Working with children who hate loud noises



This was (roughly speaking - I may have got the spelling wrong) the word *Josh yelled when a leaf blower was used outside our office in a session last month.  At the same time, he put his hands over his ears and ran to the corner. 

Josh hates loud noises and gets really distressed whenever they occur around him.  It’s especially hard for him when they are sudden.

And Josh of course is not unusual  – there are many children who are extremely sensitive to loud noise.  Many children I see clinically will report some sensitivity to noise.  Sometimes noise sensitivity is associated with a broader sensory disorder (for example, Autism Spectrum Disorder), but sometimes these are just noise sensitive kids without any further disorders in the background. 

I should add here however that occasionally noise sensitivity can be due to a physical issue with their ears or hearing (apparently sometimes kids with grommets struggle more often with this issue, or those who have uneven hearing) – and so it is often worth checking with a GP to see if this is the case - particularly if it occurs suddenly.

Once a physical cause is ruled out, we will sometimes want to do some work as professionals to help kids adjust to loud noises.

For most kids, this means very gradually and kindly getting them to be around increasingly louder noises without them “escaping” (ie, running away, putting their hands over their ears, needing to wear headphones) from the noise.   Let’s call this “Loud noise training” - this is something which could be done formally in counselling sessions with children - (or sometimes informally by school staff depending on the relationship they have with the child/their level of confidence in doing so)   

1.    The first step is to give children information about why they should try to get used to loud noises.  This means asking them to think about what is important to them and how these things might involve noise.

Here’s what I said to Josh for example to help him understand why we wanted to do some noise training:

I think getting used to noise is important because the world can be a noisy place!  Let’s see if we can think of some fun but noisy places….  (Eg theme parks, shopping, playgrounds etc)

Also - school is noisy.  If you don’t go to school, then you don’t learn and you miss out. 

So it’s important to learn to get used to noise so that you can learn, do lots of things and have fun.  We are going to train your brain so that it knows that “loud noise is safe”.

It may be appropriate to have individual, class or group discussions with children about which situations and places are loud, which situations and places are quiet - and for kids to draw what themselves doing a happy activity in both places.  

2.    Then we need to work with children on coaching them to use strategies about how to cope with loud noises.

Different children will prefer and suit different coping strategies, but here are some strategies children I’ve worked with have used:

Distraction strategies – “Let’s play our imagination game/do some dancing/read this book when the noise happens”
Relaxing their body strategies – “let’s take a deep breath and make our muscles floppy as SOON as we hear a loud noise”
Calm sentences -  When I hear a loud noise I will say one of the following: “Noise cannot hurt me.  Noise is safe.  Noise is just noisy!”
Prediction (a form of control) – Giving anticipated noise a score out of 10 for how loud the child thinks it will be, and then waiting for it and giving it a score out of 10 for how loud it was.

I ask children to pick a strategy and practice it with me.  I also sometimes get them to write down a list of strategies they can choose when times are noisy.  Given that sometimes noises are unpredictable, and strategies need to be used very fast and without warning, we have played games to help children be ready fast ("everybody do the flop" is a youtube clip I've used to get kids to relax fast)

3.    We should tell children that we'd like to deliberately get them to practice being around louder noises for a while.  (Important: it’s essential to only do this at a safe level – please never blow suddenly loud horns into children's ears or play anything at a level which causes the child any pain.)

For example, I might say this:

We are going to practice listening to some louder noise for a few minutes together and do something fun while we do this.  This way we can train your brain that “noise is safe!”  Which coping strategies would you like to use while we listen to the noise.

Extra Tips for noise training

1.    For some children with quite severe noise sensitivity it takes a while to get used to loud noise - for example in my experience this kind of training usually needs to happen regularly (each day or every second day) for at least 8-10 days to see progress.   

2.    If you are doing regular noise training - consider using a visual chart – some children like to see when and how much loud noise training they are going to do. 

3.    Let kids choose the loud noise.  Families I’ve worked with have used radio, horns, bells, music or TV noises.

4.    The noise should come from an outside source – NOT headphones.

5.    Often kids do better if they have a fun activity in place while the noise is on

6.    Use thanks and affirmation at the end for sitting through the noise, eg  “Wow, you are getting so good at managing noise these days”

One last point – it’s not always important for all children to do this kind of loud noise training.  For some kids, it’s easier to just avoid loud noises until they are older and can cope better (hence why some kids wear headphones in supermarkets etc).  My view is that this is appropriate for some families if they just have too much to work on as parents/carers and it’s not significantly interfering with their regular life.    

But if you would like to work on this issue, follow the above steps often produces some positive results.

Good luck with it.  If you'd like to try this but want some support, you might be interested in our online child psychologist supervision service for professionals - go to for more information.

*Hopefully you know by now that all the examples I use in this blog have them names and details changed.  *Josh is a made up kid - a combination of lots of children I've worked with over the years.  The leaf blower on the other hand, is entirely real.  It drives me mad every morning :)