Using Imagery to Calm an Overstimulated Child

posted in: Parenting | 2

If you do an web search, you’ll probably find a plethora of links about imagery and visualization, techniques to calm and focus your mind, etc. Images, whether real or visualized within the mind, really can help anyone to get to a calm state.  And since I specialize in images, I thought it was fitting to share this with you — as October is Sensory Processing Awareness month.  All kids have sensory needs — and use their senses to process and understand the world as it relates to them.

I’m not an expert in sensory processing (what is sensory processing?), nor do I have a child with a sensory processing disorder, but regardless, I wanted to share five tips that I’ve found helpful when my toddler gets overstimulated and need calming (not all related to imagery directly, but worth sharing regardless).

Using Imagery to Calm an Overstimulated Child -

A cluttered environment can be overwhelming for anyone.  I’m not just talking physical clutter, such as toys and “mess.”  I’m talking lights, sounds, even smells.  It can lead to that feeling of needing to “get away” or escape, or inability to function at full capacity.  White noise or background chatter can become overwhelming when trying to focus on a specific task.

Have you ever felt the overwhelming need to step outside, to get somewhere quiet so your mind can focus?

I know I have.  And physically removing yourself to a location isn’t always an option.That’s when calming techniques can come in handy.  What techniques have we used to find that “calm” and peace?

  • Deep breathing – belly breaths are great for grounding yourself.  Your gut should expand and contract as you breath, and it can help to focus in on how much air you can push in and out of your lungs.
  • Visualization – sometimes it helps to close your eyes and imagine/pretend you are somewhere else.  Some place that you find calming.  Maybe picturing a waterfall in your mind.  This can be tough for kids to get the hang of at first, but more on that in a bit.
  • Finding a visual anchor – if you’ve ever been seasick, you may be familiar with the advice to fix your eyes on the horizon.  It’s an anchor, a constant… something that is not moving when everything else is not still.  Find something to fix your eyes on, a visual anchor, something that can help you to feel grounded and become calm.
  • Look at a picture – for kids who have trouble seeing pictures in their minds, looking at an actual picture or photograph can be a good calming tool.  The type of picture will depend on the child.
  • Physical touch – hugs from a loved one can be reassuring and grounding.  Have you ever just needed to be hugged and held?  When someone’s arms encircle you, there is a certain calmness and strength that passes from your comforter to you.

It’s been interesting to teach these techniques to my toddler.  Interesting, but helpful.

Deep Breathing Techniques:

Deep breathing can be demonstrated.  “Here, breathe with me.  In… out…. in… out…”  My toddler will visibly calm down as he focuses on matching my breathing.  You can even invite your child to put their hand on your belly to feel it rise and fall as you breathe.  Or suggest they watch their own belly go in and out.  Focusing on the repetitive action will help take their minds off being overwhelmed and redirect it to something they can control.

Thoughts on Visualization:

The art of visualization is more difficult to teach, but we’ve talked about using our imagination, pretending to see something with our eyes closed, and the like.  Asking my son to “remember” a calm place can be helpful too.  I remember reading in a parenting book about an exercise where you talk about a scene that is all white: “the white snow falling outside, sitting in a white room on a white couch, etc.”  The repetition of a calming color can be useful.  Scenery with water can be very calming too (waterfalls, rivers).  Sometimes my son will visualize the letters of his name  as they hang on the wall of his room.

As a kid, I remember squeezing my eyes shut as tight as I could, and “seeing” patterns.  Try it.  Look at something, say a light, for 5-10 seconds and then close your eyes.  You’ll have something to “look at” even though your eyes are closed. Patterns of light and dark.

It all depends on the individual as to what is calming.  You might find something by trial and error.

Visual Anchor Ideas:

Sometimes there is something in a room that you can focus on — a clock, a light, something stationary. Maybe looking out a window at nature could help if the indoor environment is too stimulating.  The visual anchor doesn’t have to be immovable — it just needs to help your child zone in and concentrate on getting calm rather than continuing to become stressed.

You could also make a “calm down” jar (like this LEGO Calm Down Jar), or a “find it” jar for your child to use.  The simple act of rotating, twisting, and turning a container to look at its contents can be a great visual activity for some kids.

Tips for Looking at a Picture:

Sometimes looking at a serene landscape or peaceful beach photograph can be helpful.  I know that when I’m stressed, photos such as these will help me to become more calm.  But it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.  Some kids may respond to images of nature, others may do better with a picture of their family.  Perhaps a book with pictures would be more helpful for another child.  Even those “find it” style picture books (Where’s Waldo #afflink, anyone?) may work, as they require concentration and may redirect attention, helping your child to become calm.

Notes on Physical Touch:

Depending on the child, offering hugs or any sort of physical contact may or may not work.  If a kid is “touched out” they will likely get more stressed from a hug or being held.  But sometimes kids are in need of the physical contact of a hug.  I haphazardly discovered that my toddler would misbehave when he “needed me” — so after a series of hugs and loving talks, I urged him to tell me “I need a hug” rather than getting out of control…. or to ask for my help in calming down.

In the weeks since that discovery, I will open my arms and offer a hug, or remind my son verbally that he can ask for a hug if he needs one.  Sometimes that’s all it takes for us to put an end to things.

Wrapping Up:

If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that all of these tips will NOT work for all kids. No two children are alike, and it’s a never-ending process to determine what works for your own child.  Plus, what works one day may not work another.

A child’s sensory system is under construction, so to speak.  Connections are being made, and sometimes kids get overstimulated — they need to calm down, to refocus.  Focusing on the different sensory aspects may help a child calm down, remember to communicate physically only as appropriate (e.g. hugs) and verbally when needed.

Do you have tips for helping kids cope with their emotional and physical reactions?  Ideas for getting beyond physical communication to verbal communication?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Decoding Everyday Kid Behaviors: “Why Does My Kid Do That?”

This post is part of the Decoding Everyday Kid Behaviors series. Over 30 bloggers have written posts about classic childhood quirks and how sensory needs may play into them. All children have sensory needs, and these posts will help you understand your child better, regardless of whether their sensory needs are typical or severe.

Additionally, Project Sensory is another resource you may want to check out.  Their mission is to help grow a community that supports all children in their every day lives, whether they have a sensory processing disorder or not.

2 Responses

  1. Angella L

    I love this post. We have to use several techniques when our son is stemming. I feel so bad for him because I know he doesn’t know what to do with himself when he feels that way.

  2. Betsy Finn

    That’s so tough, Angella. All kids have to learn what to do with themselves when they are overwhelmed… and sometimes it is really hard. Hey, I know I’ve found myself overwhelmed and not able to become calm on occasion. Sensory processing skills sometimes take practice to master.