Overstimulation and Aggressive Behavior

Website Photos 031Dear Miss Faith,
My 2.5yo son has a lot of trouble in noisy situations where there are large groups of children. He is normally a kind, friendly child, but when in noisy or crowded spaces he loses all impulse control, running away from me, crashing purposefully into other children, knocking other children down, and grabbing toys. The grabbing he does in these particular instances isn’t really territorial–it looks more like an attempt to interact in a big, dynamic way, just like the crashing and knocking behaviors. I’ve tried taking periodic breaks with in a quieter space, but it doesn’t help for long. I feel like I should just stop taking him to birthday parties or trips to the children’s museum altogether, but then how can he learn to cope in these situations? I would love to know your thoughts!

Dear Mama,
Don’t feel like limiting his exposure to these over-stimulating situations will limit him from learning the skills to handle them. On the contrary, I think the best way to help him learn the positive social skills you’re envisioning for him is to start out small in situations where he can be successful and not get over-stimulated, then gradually work up to those big, busy scenes. In this way, you’ll lay the groundwork for good social habits, rather than have him develop habits through overwhelm that won’t serve him well and may be hard to change once they’re set. Of course there’s a sweet-spot where kids are getting exactly the level of stimulation that they need, but if you’re going to err on one side or the other, err on the side of less stimulation. My experience is that children do better when they always want just a little bit more, rather than always feeling just a little overwhelmed.

And please, don’t feel bad that your 2.5 year old can’t seem to handle large groups that other children the same age seem to do fine in. For young kids everything is new, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed (see my post on Children are Like Tiny Foreigners). When they get overwhelmed, each one reacts in his or her specific way: some by getting small and becoming invisible, some by getting big, some by getting whiny and needy, some by biting, etc. At 2.5, It’s absolutely developmentally appropriate that some kids at that age can handle large groups, and others can’t. There’s a reason that traditional preschools didn’t start until age 3 or 3.5, before dual-income families became the norm.
So, I’d suggest doing more individual play-dates, where you can really coach him on how to read others’ social cues, and respond appropriately. Then help him respond appropriately, if he needs help. If you do go to a children’s museum, or a birthday party, or something else that you know will be very stimulating for him, plan to only stay for 30 minutes and leave before things get out of hand. As he gets older, and gets more practice with smaller groups, his endurance will grow.
Warmly, ~Miss Faith

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