The Overstimulated Parent

I knew babies could get overstimulated. When ours weren’t sleeping well, one of the first things I did was make sure there wasn’t too much going on before their naps and that they had a dark, quiet environment for sleeping. But it took me a long time to realize that most of the times when I snapped at my husband or kids, it wasn’t because I was angry, it was because I was overstimulated. I still shouldn’t have snapped at them, but once I couldn’t address the root properly until I knew what it was. Mom gets overstimulated, too—and it can be just as detrimental as when baby is overstimulated.

Once the worst of my postpartum depression was over, I still felt like my brain was about to explode. Daily life had moved from numbness to panic-like tension. No matter what our routine was, how I reduced stress, or how much sleep I got, I constantly felt like managing simple responsibilities was like shoving a square peg into a round hole. Some of the irritability[1] and inability to focus was just a symptom of depression. But in the four years since that bout of PPD, I’ve realized that a large portion of it was also overstimulation.

I should have known sooner that I was easily overstimulated: youth group was often stressful for me, and I skipped the singing time at youth conferences because it was too loud, too crowded, too much. I pick up on details quickly, which can be nice, but also means that there’s often too much in one place for me to really process. It’s overwhelming, and my reaction is often anger or impatience because something just needs to stop.

It’s no excuse for anger, but it’s helped me know what to do instead of getting angry.

  1. Remember the problem isn’t anything anyone is doing, but simply that the amount of stimulus has sent me into flight/fight mode. I’m not about to explode. The world isn’t about to end. I’m not forgetting something important. Knowing this helped me be calmer when our third was a baby, because I could tell myself I wasn’t losing my mind; there was just too much going on.
  2. Take a deep breath: the “there’s just too much!” feeling is very similar to panic, and focusing on deep breaths helps me calm the panic and sort out the various inputs. I’m also usually praying at this point, especially praying that I won’t sin in my overstimulation. Closing your eyes if you can helps, too (or throw an apron over your head like Sarah Edwards ;)).
  3. Turn down or off whatever stimulus you can. Ask the kids to be quiet or go outside, or leave the room if you can. (I confess that often this has looked like me shouting “STOP!” because all I can think about is there being too much going on). Sometimes I just have to choose to shut out or ignore certain stimuli, filtering out what isn’t important. A lot of people mention turning on peaceful or worship music as a way to dwell on the truth instead of sinking into depression or anxiety. I have done this at night, but if my kids are around, I cannot handle it.
  4. Deal with what’s going on one thing at a time. Sometimes I make a list for that, other times, each kid gets a turn to say something. It’s been helpful for me to set a timer to blitz through a few things or do a brain dump while my kids watch a video or at least know that they get mommy back when the timer goes off.
  5. Make low-stimulus time a priority. When our third was little, I extended her last nap of the day by wearing her in the carrier, in a dark bedroom, with white noise on while my husband finished up dinner with the older two. After a few nights of this, I realized that that half an hour was a great help to me. Since then, I’ve found myself taking rests or “naps” and realizing that I’m not actually fatigued, I just needed to let my brain have a break and unwind. Lowering stimuli also means that I have to be careful to not get too wrapped up in a book, podcast, blog article, etc. when the kids are awake or it’s not their rest time, so that if I am interrupted, my brain isn’t already full.

Over time, this has helped me expand my capacity for stimuli. I’m doing better with three kids than I did for a long time with only two, but it’s taken a long time. It’s also harder for me to handle excess stimuli in the Winter, when my seasonal depression is around. But with practice, I’ve learned to identify overstimulation, sort out the stimuli, and try to reduce them so that I can process everything I need to.

(This podcast has some helpful tips, and it’s pretty amazing to hear about all of the different sensory systems God designed).


[1] Irritability = tendency to be irritated, easily irritated. This is different from the action taken in response, which could be sinful or not. We can be irritable due to sin, but other stressors can lead us that direction as well.

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