Real Talk

Little Things That Can Overwhelm Kids and Why

We hate it when our kids have meltdowns and tantrums in public! But that’s partly because things that are not overwhelming to adults can be for them.

Every parent has experienced the embarrassment of watching their kids act out, wail, and roll on the floor in malls, restaurants, and even other people’s houses! In our frustration, we sometimes “threaten” the kids to keep quiet (e.g. “Fine, we’ll leave you/ Iwanan na kita!) when the public’s judgmental looks start to overwhelm us. But how do we know if they’re throwing a tantrum or having a meltdown?

Before we dismiss our kids’ distress as a tantrum, here are some things that can overwhelm kids and cause meltdowns.

1. Bringing them to completely new areas with new sounds

Besides processing new sights, new sounds can also overwhelm kids because their auditory cortex — the part of the brain that processes sounds — isn’t usually fully developed until they’re 14 years old (Kral, Hartmann, Tillein, Heid, and Klinke, 2002; Edgar et. al, 2020; Persic, Thomas, Pelekanos, Ryugo, Takesian, Krumbholz, and Pyott, 2020). They’re still learning to process sounds one at a time because neurons are still.

Loud sounds like airplanes taking off, banging of drums, high-pitched sounds from scratching blackboards, dragging chairs, and even metal sparking against each other can give kids headaches and make their stomachs turn because of the vibrations. So if they have a meltdown, it’s more of the pain the sounds inflict (Persic, Thomas, Pelekanos, Ryugo, Takesian, Krumbholz, and Pyott, 2020).

Human adult bodies are made of 60% water and since kids are smaller, the sound waves are much stronger because it has less space to travel.

2. Introducing new food with complex flavors and textures

Kids love spaghetti, fried chicken, pizza, and chicken nuggets because they don’t mix too many ingredients into it! Fried food batter is usually just salt, pepper, paprika, garlic powder, and onion powder mixed with the flour which gives it a smoky flavor.

Plus, the colors are already eye-catching enough for them: yellow and red since they trigger feelings of excitement and fun (Hasenback, Sho, Meullenet, Tokar, Yang, Huddleston, and Seo, 2014; Yang, Cho, and Seo, 2016). Then, there’s the appeal of springy and stringy cheese, the bursting tart and sweet flavors from the tomato, and the loud, satisfying, cathartic crunch whenever they bite into something fried.

Vegetables, on the other hand, only have a select few that are vibrant in color. Additionally, some brains see green as a poisonous color. Coupled with their underdeveloped bitter, sour, and salty tastebuds, it’s no surprise that kids will think that veggies are gross (Dresler, Whitehead, and Mather, 2017).

However, it’s a case-to-case basis when food presentations overwhelm kids. Some kids love the little flags and colorful plates while others just like eating off plain white plates. But some kids do have Sensory Processing Disorder which means they have a harder time figuring out and filtering out sensations. What we feel can sometimes be ten times louder, brighter, and harder to them.

In that case, always have a back-up restaurant with a meal that makes them feel safe. There’s also nothing wrong with making a small request for extra sauce or having the food cut in a certain way.

3. Bringing them to play school when they never had kids their age to interact with

Another case-to-case basis condition; social interactions can overwhelm kids because there are so many things to take note of that are happening all at the same time! Although social interactions help kids learn what behaviors and things people like, not all kids have the personality that makes it easier for them to learn (Schwarz, 2015; Lumanlan, 2016).

It’s why kids have meltdowns during family gatherings sometimes. After looking at people’s body language, doing context clues with what they’re saying, and trying to account for everyone in the room, it’s heavy lifting for their frontal cortex that’s still developing. But don’t worry, kids usually have tell-tale signs of when their social battery is low.

But this is why play dates are important. It’s smaller and a more controlled social interaction which helps them ease in their skills and extend their social batteries at a gradual and more comfortable pace.

4. Loud voices

Many parents learned from a young age that “louder volume makes you right” or that we need to “speak up!” because it “shocks” anyone we’re talking to, disrupting their thoughts and easily winning the argument. But for a kid who’s half our size, their minds are telling them that they’re in danger when they see someone that big yelling at them and it doesn’t matter if we’re their mom or dad.

Once we yell, the shock disrupts everything they know and tells them, “You’re going to get hurt!” It won’t matter if we told them last night that we love them.

However, they do recognize expressions of joy and laughter. It’s just that they can also get overwhelmed if they don’t understand why people are happy when they’re uncomfortable with what’s happening.

When things overwhelm our kids, they don’t freak out just to embarrass us!

Even as adults, we do get overwhelmed by certain things. But, unlike kids, we easily learn how to cope and process sensations because our brains are already fully developed. We know how to communicate or remove ourselves from the situation when things get hairy. However, kids are still learning how to tell us that or remove themselves. Unfortunately, that’s something that they can’t learn from a textbook.

So when our kids start crying and melting down, fight against the feeling that they’re doing that to “embarrass” us. Their screams, wails, and crying to us may be our kids’ way of communicating that something’s overwhelming them and most likely, we haven’t noticed it.


Dresler, E., Whitehead, D., & Mather, A. (2017). The experiences of New Zealand-based children in consuming fruits and vegetables. Health Education117(3), 297-309.

Edgar, J. C., Blaskey, L., Green, H. L., Konka, K., Shen, G., Dipiero, M. A., Berman, J. I., Bloy, L., Song, L., McBride, E., Ku, M., Kuschner, E. S., Airey, M., Kim, M., Franzen, R. E., Miller, G. A., & Roberts, T. P. (2020). Maturation of auditory cortex neural activity in children and implications for auditory clinical markers in diagnosis. Frontiers in Psychiatry11, 584557.

Hasenbeck, A., Cho, S., Meullenet, J. F., Tokar, T., Yang, F., Huddleston, E. A., & Seo, H. S. (2014). Color and illuminance level of lighting can modulate willingness to eat bell peppers. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture94(10), 2049-2056.

Kral, A., Hartmann, R., Tillein, J., Heid, S., & Klinke, R. (2002). Delayed maturation and sensitive periods in the auditory cortex. Audiology and Neurotology6(6), 346-362.

Lumanlan, J. 015. (2016): How to support your introverted child.

Radun, J., Maula, H., Rajala, V., Scheinin, M., & Hongisto, V. (2022). Acute stress effects of impulsive noise during mental work. Journal of Environmental Psychology81, 101819.

Persic, D., Thomas, M. E., Pelekanos, V., Ryugo, D. K., Takesian, A. E., Krumbholz, K., & Pyott, S. J. (2020). Regulation of auditory plasticity during critical periods and following hearing loss. Hearing Research397, 107976.

Schwartz, L. S. (2015). Childhood experiences of introversion: an exploration of navigating social and academic spaces and ways of coping.

Yang, F. L., Cho, S., & Seo, H. S. (2016). Effects of light color on consumers’ acceptability and willingness to eat apples and bell peppers. Journal of Sensory Studies31(1), 3-11.

More about how kids interact with the world?

5 Ways That Toddlers or Kids Express They’re Tired
Troy Montero Reveals How They Handle Their Daughter’s Tantrums
Kids Melting Down After School? It’s Called After-School Restraint Collapse

Shop for Modern Parenting's print issues through these platforms.
Download this month's Modern Parenting magazine digital copy from:
Subscribe via [email protected]