My little girl is terrified of noise

Sad pupil being bullied by classmates at corridor in schoolQUESTION
My four-year-old daughter has a genuine fear of noise such as repetitive banging. I’m very concerned for her as she has just started school. She has had this fear for more than a year; before this, it was a fear of the wind outside. With noise, she will completely panic, run upstairs and hide under her bed, shouting to bring in all the toys from the garden or the world will get broken. The noise could be her brother kicking a ball, a lawnmower, a hedge trimmer, a bin truck passing, or simply a press door closing or a kettle boiling. Since she was a baby, and to this day, she has a sensitivity to smell, taste and touch of certain food items or material textures.

She is portraying signs of dyspraxia but I can’t get her assessed until she turns five. Have you any advice to overcome this fear of noise? I’m so afraid she will run out of the classroom if she hears a noise she can’t cope with.

Lots of children have particular sensory sensitivities and preferences that are central to their biological makeup and that explain much of their behaviour. Different sensory experiences agitate some children and not others. For example, some children can become distressed by particular noises or overwhelmed in busy environments, while other children respond well to these.

In addition, children can have very individual sensory preferences about what relaxes and soothes them. For example, some children need a firm, close hug while others prefer to be held more gently. Some children like to be soothed by the gentle words of their parents and others just need quietness.

Sensory sensitivity and special needs
Learning to tune into your child’s particular sensory sensitivities and preferences is one of the most important tasks of a loving parent, and this is particularly important for children with special needs. Indeed, a central component of many developmental disabilities such as attention deficit disorder, autistic spectrum disorder, and dyspraxia is particular sensitivity to certain sensory experiences and a lack of integration in processing information from the senses.

Many of the difficult behaviours that these children display are related to their different experiences of the world. For example, a child might throw a tantrum because he can’t bear the noise of a washing machine or has become distressed by a flickering light or can’t bear the texture of his clothes.

Seeking an assessment
You are right to seek an assessment for your daughter as this will build a picture of her strengths and abilities as well as her sensitivities and areas of weakness where she might benefit from some support.

The ideal is a multidisciplinary assessment involving a range of domains so you can rule out any physical cause for your daughter’s difficulties (such as hyperacusis) and you can gain a complete picture of your daughter’s development.

The assessment should ideally include an occupational therapist who specialises in assessing children’s sensory development and integration as well as providing treatment programmes.

Helping your daughter as her parent
In the meantime, there are lots you can do to help your daughter. The first step is to try to “tune into her’ and build a picture of her fears and sensitivities. The goal is to try to “get inside her head” so you can understand how she is experiencing the world and then try to help her.

The second step is to build up a repertoire of different ways to support her and to help her calm down when she is fearful or distressed. Observe your daughter closely and notice what things help her relax and calm down. Does she like to be held in a certain way? Does she like you to soothe her by talking? Does she like to be distracted in a certain way?

The third step is to gently and gradually help your daughter tolerate some of the fearful experiences. This might mean you listen with her to some of the noises she finds distressing in the distance as you calmly talk to her and help her manage.

This third step becomes easier as she gets older and you can engage her thinking and even set an agreed goal with her about overcoming a fear in a certain situation.

Finally, there are lots of structured exercises and therapies that can help children with sensory problems that should be identified in an assessment. Many of these are identified in resources online such as

Starting school
If your child might have special needs, starting school brings extra worries and concerns. The key is to work closely with the teacher and principal. Most schools have very positive policies about supporting the individual needs of children and I would recommend you talk to them about the issues for your daughter. They can support you in the process of getting an assessment and they can also apply for special resources to help your daughter if needs be.

In addition, if you communicate with school staff, they will be able to anticipate and manage any problem situations for your daughter, and you will be able to work together to develop the best ideas and strategies for managing. Share with her teacher early, what strategies work/help to calm your daughter at home and check in regularly with the teacher over the course of the year.

John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, September 2015. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
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