When your Kids Get Overwhelmed

As a parent, it’s hard when my kids get overwhelmed and stressed. It shows in their big feelings, that come out in outbursts, mean words, yelling, sensitivity and crying. Their stress shows in their actions and choices too. They get forgetful and careless, and tend to hurt themselves and each other. And it doesn’t help that when they’re stressed, I’m usually dealing with a crisis.

Most of my adult life has swung from crisis to crisis. Some of them have been great changes — the addition of a new baby, getting married, moving into a new home. Some have been awful — divorce, broken furnaces, flooding, death. Dealing with life changes stresses me out, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

Life, at times, can be overwhelming for anyone.

Bright lights, lots of extra noise, and extra smells — and everyone seems to be rushing. There’s a lot more people out and about, and there’s always some place to be. It’s so easy to get stressed when there’s a lot going on. Maybe it’s a holiday season, or a big life change, like a move, a divorce, or a death in the family. Positive or negative, big changes can mean big feelings for adults. So why be surprised when your kids get overwhelmed too? 

Life changes can overwhelm kids. The excitement and being out of routine can cause anxiety, even without special needs. And for a child with sensory issues, it can be even worse. So what do you do when your kids get overwhelmed? 

When your kids get overwhelmed, try these strategies.

1. Get Grounded

This is a common way to calm someone who’s having a panic attack or is very upset. There’s a few different ways to get grounded, but basically, grounding means to connect with our environment in order to calm down. It’s similar to how one would ground an electrical circuit, to allow for excess charge to go into the earth rather than harming someone who was using it. 

My daughters and I play a few games to get grounded, whenever we start stressing out. 

A. Look for the rainbow

This means that you’ll look for something around you in each color of the rainbow. Looking for colors means you have to focus on what’s around you, and not the circumstances that are causing anxiety. Looking around is a great way to get grounded and calm down. 

B. Play the alphabet game

When we are all feeling slightly overwhelmed, and we have some time, we’ll play the alphabet game. This means that we look around us to find each letter of the alphabet. It’s similar to the rainbow game, but it takes  a bit more time, and more people can play. That means that it works to help calm everyone in the family — including me! 

C. Focus the Five (Senses)

Focus the Five means that I’ll work with my children to use their senses to get grounded when my kids get overwhelmed. We go through the senses to find something to see (usually the rainbow), then we close our eyes to listen and smell. Finally we try to touch different textures, still with our eyes closed, and then we’ll get a snack. I’ll encourage my child to eat slowly and really focus on the taste. By the time we’re done, they’re much calmer. 

Sometimes this is the one that works the best for me, personally. It’s a quick run through, most of the time — to look, listen, sniff, touch and then have a snack and savor it. And it helps me stay calmer, which in turn helps when my kids get overwhelmed. 

2. Take a break

Sometimes when your kids get overwhelmed, the best and fastest way to get them calmer is to take a break. This can be as short or as long as it needs to be. 

When my kids get overwhelmed, I’ll often come down to their level, and tell them to just breathe. They focus on my eyes and mouth, as I breathe with them. We blow, like we’re blowing through a straw, taking deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. Sometimes, I’ll have them make a circle with their fingers and blow through that. 

After the first initial upset is over, I’ll ask them to go get a drink. This physically removes them from where they were upset, and that action often just helps to give an outlet for the excess energy. Plus, having a drink forces you to slow your breathing, and helps you calm down, all by itself. 

If they are still struggling, we’ll move on to a longer break, usually with a quiet time. I’ll have them take a book or coloring, or just a stuffed animal to snuggle, and go lay in bed for a bit. I make it clear this isn’t a consequence, but more filling a need they have.  Quiet time alone often takes care of whatever was stressing them. 

3. Distract them

When your kids get overwhelmed, and you aren’t necessarily in a place where you can practice some of the other strategies, this is often what we resort to. Distraction helps when kids get overwhelmed, because it moves their focus from the stress to the fun of being a kid. 

Distraction can take many forms. Sometimes, I’ll let them pick up a book and just read. Other times, I’ll have them do some chores — ususually big heavy work, to help them let out some of that pent up emotion healthily. 

And sometimes, I’ll pull out their tablet, and give them a blanket and a book to cuddle up and watch movies with. This works similar to naptime, in that a quiet activity that keeps their mind occupied without having to leave a room or get out other supplies. 

When your kids get overwhelmed, sometimes its part of the expression of bigger issue — the lack of one-on-one time and the affection that goes with it. So when I’ve tried snacks, naps and other distraction techniques, I’ll sit and have my daughter with anxiety come and sit with me, where I can tickle her, hug and kiss her to her heart’s content. 

When your kids get overwhelmed, help them out.

Stress happens to the best of us. Our kids need our help when they get overwhelmed and stressed out. Help them calm down and relax by using techniques to get grounded. And use breathing and distraction to help them focus on other things. Then you can get through the holidays — or whatever life change — without getting overwhelmed yourself. 

How do you help your kids manage stress?

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