Not long ago I read a new book called Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne. It’s a good and helpful book whose primary message is basically that parents should intentionally simplify life for their children and households for everyone’s good. Fewer toys, less media, intentional rhythms to guide the day, less entertaining of our kids and more time/space for them to entertain themselves. There’s nothing earth-shattering about the recommendations offered by Payne; virtually everything he suggests reminds me of life fundamentals as they existed perhaps 50 years ago. Living in such a way in today’s world, however, is considered unusual if not downright radical, and it takes intentionality and discipline. Living in such a way now suddenly has its own nomenclature: “simplicity parenting.” Crazy world.
One of the things I most appreciated about the book was Payne’s discussion of children and overstimulation. He describes what he calls “the arousing/calming balance” in which parents observe their children and what activities seem to get them overly riled up, and then help them moderate those high levels of stimulation. “The idea is not to steer away from stimulation… ,” he writes. “The purpose of being aware, or recognizing what is arousing and calming to your child, is to avoid the overstimulation that can string them out, or derail them in the same way that a big dose of sugar and caffeine derails them in the short-term.” Payne suggests that parents who observe their children becoming overstimulated consider following “a very active, ‘A’ day” (as he calls it) with a “fairly predictable, more laid-back, calming ‘C’ kind of day.”
This resonated with me because our son and firstborn is a kid who’s prone to overstimulation. Our first sign of this was when he was eighteen months old and with our family on a weeklong vacation at the family’s summer lakehouse. He would do great all day long, normal as could be, and then suddenly at night he would cry himself to sleep for a good 30 minutes – completely aberrant bedtime behavior from a kid who normally went happily and quickly to bed. We couldn’t figure out why – and tried bumping back his bedtime, lengthening book-reading, soothing bath, etc. Eventually we realized (with help from my wise mother, with whom we were vacationing) that he was just amped up from the day and all the new activities he was experiencing for the first time, and he simply lacked a different way to process his overstimulation.
Since that time we had been mindful of his tendency to get himself mentally and emotionally over-hyped when exciting and out-of-the ordinary things happen. He goes into overdrive and has a hard time calming himself and maintaining equilibrium. He falls apart a bit or melts down. The scale of his responses are fairly low – few but those closest to him would notice, most likely – but they are there. Every kid has a different tolerance for stimulation; for some kids it’s a completely non-issue. But not for him.
Some of the challenge that came with our son’s preschool experience derived from this tendency toward overstimulation. He could not effectively process the very different experiences and environment of home and school life at age 4, particularly when he became good friends with a boy who operated under a different set of rules than himself and the other members of his class (because of a learning disorder). It was just too much for him to effectively handle.
When I described his tendency to become overstimulated to the preschool head, she said, “What do you mean when you say he gets overstimulated? Do you mean he has a sensory or processing disorder?” It’s a question that I’ve received from several people when the this topic has come up – certainly a valid question, as such disorders definitely do exist. I know several children who have it, and I commend their parents for the intentional and proactive steps they take to understand and assist their children through the challenges they create.
In our son’s case, though, he doesn’t have a disorder. He’s just sometimes prone to overstimulation, and we need to make sure that his stimulating “A” days (and life experiences) get appropriately balanced with his “C” calm days and experiences. When we do this, everything’s fine. And I loved that Payne pointed this out in such a clear and helpful way in his book.