Too Much Stimulation, or Too Little?

At wedding receptions, you're likely to find two kinds of children tucked away under the banquet table. The first is usually accompanied by a bright-eyed, giggling cousin as the pair revels in the illicit thrill of stolen champagne or other contraband. For the second, the cool folds of the tablecloth offer a temporary sanctuary from the noise, bustle, and business of the whole occasion.

Psychologists have known for years that different people feel comfortable with different levels of stimulation. Similar to the thermostat on your central heating that turns off the furnace when it gets too hot or fires up the system when the temperature drops below its setting, we all tend to adjust our environment to keep levels of stimulation within the range that suits us.

People who like to keep the stimulation setting high are the extroverts. These are the outgoing, 24-hour party animals whose high-octane lifestyle feeds their need for sensation and excitement. At the other end of the spectrum are the extreme introverts, who are more likely to be found curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine and a good book.

Such differences are hard-wired into the brain and are linked to the way the brain responds to arousal. This doesn't mean that introverts never want to let their hair down or that extroverts never stand still. However, the contrasting lifestyles of high-scoring introverts and extroverts is some indication of how driven we are to keep our general level of arousal within the range that suits us.

When we're not able to do this, we become stressed. In fact, the stress response is one of the feedback mechanisms that lets us know we are out of our stimulation comfort zone. Most of us are already aware that overstimulation can have a powerful effect on children. Attend any children's birthday party, and you can witness the results for yourself. For every wild child jumping on your sofa or trying to sling jelly across the room, there will be tear-stained casualties for whom the whole event is proving just too much. However, we are less tuned into the fact that when the stimulation level drops below what we require, this can be equally stressful for us.

Too much or too little stimulation can be bad for children. All children need and want different levels of action and quiet. Get to know your children—and help them get to know themselves.

Boredom is difficult to tolerate, and many children find it unbearable. Most of us recognize that an overstimulated child is likely to have trouble managing behavior, but the same can be said of an understimulated one. One of the first steps that a dog trainer takes with a disobedient or aggressive dog is to make sure that the animal is getting adequate exercise. Understimulated children will resort to desperate measures to get their arousal level back into a more temperate range. You can see this in the way that children strapped into the back of a car for long periods resort to bickering with each other, in an attempt to raise the level of excitement in the immediate environment. Alternatively, they might try to provoke you with a relentless round of "Are we there yet?"—style interrogation.

As your child gets older, it will be useful to help him understand where he lies on the introvert-extrovert scale and what that means in terms of warding off the stress that accompanies too little or too much stimulation. When your child reaches the age of seven, he can take one of the online child-friendly personality tests, such as the Murphy Meisgeier Type Indicator for Children (a children's version of the famous Myers-Briggs test), which will give him some sense of how much stimulation he needs.

Teach your child to recognize when he needs to do something active, interesting, or exciting, and when his internal stress sensors are telling him it's time to take things down a step. Some relaxation techniques are useful tools that can enable an overstimulated child to restore his equilibrium.

Alternatively, make sure that your child has a range of suitable activities available so that he can increase stimulation levels when necessary. Ideally, these need to be things that don't always require your involvement or supervision. Many parents end up being blackmailed by their bored children into a constant round of extravagant trips and outings; this is fine once in a while, but it cannot be the staple solution to periods when your child needs to raise his stimulation levels.

Basic sports equipment, such as footballs, jump ropes, and pogo sticks, are ideal for children who crave physical stimulation. Many parents swear that a big garden trampoline is a worthwhile investment for such purposes—and a potentially entertaining one for adults after the kids are in bed.

Don't forget that novelty is also stimulating for children. Consider putting together a filing box of special projects for such times—this could contain recipes of things you and your child could cook together, instructions for a treasure hunt, or maybe a challenge to make three musical instruments out of household objects. Many books are available that are full of suitable suggestions.

The children's storybook series My Naughty Little Sister has a brilliant idea that you can easily copy. While convalescing, the little sister is given access to a special box of treasures assembled by a friendly neighbor. The box contains a series of intriguing but everyday items: a beautiful shell, a paper fan, a miniature doll. Each treasure is individually wrapped and packed in a compartment of a special chest. The reason why the box keeps the story's heroine so happily occupied is because it comes out only on rare occasions. Consequently, its contents retain an aura of special fascination.

Whether or not you make your own treasure chest, the principle of holding back a selection of toys or games that are brought out only on selective occasions is a good one. It can provide a really useful resource for when bored children need stimulation. Many of today's children are completely deluged with gifts at Christmas and birthdays. Why not increase your child's enjoyment and impact by staggering access to them through the year? If you introduce this principle early on, your kids will never know anything different. In retrospect, I wish I had adopted this policy with my two.

From How Your Child Thinks Copyright © 2009, FT Press. Used by permission of FT Press, and Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

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