Learn how to help a child sensitive to noise, whether it’s loud noise or other sounds with these 5 simple steps!
How do you help a child that’s sensitive to noise? Noise is all around us, it’s kinda hard to avoid. And, noise sensitivity isn’t one size fits all either. Some kids are only sensitive to loud noises, while others are sensitive to noise in general.
I’m sharing a step-by step plan to help you get to the bottom of your child’s noise sensitivity and maybe even more importantly, how to help them learn to help themselves when noise sends them over the edge. These are the steps that I’ve used as an occupational therapist working with children and are in alignment with the steps we teach inside of our online sensory classroom for parents.
The last step is something that might surprise you, but could change everything! (You’ll find out what it is soon…)
Why is a Child Sensitive to Noise in General?
First, we’ve got to talk about the two different groups that kids could potentially fall into when it comes to “sensitive hearing,” as it’s sometimes put. Some kids are sensitive to all sorts of sounds. Noises like background music, someone clicking their pen, or a toy being played with repeatedly, can cause them to totally flip out.
And then, there’s the noises that the highly sensitive notice, that most don’t. Sounds like the humming of fluorescent lights or an appliance running.
Most of us filter out these noises. It’s our sensory systems job. We are constantly hearing noises and our brain decides which noises we’re going to pay attention to. For kids that are noticing a lot of sounds, their brain is literally telling them that all the noises are important. When that happens, it becomes difficult to pay attention to anything else.
And, when the noise doesn’t stop, other senses can become heightened as well. The child may not want to be touched, lights can seem bright, and then they could have a total meltdown.
It isn’t pretty, and it can certainly feel frustrating, but what’s most important to keep in mind is that the child isn’t doing this on purpose. It is their sensory processing and this is a type of sensory sensitivity.
Why is a child sensitive to loud noises particularly?
Other kids seem to tolerate all sorts of noises and sounds in their environment except for the loud, sudden ones like a fire truck that whizzed down the street, a blender being flicked on, or the hand dryer in public restrooms. And many kids from the first category can also be sensitive to loud noises.
Loud sudden noises are bothersome to lots of kids. It can feel scary and they can actually hear much better than we can as adults, so these sounds likely sound even louder to them than they do to us.
If your child is having consistent extreme reactions to loud noises, then this too could be considered a sensory sensitivity.
Will My Child Get Over Their Noise Sensitivity?
Many children learn how to handle the sensitivity to loud noises and as they get older, they become desensitized to the noise as well. For other kids, they may always have an auditory sensitivity, as we would call it in the sensory realm, but they learn some important coping mechanisms.
Other sensory sensitivities like tactile defensiveness and avoiding vestibular input can be directly desensitized. But, it’s not so easy with loud noises, in particular, because it’s difficult to deliberately subject your child to loud noises repeatedly. As I just mentioned, though it does inadvertently and eventually happen in lots of instances because ultimately they do hear lots of sounds.
My thoughts as an OT is to focus on helping your child stop, avoid, or lessen the noise.
How You Can Help Support Your Child That’s Sensitive to Noise
For really young children, most of this responsibility will fall on you, as the parent. But, as children get older, they can learn to advocate for themselves and have a tool box of tricks to help themselves when they find a noise is bothering them. Before we get to those specific strategies, I want to walk through some specific steps that you can use over and over again when you’re faced with the challenge of a child that’s sensitive to noises.
1. Realize that it’s not their fault – Hopefully after reading why kids are sensitive to noise above, you’re beginning to think about your child’s reactions in a new light. This simple mindset shift allows you to be more emotionally available and think a little more clearly when your child is having a melt down. Your child will sense that you’re there to help them. That you yourself are support. This is a good thing and your bond will deepen because of it.
2. Identify what sounds tend to bother your child – Take a few minutes to think about the noises that bother your child. Are they annoying sounds that repeat in their environment, like the low-buzz of the lights? Or, are they only bothered by the hand dryers in Target? Or, is it both?
Knowing which noises tend to set them off will help you be prepared for these noises whether you can plan for them or not. If you’re not sure, don’t hesitate to ask your child, at a time when their calm. One other thing to keep in mind is that toddlers that aren’t speaking yet or kids that are non-verbal may give other subtle indications that noise is bothering them before they totally melt down. Do you notice rocking, temper increasing, pacing, etc.?
If so, they may be trying to cope with a repetitive noise. Try to tune into your own hearing in a more heightened way. Is there anything that you hear that you didn’t notice before?
3. Is there a way to easily avoid these sounds? – Some sound can be somewhat avoidable. If your child hates loud music, don’t play it. You can also turn off certain appliances or use the vacuum when they can be in another space. Of course, there will be times you can’t avoid the hand dryer or fire truck, so we’ll need the next step.
But, before we move on, it’s important to note that if your child has already hit meltdown mode because of a bothersome sound, stopping the noise probably won’t matter at this point, but it may help you respond quicker the next time they experience the same noise.
4. Teach your child to protect their ears – The absolute simplest thing you can do for any child is to teach them to immediately cover their ears, and press hard into their head to minimize the noise. Not only does this help soften the sound, but it also teaches them to be proactive. Not to mention that the pressure they’re placing on their heads is giving calming proprioceptive input.
You can practice this before they encounter a noise. For instance, you might say to your child before you go to the store, “If you hear a noise you don’t like, you can cover your ears like this.” Or, if a loud sound pops up unexpectedly, quickly and clearly tell them, “Cover your ears.” Put your hands on top of theirs to show them how, if need be.
In addition, you can also have a pair of noise cancelling headphones, or regular headphones playing music or sound they do like available. Have them available wherever they need them…
In your purse or diaper bag.
In the car.
In their book bag.
In your house, where they can easily get to them (maybe place in a special basket or bin?)
5. Find another support to help calm down – This is the step most people overlook, but this is what can help your child recover quickly from a meltdown. Now what helps calm YOUR child down will be unique. You’ll want to think about what they normally like, and what’s maybe worked before. Always respect your child and what they need in the moment, never forcing anything.
Additional activities that can help your child are:
- Giving them a firm bear hug
- Placing your hands firmly on their shoulders
- Doing joint compressions (not for all kids, this is a sensory trick!)
- Squeezing or holding a stuffed animal or fidget toy
- Holding them and rocking back and forth
- Allowing them to retreat to quiet place or inside of a sensory tent
- Give them the chance to jump on the couch, bed, or trampoline
- Chewing gum or sucking on a piece of candy (See more about oral sensory activities)
Find more ways to help your child calm down in Sensory Diet Activities.
Because an auditory sensitivity can wreck the delicate balance of the whole sensory system, giving input or calming sensations to the other senses can help them relax and recover more quickly. If you aren’t sure what will help, you can try using sensory cards and showing your child pictures so they have a few ideas to choose from.
Just remember to keep what you offer simple and focused on calming. But, your child will ultimately know what’s going to help them the most!
Lastly, if your child is in daycare or school, you’ll want to help educate the teachers and caregivers to the best of your ability. This communication is critical so they can support your child when you can’t. For strategies on how to have a helpful and productive conversation with your child’s teacher, check out Sensory Strategies for School.
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Tools to Help Kids Sensitive to Noises
There are so many options available to help kids sensitive to noise, but you’ll want to make an educated decision about which ones will most likely help your child. Some kids like tiny headphones that go inside of their ears because it’s much less tactile input than traditional headphones. Other kids may like the pressure on their head from noise cancelling headphones. Here are some of my top picks as an OT:
- Noise Cancelling Headphones for Kids – These are perfect if you just want to block the noise out. They fit easily in a purse or bookbag and are affordable enough to have several pairs in various locations, if needed!
- Headband headphones for kids – If your kiddo wants something soft on their head and ears or is motivated by a cute animal (there’s a bunch to choose from), this could be a great fit.
- Vibes Ear Plugs – So I haven’t actually used these but, they look amazing. A year ago, I watched this video about how they worked and it left an impression on me. These little ear plugs are easy to place in the ear and they only cancel out the loud noises in the environment, but still allow you to hear people talking!
Is Being Sensitive to Noise Just the Tip of the Iceberg?
If your child’s sensory needs or behaviors seem overwhelming, confusing, or out of control know, that you’re not alone. Not all professionals are trained in sensory and in general, there’s a lack of understanding. I want to change that! Join me as I co-teach How to Create A Sensory Diet in 4 Simple Steps, a free workshop.
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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.