotions. To help them deal with this, try the following strategies.
Changing their screens to black and white
Smartphones can provide visual overstimulation all on their own! The colorful apps and graphics stimulate our brains, acting as a reward which keeps us coming back to them. Turning the display from bright over-saturated colors to black and white may feel strange at first, but it really helps to lessen the visual overwhelm we might experience when we look at our phones.
Visual overstimulation can go along with other kinds of sensory overload. If a child is experiencing both auditory and visual overstimulation, they may become even more overwhelmed. Offering earplugs can make their experience less overwhelming as sounds become muted.
Dimming the lights
While earplugs mute the sounds in a room, dimming the lights mutes the colors and overall visual stimulation within a space. If you don’t have dimmers on your overhead lights, you can actually use lamps in place of overhead lighting. Lamps tend to provide softer lighting and are less overpowering.
Turning off music
This could be especially relevant during a party or other event. If your child becomes overstimulated and overwhelmed, turning down or turning off the music may help. Christmas music can provide joy to some, but it may overwhelm others, especially when combined with the other elements of a party or event such as loud conversations, bright lights, and decorations.
Offering weighted blanked
A weighted blanket can activate the parasympathetic nervous system which slows the heart rate down during moments of stress and anxiety. The gentle pressure of a weighted blanket provides a similar calm-inducing sensation as being hugged or held.
If purchasing a weighted blanket for your child, be careful to get the correct weight. Some, meant for adults, weigh 20 lbs or more and may be too heavy for a child.
Sitting in the cold to help calm down
This one may seem counterintuitive, but being cold reduces our heart rate, and therefore can actually make us feel calmer. You could encourage your child to pair this with a mindfulness exercise like focusing on taking deep, slow breaths. Of course, don’t stay outside too long if it’s very cold! Just a few minutes in the cold air should do the trick.
Reading books or doing hands-on activities
Reading is a great attention practice, which allows the mind to focus on one thing. If your child is feeling overstimulated and overwhelmed, offering them a quiet, dimly light space to read could calm them down. You can also provide them with materials to draw or write, or provide activities such as worksheets.
The same calming effect won’t be achieved with a tablet, because the colors and brightness can keep the brain in a state of overstimulation.
Reducing the number of decorations
Decorations can be a source of visual overstimulation during the holidays. Especially when combined with other stimulating factors like loud conversations and music, they can be overwhelming. Try to reduce the number of decorations in your home, or perhaps stick to a simple color scheme that isn’t too visually loud. For example, using more muted green and white decorations may be less overwhelming than a lot of bright red decorations or colorful lights.
Using fireplaces to promote calm
It is thought that sitting by a fire provides us with a sense of calm on an evolutionary level. After all, for our ancestors, a crackling fire usually meant socializing, safety, and food. The heat from the fire also increases blood flow which provides an extra warming and calming effect.
However, even watching a video of a fire has a calming effect, so if you don’t have a fireplace, a video is a great backup option!
Offering your child physical touch
Gentle and nurturing physical touch is important to children’s development and helps them learn how to self-regulate. Some children respond well to physical touch when overstimulated. Putting an arm around your child or gently rubbing their back may help them to feel calmer. Other children may find touch to be overwhelming if they’re already overstimulated, so be mindful when trying to soothe your child in this way.
Each person experiences visual overstimulation differently, so if your child is able to express what is specifically bothering them, listen to what they have to say. If possible, ask your child what would help them at the moment. Trying the techniques outlined above can help children feel less visually overstimulated during the holidays, and help bring them back to calm when they’re overwhelmed.