Here’s When You Should Be Concerned About Your Child’s Fear Of Sounds
Thankfully a fear of loud noises is completely normal for young kids, but when is it time to worry?
My son’s favorite Daniel Tiger episode lately features a new character, Max, who is autistic. Among other behaviors, one that Max tends to do often is cover his ears when things get too loud or when a lot of the kids start talking at once. As I watched this episode with my son, I started to become concerned because I realized every time he heard a loud noise or if my husband and I were talking loudly, he’d cover his ears. And then after watching this episode he began to tell me, “That’s too loud for me, mama,” and cover his ears every time he heard a loud noise. How much of this is just not liking loud noise and being startled? When should you start to worry about a child’s fear of sounds?
Dr. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, reassured me. “Sensitivity to noise or other stimuli such as sights, smells, and situations are very common in children. Oftentimes it's just a mannerism or a quirk and not a true disorder,” he says. Dana Sciullo, a licensed and registered pediatric occupational therapist in Pennsylvania agrees and says that sound sensitivity is seen most commonly in children that are pre-school aged.
When Should You Worry About Your Child’s Fear Of Sounds?
Dr. Gina Posner, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, says you should only worry if it’s incapacitating and limiting your child’s life. Echoing Posner, Sciullo says, “Parents should worry about their child's sensitivity to noise if it is negatively affecting their day-to-day life, keeping them from completing necessary daily activities, or causing them significant distress.”
And the fear of loud noises alone isn’t enough of a “symptom” to say your child has a disorder. Ganjian says that in order for the fear to be paired with a disorder, “you need to have a constellation of other symptoms such as poor communication skills, poor eye contact, and poor social skills.”
Conditions That Sound Sensitivity Could Signify A Problem
“Sound sensitivity could be a sign of auditory processing disorder, hyperacusis — when everyday sounds seem much louder than they should — or misophonia — a response to specific, usually human-made sounds,” Sciullo says. “Sound sensitivity is also commonly seen in children with autism, but by itself is not an indication of autism. It would have to be combined with other symptoms such as difficulty with communication and repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior.”
How To Help Your Child Who Is Afraid Of Loud Noises
So how do you get your child to relax when an ambulance rolls by or a train rumbles through town? Posner suggests trying something fun, like singing, joking, or laughing about it as a way to associate the noise with something good. Maybe every time there’s a clap of thunder, you tickle.
Ganjian adds, “Give the child a good narrative such as when they hear a siren that means that somebody is going to go get saved, yay! And also be a good example. Smile and laugh when you hear a loud sound. After a few times of doing that, your child will start to copy you. If none of these work and especially if there are other symptoms then speak to your pediatrician.”
Your pediatrician may refer your child to occupational therapy for an evaluation, Sciullo says. “If deficits are identified, the occupational therapist will create a personalized treatment plan.” Sciullo says some steps OTs suggest include having your child wear noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs to events that will have excessive noise, and even offering your child headphones with their favorite music playing can help. “For a child with auditory sensitivity, being able to predict and control sounds can be very helpful. Encourage them to take charge of turning on the vacuum cleaner or popping balloons after a birthday party. Make the child comfortable by granting them full authority; do not force participation or surprise them with an unexpected noise during the experience,” she says.
Additionally, Sciullo says you should try to give your child warning whenever possible before loud sounds occur — like using a blender or vacuum, or flushing toilets in a public restroom — or having your child’s school warn them about a fire drill coming up. Other ways to help at school include having your child’s teacher sit them near the front and away from disruptive peers.
“Chewing gum or eating crunchy snacks can help to cancel out extraneous noise in the environment,” she says. “Provide your child with a quiet space as a retreat away from noises at home. Consider a dark, private space with pillows, and encourage your child to engage in relaxation strategies such as slow, deep breathing or counting to 10 in their head if they must be exposed to loud noises,” Sciullo says.
Dana Sciullo, a licensed and registered pediatric occupational therapist in Pennsylvania.
Dr. Daniel Ganjian, pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
Dr. Gina Posner, pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.