Is Your Child with ADHD Misbehaving or Is it Sensory Overload?

Health Writer

The holiday season is approaching. That means, lights, music, parties, family gathering, shopping trips. All the excitement surrounding the holidays equates to sensory overload in many children. For children with ADHD, sensory overload can spell disaster.

Poor behavior vs. sensory overload

You might be aware that your child has a hard time focusing or becomes more hyperactive when in places where there is a lot of activity and stimulation. But overstimulation has been associated with a host of other behavioral issues. The North Shore Pediatric Therapy center explains that, due to sensory overload, children might show the following behaviors:

  • Irritability
  • Inability to focus on concentrate
  • Temper tantrums
  • Overly hyperactive
  • Overly impulsive
  • Moving from one activity to another
  • Shuts down and avoids interacting with others

Reactions to sensory overload are as varied as the children themselves. Some might act out, others might turn inward and shy away from any social interaction. When you start looking at your child’s challenging behaviors and seeing the frustration or pain behind them, you can look for solutions rather than becoming frustrated and upset yourself.

What causes sensory overload?

Children with ADHD are often hypersensitive - they have a difficult time processing some sensory experiences. Loud noises, bright lights and high levels of activity can commonly bring on sensory overload but there are many other stimuli that can cause problems. Your child might be alright if one or two high stimulus things are going on at one time but during the holidays these add up quickly, causing your child to become overwhelmed. The following are situations that might cause a child with hypersensitivities discomfort:

  • Loud noises, buzzing noises, banging noises, loud talking or environments with noise coming from multiple sources
  • Bright lights, flashing or blinking lights
  • High activity levels
  • Smells of certain foods, strong aromas or smells of multiple foods at once
  • Texture of certain foods
  • Being touched
  • People being too close or bumping into other people
  • The feel of certain clothing including rough textured clothing, clothing with tags or seams that irritate the skin

Thanksgiving, which traditionally kicks off our holiday season, can be the start of a month long “overstimulation” event.

Be proactive to help your child manage overstimulation

There are a number of ways you can help your child better manage overstimulation during the holiday season:

Talk about what to expect. Before heading to any holiday event, talk to your child about what to expect, including what time you will be arriving and what time you expect to leave. Let him or her know what will happen during the event.

Provide a safe, quiet area. Whether you are in your home or a relative’s home, look for an area your child can retreat to when things become overwhelming. (In your home it could be your child’s bedroom, in a relative’s house you could ask your host if there is an area you can set aside for your child.) You might want to pack a backpack with a few items from home your child can play with alone.

Bring along food you know your child will eat. If your child has food sensitivities, pack food you know he will like. Hunger can add to irritability and behavior issues.

Let friends and relatives know if your child doesn’t like being hugged. Some families are “huggers” and don’t understand when someone avoids their hug. They may see your child as being rude. Let them know in advance that his preference is to simply say hello.

Think about other triggers that might causes your child to feel overwhelmed. Coming up with ideas and solutions to make the holiday event more bearable for your child will help everyone have a better time.

For more information on sensory difficulties:

What is Sensory Processing?

Sensory Processing Disorder: Managing Sensory Issues in Children with ADHD During the Holidays