Learn how to handle a hyperactive child at home! Use these 3 natural ways and 20 simple activities to calm your toddler, 4-year-old, or older child.
Sometimes my house can feel a little crazy. With three boys, there is no shortage of energy, noise, and pure chaos unfolding around me on any given day.
My son Isaac is particularly energetic. Whether he’s running laps through the house, jumping off the couch onto a crash pad made of cushions and random stuffed animals he’s dragged out of his bedroom.
This is often accompanied by talking so loud my head hurts or singing a song at the top of his lungs. He seems to experience life bigger, faster, and harder than my other boys.
He’s always going a mile a minute, with new ideas for how to add more movement, more passion, and more energy into his day.
This level of activity can continue unceasingly, and any efforts I make to slow him down fall on deaf ears.
Is your home anything like mine?
Some will say, “Oh, that’s boys.” But, I’ve seen girls have just as much energy.
Others might say, “You’re not parenting him right, get him under control.”
And, still others will wonder, “Is he hyperactive?”
Why is My Child Hyperactive?
You may have noticed an increased use of the word “hyperactive” in the past several years, whether it be books on the topic, online parenting resources, or even comments from your pediatrician.
The word is often used as a blanket term to describe any kid that is particularly active, like my Isaac.
We use it to describe all sorts of behaviors, from endless movement, to poor attention skills, and even poor self regulation.
To make it clear for this post, let’s define a hyperactive child as one that frequently seeks out movement and can have difficulty sitting still. Another way to look at this behavior though is as a sensory red flag, more on that in a minute.
If your child has a diagnosis of ADHD, this all applies to you, too. But I want to make it clear that we are using “hyperactive child” to include those with and without a diagnosis.
What makes some kids hyperactive? Well, there are tons of factors that include:
- A child’s temperament: Their biological wiring that impacts personality, mood, and even behavior. It’s who they are!
- Genetics: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. If you were “hyperactive,” your child is more likely to be as well.
- Diet: High carb/sugar diets or possible food sensitivities can impact energy levels.
- Environment: If it’s wild and disorganized in a room, it often promotes the same kind of energy shown by your child.
- Season: Winter months may increase hyperactivity because of decreased free play outdoors.
- Sensory processing: How a child takes in the sensations from their environment is totally unique. Kids that are hyperactive may be seeking out those sensations simply because of how their brain works! (More on this in a minute…)
For most “hyperactive” children, a combination of these reasons are likely in play.
And, the reasons can vary from day to day and week to week. On top of that, some kids can be hyperactive on particular days or all of the time.
If it sounds confusing, you’re not alone.
While there is some detective work involved to find out why your child is hyperactive, there is a likely culprit for most kids who show some of these signs.
The Game Changer for Hyperactive Kids…
While any of the above reasons can affect a child’s hyperactivity, there’s one common denominator that’s often at the root of a hyperactive child or toddler: Sensory processing.
It’s almost impossible for hyperactivity and sensory not to go together; they’re a classic pairing like peanut butter and jelly.
Hyperactive kids often have a high threshold for sensory input that the world around them doesn’t quite meet.
This can often look like your child tipping their chair back constantly when they’re required to “sit still,” jumping on the couch incessantly, or getting out of their chair 20 times during dinner.
Their brains are looking for MORE sensations and aren’t satisfied until they get it. That’s why your hyperactive kid keeps pushing the envelope, seeming not to hear or understand you when you tell them to sit down.
It can seem like they’re being bad or defiant. And, it’s easy to let this reflect on you as a parent, something I know from personal experience.
BUT, there’s a huge bright light at the end of the tunnel, and that’s using sensory strategies to help you deal with and handle your hyperactive child or toddler, whether they are 3, 4, or 12 years old.
(Grab our free 21 Sensory Red Flags to see if your child has more signs of sensory difficulties.)
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How to Handle a Hyperactive Child – Naturally
When I think about how to handle a hyperactive child, three different solutions come to mind, all of which are natural ways to calm a hyper child. They are sensory-based strategies that I’ve used as an OT and as a mom, and most importantly, they work! Let’s take a look:
1. Offer activities with rhythm and structure
It’s incredibly important for hyperactive and energetic kids to have an outlet for all that energy. Stifling it, or trying to, often will make it worse.
But sometimes, a free for all can make things much worse. There’s a difference between going outside and running around everywhere, and running back and forth between two points.
The latter is putting some structure to an open activity that may otherwise just make your child more hyperactive.
Then, to kick it up a notch, if you combine some structure with rhythm, the rhythm is often even more calming and organizing to the body and mind (this is one of the sensory tricks).
For instance, singing a rhythmic song like, “The Ants Go Marching One by One” or a military chant-like phrase, “March, one, two, three” over and over again to a specific beat during the activity.
I know that may sound strange, but think about the sound of that military chant repeating in your mind right now. Do you want to lift your feet to march; do you feel a sense of calm?
Those are common experiences and when we pair songs or chants with a rhythmic, repeatable beat to motions like jumping, marching, or running, it can calm kids down quickly.
Now take those ideas of structure and rhythm and apply it to these activities:
- Playing sports – Between rules, physical boundaries of where to play, and time constraints on how long, sports are a great option for structured movement. You may find that your child responds better to individual vs. group sports, as well as the physical exertion level. Swimming and gymnastics are my top 2 to recommend parents start with, due to the sheer amount of movement they require.
- Obstacle course – These don’t have to be too complicated, think about simple ideas like crawling over and under objects, walking on a line, and hopping to the finish line. Click here for more inspiration.
- Going for a walk or run
- Jumping on a trampoline – As in my above example, try singing or simply counting, which is also great for steady focus. We have one like this.
- Climbing – Use a staircase on hands or knees, a jungle gym, a tree, or if you’re lucky enough a rock wall.
These and other structured movement based activities are best for when you need to calm down a hyper child!
2. Free Active Time
Yes, the total opposite of what I just told you. While structure is important for a hyperactive child, so is free play.
Sometimes it’s best to lead with a period of time where they have the time and space to run wild and do what they like. Outside is usually best for this, but these work for your hyperactive child at home, too.
Set some ground rules about safe behavior, and if it’s hard to watch your child climb and jump, maybe there are some dishes you can do!
Here are some specific ideas for free active time you could use with your child:
- Run around outside
- Play on swing set
- Jump on couch or bed
- Have a dance party
- Roughhouse or playfully wrestle together
If your child is really ramped up instead of calmed down after some free play, then you may want to transition to a more structured movement activity. Again, some trial and error has to happen sometimes.
This is usually the last strategy I use for a hyperactive kid and is especially helpful before bed or during activities they need to sit still for.
Hyperactive kids can have a particularly hard time going from a high energy level to a lower one, and using some calming activities like these can make a huge difference:
- Rocking – Either in a swing, hammock, or rocking chair.
- Swinging – Think porch swing, not a contest for who can go the highest on the swing set (which is a great activity and can be helpful in it’s own right, but if you’re going for relaxation, that may not be it). Back and forth movement is very calming to most kids.
- Dim lights – Don’t underestimate this subtle change. Sometimes, just dimming the lights can help calm a child.
- Organized room – An organized space with toys and items put away can also have a big impact. Your hyperactive kid is a lot like a mirror. They react similarly to the environment they are in.
- Music – Think soft, slower music. Lots of kids’ songs have a natural rhythm to them that is calming. Think back to that chant-like repetition we mentioned before.
- Changing light – At times, my kids use these slow changing night lights/diffusers to watch as they drift off to sleep. A lava lamp can have the same effect.
Having a hyperactive child can be exhausting, in every sense of the word, but don’t lose hope!
These three solutions, when used independently or together can have a tremendous impact on your child’s life.
One caveat though: Don’t give up on these too soon.
It’s so important that you try all of these strategies multiple times. It will take you and your child some time to figure out what’s working and what’s not.
How to Deal with a Hyper Toddler
While everything above definitely applies to the younger crowd, toddlers can be a bit of their own beast, so I wanted to share a couple of extra tips for hyperactive toddlers:
Use sensory bins – This is best to try after some structured movement time, but many kids will become very attentive and focused while exploring different textures. Head over to my list of sensory bins for ideas and how to make them educational too.
Riding toys – Most toddlers have one. Have it out often and encourage your hyperactive toddler to ride it and push it around. It’s fantastic sensory input that will likely calm them down.
Pile the couch cushions on the floor – All kids love this, but it’s especially perfect for toddlers. The climbing and jumping will meet their sensory needs.
Now you have a plan for how to deal with a hyperactive child or toddler! But, there’s a potential danger that can sabotage your efforts…
The Hidden Trigger for Hyperactive Kids
Screen time – I know how much the TV or tablet can be a lifesaver, but pay attention to how often your hyperactive kid is watching it, and how it affects them.
More and more studies are showing that screen time actually increases hyperactivity (See this article).
Since hyperactive kids are more sensitive to their environments and input, it makes sense that they are often more negatively affected by screen time.
If this seems like an impossible task to you, start small.
Try using screen time strategically and to your advantage. Remember how we mentioned adding structure when it comes to using activities? The same thing goes for screen time.
Start by building screen time into the routines of your day with clear boundaries for when you do and don’t use it. Add it in where it helps you without having a complete free for all.
If you think screen time might be affecting your hyperactive child, here is an article on other methods for decreasing screen time that can help.
Wait, is ADHD Causing My Child’s Hyperactivity?
According to recent research, anywhere from 6%-16% of kids aged 3-17 years old who exhibit hyperactive tendencies will be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
It is more common in boys than girls, but the rates have become more balanced between the two in recent years.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, and is defined by persistent and frequent episodes of hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity.
Kids with ADHD will absolutely benefit from the sensory techniques and strategies mentioned above, but may also require other assistance from healthcare professionals..
To learn more about the sensory and ADHD connection, click here.
Get More Strategies for Helping Hyperactive Kids!
Grab my 21 Sensory Red Flags You Might Be Missing Printable. Whether sensory is new to you or not, it’s an important checklist to have.
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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.