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The Reasons Parents Feel Overstimulated—and Tips to Help You Cope

The dog is barking, the baby needs to nurse and your toddler is literally clinging to your leg. Cue sensory overload. Here’s why you feel completely overwhelmed, plus tips to calm your senses.
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By Lauren Barth, Associate Content Director, Lifecycle
Updated June 1, 2023
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As parents, we’re perpetually bombarded with the wants, needs and requests of the little but demanding humans in our lives. Keeping them fed, bathed, well-rested and happily at play is, of course, part of the gig, but it can also somehow feel both depleting and overstimulating. There’s a lot coming at us: whines and cries and clammy palms and hungry mouths, all begging for our immediate attention. We lend our ears, use our voices and share our bodies to keep our children happy, healthy and fulfilled. But our senses rarely get a break from the nonstop stimuli. It’s no wonder we can feel edgy, agitated or downright panicky at the sound of one more “LOOK AT ME, MOM!”

Sensory overload is a common complaint among parents, but what exactly does it mean, why does it happen and what are some ways to quell the rising irritation? Read on for expert intel and helpful advice to calm your overstimulated body and mind.

Reasons You Feel Overstimulated as a Parent

Parenting is all-consuming. You’re surrounded by sights, sounds and, yes, even smells. Here are a few of the main reasons you feel overstimulated by everything happening around you.

You’re all touched out

“Feeling over-touched or touched out often happens because a mom’s body can feel like it’s no longer her own,” says Renée Goff, PsyD, PMH-C, a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder of Orchid Wellness & Mentoring in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Moms are constantly needed and being touched, whether it’s nursing, bottle-feeding or providing comfort with snuggles and hugs.” Moreover, your partner may turn to you for physical affection too, and it can feel like you’re constantly sharing your body with someone else.

You don’t get to clock out—ever

“Parents often feel like they never get a break, because taking care of a child is a 24/7 responsibility. They must be available to meet their child’s needs around the clock, which can be exhausting and overwhelming,” says Carolyn Rubenstein, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Boca Raton, Florida. Everyone needs a bit of solo time to recoup and rest—to fill up that proverbial cup. But down time isn’t always in the cards. Even after the kids go to bed, you remain on call in case someone wakes up crying or throwing up (you never know!). There’s no rest for the weary parent, and this truth can be sapping.

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There are so many sounds

“Parents’ brains are already filled with so many thoughts. We only have so much mental capacity to process incoming information, so excessive, constant noise can make it difficult to think,” says Goff. “If you’re hearing the laundry running; water boiling on the stove; the ding of a text message; the dog barking and your kids crying, playing, yelling or whining, that’s a lot of noise.” It’s hard to quickly and efficiently determine where your attention needs to be at any given moment.

There’s mess and chaos everywhere

The disarray that inherently comes with tiny people can be overwhelming. There are toys, stuffed animals, dirty laundry and snack crumb trails everywhere you look. You have zero energy to pick everything up, but seeing the mayhem can make you feel like a disorganized failure. “Each messy pile or space is a reminder of another thing that needs done,” says Goff. This can add to an already long to-do list and your growing mental load.

You’re perpetually in movement

Parenting is a physically demanding job. “It can leave little energy for other activities or responsibilities. Parents who work long hours, perform repetitive tasks or engage in strenuous activities may experience physical fatigue and muscle soreness, contributing to feelings of overstimulation,” says Rubenstein. Even playing chauffeur from activity to activity can take a toll.

Social media and screens are everywhere

Nowadays, we’re all surrounded by screens. Televisions, laptops, tablets and phones are a daily part of our lives, and they’re constantly spewing out news, photos, updates and false narratives. “There’s so much information that you’re receiving and processing via social media. In addition, your phone and even watch is a way for others to constantly access you with notifications, calls and text messages. Every ding, alarm and alert serves as a reminder of something else you’re supposed to do,” says Goff. Moreover, the misleading (and, sometimes, downright false) narratives on social media can make us feel inadequate.

Ways to Cope with Overstimulation

Looking to quiet the chaos? You might not be able to control every sight, sound and experience around you. But you can take steps to lighten your mental load and find better coping mechanisms. Here are some things to try.

Use noise-canceling earbuds

It can be hard to think straight and listen to the little voices of the little people that matter when you have so many external noises to filter out. That’s where the savvy use of noise-canceling headphones can help. Goff suggests trying them to “minimize the intensity of the sounds around you while still allowing you to hear if something needs your immediate attention.”

Reorganize your to-do list

When you have a million things to do but no system to get things done, every box on your list will remain unchecked. Prioritizing tasks in a realistic way—and holding yourself accountable—can help you slowly accomplish to-do’s you’ve been putting off. Goff suggests having multiple checklists: “One list is for things that need to get done today, which should not be more than a few items. Another list is of things that you need to get done in the next week or two. The final list is of things that are not urgent that would be nice to complete one day.”

Practice mindfulness

Focusing your attention on the present moment can help reduce stress and anxiety. Rubenstein suggests taking time each day to practice deep breathing, meditation or yoga. Or, at the very least, give yourself a few minutes of alone time.

Put your phone down when you can

It’s convenient to be accessible and to have information at your fingertips, but it’s not always necessary (or particularly helpful). When you’re just sitting around at home, put your phone down, or go to your settings and turn off nonurgent notifications. “Try to be fully present in whatever activity you’re doing… When you’re working with kids on their homework or playing with them, put your phone down,” suggests Goff. Do one thing at a time—and do it without feeling compelled to simultaneously scroll.

Clean bit by bit

When it comes to messes, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. “Remember, you don’t have to clean up everything all at once,” says Goff. Take it one chore at a time. “If you only have five minutes, go through the mail pile on the counter.” Task by task, corner by corner and room by room, you’ll make headway and gradually see a difference. And keep plenty of decorative storage baskets around the house. You can always use them as placeholders for items as you’re straightening up. This is a quick way to get rid of some of the clutter that’s clogging up your physical space (and mind).

Set boundaries

Take breaks, and make sure your partner is sharing in the physical and mental load of parenting. Establishing clear parameters around your time, bandwidth and energy can help you manage feelings of overstimulation. “Consider saying ‘no’ to activities or events that may cause additional stress, and communicate your needs with your partner, family or friends,” advises Rubenstein. Remember, you can’t always control everything happening around you, but you can set boundaries to set yourself up for success.

Expert sources

Renée Goff, PsyD, PMH-C, is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Orchid Wellness & Mentoring in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her doctor of psychology from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

Carolyn Rubenstein, PhD, is a licensed psychologist in Boca Raton, Florida. She also serves as the chief wellness advisor for Misfits Gaming Group, and is the author of Perseverance: How Young People Turn Fear into Hope and How They Can Teach Us To Do the Same.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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