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Noise Sensitivity – Dr. Debbie’s Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Is it possible that our soon-to-be three-year-old has super sensitive hearing? We recently were at his cousin’s birthday party – just family, mostly adults – and he broke into tears or ran from the room every time there was a lot of noise. This included when we played a pop the balloon game on the dartboard and when everyone cheered when the seven-year-old blew out all her candles.

I recall he screamed and cried during a fireworks display as an infant but I chalked it up to being overtired.

Now that I think of it, if Daddy and I start to raise our voices with each other our little one covers his ears and runs to his room.

Looking For Patterns

Dear LFP,

Noise sensitivity is certainly something that is evident in some children from the very beginning. And age three seems to be an age when children are more aware of, and often disconcerted by, sounds with which they are unfamiliar or that could mean danger. It is also common for young children to quickly detect the rising pitch of two people in a disagreement – and to want to stop it or flee before it gets louder.

Choose Quieter Activities

For the next family gathering, suggest some quieter activities. Or set up a space with an engaging activity for your child that is near but not in the middle of where the loud activities will be. Maybe there’s an aquarium with fish to watch. (An aquarium adds “white noise” to gently mute out other sounds.) As the weather warms up see if it’s possible to meet outdoors rather than indoors. A quiet activity for the whole family could be hiking on a nature trail.

Give a Heads Up for Noises

I imagine your son is not a fan of the food processor, an electric razor, or power tools. Try to use these when he’s not nearby or let him know the noise is coming so he can cover his ears or leave.

A noise sensitive child in my preschool class was perfectly okay on a field trip to the firehouse when I kept my promise to take her outside before our tour guide set off a siren. We prepared for the sound blast by covering our ears with our hands, sharing the moment with each other with satisfied smiles.

Manage Conflicts Thoughtfully

As you’ve noticed, an exchange of loud words between Mommy and Daddy is not something any child wants to hear. Hopefully this is a rare occurrence. Try to work out your differences at times and places that will not impact your son’s sensitive ears. If such opportunities don’t exist, you must create them. Every relationship takes maintenance and maintenance takes devoted time. 

By the same token, use opportunities to teach your son conflict management so he doesn’t fear interactions with other children. Make it a priority to guide him through conflicts at the playground. It will be important, when vaccinations make indoor playdates with friends possible again, to give him skills to manage inevitable discord. A sincere apology is an important skill for relationship building and helps to prevent loud, angry voices.

Put Him in Control

A sudden loud noise, such as the pop of a balloon, can be jarring. Interestingly, many children with sensitive ears enjoy making loud noises themselves. When he can control the noise it’s not startling. Try letting him experiment with musical instruments, building block towers for him to knock down, and using a pretend microphone (or a hairbrush) for him to sing into. He might enjoy making sound recordings on your cell phone – his speaking or singing voice, imitating or recording machine noises, or imitating or recording animal sounds. He gets to play it back at a volume that’s comfortable for him.

Here are some picture books that will encourage him to make sounds as you read the text:

Tap Tap Boom Boom by Elizabeth Bluemie

Bunny’s Noisy Book, by Margaret Wise Brown

The Very Quiet Cricket by Eric Carle

Brr! Brr! Can You Say It, Too? by Nosy Crow

Mice Squeak, We Speak by Tomie de Paola

Barnyard Banter by Denise Fleming

Can You Hear It? by William Lach

Froggy Plays in the Band, by Jonathan London

Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear by Bill Martin, Jr.

Too Much Noise by Ann McGovern

Sounds All Around by Wendy Pfeffer

The Bunnies Are Not in Their Beds by Marisabina Russo

Quacky Quack-Quack!, by Ian Whybrow

He might also enjoy becoming an expert on such beautiful sounds as birdcalls:

Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song by Les Beletsky

Bird Calls by Frank Gallo

Little Backyard Book of Bird Songs by Andrea Pinnington

Little Book of Woodland Bird Songs by Andrea Pinnington

Protect him from unnecessary (and frightening) noises and help him to enjoy making and listening to a world of interesting sounds.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.

She will be presenting a workshop for parents and professional caregivers entitled, “Why Do Children Misbehave?” on Monday, March 7, 7-9 pm. Register in advance for this and other upcoming Zoom workshops.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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