Stay Calm while Parenting Toddlers

Parenting toddlers, 2 year olds or preschoolers can leave you feeling like an overwhelmed, dysregulated and angry mom. Could you be experiencing sensory overload as a mom of toddlers?

parenting toddlers can be overwhelming

Five o’clock in my house

I’m trying to get dinner ready. My baby girl is crying and keeps pulling up to stand while holding my legs. I find her a toy and get back to cutting the chicken. My toddler is racing through the house on his tricycle screaming at the top of his lungs. “weeooo weeooo weeooo, monster fire truck”. A podcast is playing the background, something about how to have patience with your kids. Breathe in. 

Toddler has spotted baby and decided that bumping her with his wheels is better than monster fire truck. Baby cries. I wash and dry my hands and head over to pick her up. Crunch crunch. I walk over some rice she has spilt on the floor. I put baby on the kitchen counter next to me, and continue to cut the cold chicken. Breathe out.

Toddler has now decided that hiding under my dress and spinning around is fun. Baby knocks over the bottle of olive oil. I wash and dry my hands. Pick up baby, she is clawing at my chest, direct toddler towards playing lego in the living room. Breathe in. 

Back to the kitchen. I switch off the podcast as I haven’t heard the last ten minutes anyway. I try to put baby in her high chair. She struggles and wont put her legs down. I hold her while putting chicken into a pan and cleaning the spilled olive oil. Breathe out.

My hand is oily. I wash it again. I can’t find where I put the dish towel to dry it. Baby pulls off my glasses. Toddler is back because he used the potty and needs help pulling up his underwear. Baby drops glasses and starts to cry. Breathe in.

I try again, this time successfully to put baby back in her chair. I cut a mango and give it to her. She drops it to the floor. I pick it up and give her another piece. As I bend she swats at my hair with her mango sticky hands. My hand still feels oily. “Weeoo weeoo weeoo” starts again. Breathe out. 

Sensory Overload 

Yes granted five o’clock is “happy hour”, yes I probably could have planned a small pre-dinner snack for baby, not attempted to listen to a podcast, had baby safe locks on the cupboards, put in ear plugs ….BUT even with the best laid plans mothering small children is a bombardment of the senses. 

Everything we experience is filtered through our sensory system. Sensory processing is bodies system of receiving sensory information from the environment and responding appropriately. For example: I touch a hot stove top, my brain signals to me to lift my hand. Our response may be emotional or physical but it all starts with our senses

Sensory overload is when the brain is receiving more sensory information than it can handle resulting in increased cortisol (stress hormone) and the blood flow in your brain going into the more primitive centres of your brain causing a “fight or flight” response. 

Sensory overload may feel like: 

  • Extreme irritability or feeling triggered 
  • Difficulty focusing 
  • An urge to close your eyes or block your ears 
  • An urge to escape or be in a different environment 
  • Feeling “wound up” and taking a long time to get back to your normal self
  • Feeling uncoordinated or off balance  

Sensory Profile 

Each of us have our own individual sensory makeup. Yes on the outside, physically my skin may look the same as yours but the way you feel sand on your feet may be different to the way I do. Similarly, some people concentrate best with music playing in the background while others find it very distracting. There is a large spectrum of “normal” interpretation/ processing of each sensory experience. 

So I’m sure you have heard of the 5 senses (seeing, hearing, smell, touch, and taste) but there are actually 8 senses*. 

  1. Visual (seeing) 
  2. Auditory (hearing)  
  3. Olfactory (smell)
  4. Tactile (touch) 
  5. Gustatory (taste) 
  6. Vestibular (sense of head movement in space) 
  7. Proprioceptive (sensations from muscles and joints) 
  8. Introception (sensations related to internal organs)

*Okay, full truth- some researchers believe we have up to 33 senses but these 8 are the “generally accepted” ones and the ones that are focussed on in Occupational Therapy and Sensory Integration Treatments.  

Neurological Threshold

Each of our brains can tolerate a certain amount of each sensation– this is known as our neurological threshold. Each of our sensory systems has its own threshold and they can all be different. 

For example: My dear husband- He can reverse with the radio on full blast, children singing in the back and maintain a conversation ( in other words: In the area of auditory processing he has a high threshold and can tolerate a lot of sound input while still functioning normally). On the other hand he hates soft touch, prickly clothes and food touching on his plate (He has a low threshold for touch and is easily thrown off by sensory experiences that another person might not notice). 

Threshold Fluctuations

Ever noticed how now-a-days, as a “grown-up”, spinning around a hundred times makes you feel sick? Like not just fall over and laugh, but queasy and sick. Or that amusement park rides feel a little more extreme now than they did when you were a child? 

Yip, that’s your vestibular system and like our other senses its ability to tolerate intense movements (ie: it’s threshold) naturally decreases over time. 

However, it is not only aging that makes your threshold change- your threshold can fluctuate throughout the day. 

Remember how I said that when you go into sensory overload your brain releases stress hormones? Well it works the other way too. If you are already stressed, sleep deprived, mentally overloaded, anxious or hyper aroused your body is more sensitive to sensory input and can switch into sensory overload more easily. 

Have you ever experienced this? After a particularly sleepless night do you find the sound of  morning cartoons rather jarring? Or have you ever noticed feeling particularly annoyed by small hands hanging on you while you are trying to get everything together to get out the door on time? 

Mothering and the Senses

Now don’t get me wrong- I love my kids and I genuinely enjoy being around them but there is no two ways about it : Mothering small children is a bombardment on the senses.  

Touch: During your time with your young children does an hour go by that you are not being held onto? Cuddled? Picking up? Unlikely. Over-touched is the norm with toddlers. 

Sound: Giggles, crying, from babbling to speaking in full sentences young children naturally fill the room with sound. And also don’t forget the toys that sing! 

Sight: Not much staring off into the distance happening when you are watching a daredevil toddler hey? 

Vestibular: Any mama that suffers from back pain or headaches will tell you- small kids involve an excessive amount of bending! Whether it’s to put on shoes or kiss boo-boos or pick up toys, all that bending is activating your vestibular sense around the clock. 

The list goes on and I think you get the point. Being a mom of small kids sure gets our senses working and can have us in a constant state of dysregulation. 

 

Oh, and of course the sleep deprivation and mental load (part and parcel of mothering) naturally lower your sensory threshold making you just that little more sensitive to begin with. 

What to do when you are experience Sensory Overload? 

So it’s now your five o’clock scenario. Maybe it’s not five o’clock that overwhelms your senses- maybe it’s a trip to the grocery store, children’s parties, being at an animal farm or the morning rush. 

You begin to feel “wound up”, you feel yourself getting irritated by small things, you can’t really concentrate or feel unfocused, maybe you notice that your balance is a bit off or your hands don’t feel super co-ordinated and you have the urge to be somewhere else. Yip, that is most likely sensory overload. 

  1. First, stop! Notice what is happening around you and which of your senses are bothering you right now. Is it the sound of crying, is it the toddler climbing on you? 
  2. What can you do to change the environment to not experience this sense? Just a tip here, yelling at your kids is very unlikely to do the trick. Naturally, children respond to anger in ways that are not soothing to those around them (crying, pushing, shouting, etc.). It might be getting some physical space by asking kids to sit in their chairs instead of holding you, it might be doing a quick clean up of the toys scattered on the floor. 
  3. Simplify what you need to get done. It makes sense that sensory stress often happens while we are trying to focus on something. Whether it be driving, getting dinner on the table or packing lunches. When you feel yourself becoming triggered it’s important to as far as is possible to cut back on what you are focussing on at that time. Can dinner maybe come without a salad tonight? Could you come back to the store at another time to finish shopping? Sometimes this is impossible to do but where possible try simplifying. 
  4. Take a break. It doesn’t have to be a trip to the Spa, but a moment to breathe can tremendously help refresh your sensory system. A bathroom break or stepping outside for a moment could do the trick. 
mom yelling

An Example 

So let’s go back to my scenario that I started with. My natural response would have been to yell because I was feeling pretty irritated. And if I had yelled at my kids, I wouldn’t have felt any better and would have felt bad about it afterwards (Can you relate?). 

I noticed that being touched (baby hanging on legs, toddler playing with my dress, holding baby, babies sticky hands) was really triggering me. Also, the noises were making me feel overwhelmed (siren sounds, crying, and the sound of the podcast I was listening to).  

I attempted to change my environment by getting some physical distance from my sweet baby (putting her in her highchair) and giving her a snack so lessen the hangry crying. I also switched off the background noise of the podcast. 

I simplified what I was planning to cook for dinner and decided to cut less vegetables for the stirfry and do noodles instead of rice (quicker). 

I then sat down for a minute with my baby while she ate her snack. I didn’t play or chat or think about my to-do list. I just sat. Only for a minute. 

And when I stood back up to continue cleaning there was still all the noise and mess of two small children and the rush to get food on the table but my sensory system had been re-set and I felt calm. 

Summing it up 

To sum it up – 

  • We each have a unique way of experiencing different senses
  • Sometimes when there is a lot happening around us our different sensory systems can become overloaded and we may feel triggered/ off balance or having difficulty focusing.
  • When we are tired, stressed or anxious we can become more easily overwhelmed by the sensory information in our environment. 
  • Tasks related to caring for small children and mothering are generally very sensory rich. 
  • When you experience sensory overload it is helpful to be mindful of which of your senses is being overwhelmed and adjust your environment accordingly. 
  • Taking a short break can reset your sensory system. 

Here’s to Staying Calm Mama, 

Holly 

For the sake of clarity, this article is not to be confused with SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) but rather aims to highlight the specific sensory overload that mothers of young children may experience.  

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