The Air Force Thunderbirds were putting on an astounding demonstration of flight aerobics and precision maneuvers at the local USAF base. While thousands of spectators along the landing field watched the aerial exhibition, one F-16 left the group, disappearing behind the base. A few minutes later, the forgotten jet unexpectedly streaked down the runway within a cat's whisker of onlookers. This sudden, thunderous, and crowd-pleasing tactic left some adults in need of a change of underwear. It also guaranteed that every toddler in the crowd burst into tears!
Typical Responses to Loud Sounds
Humans exhibit a startled response to many environmental stimuli. Brushing up against a spider usually results in a loud yelp and jump backward. Loud, unexpected sounds also make us jump. An abrupt, surprising sound briefly overloads our sensory intake paths. Toddlers are no different than adults; loud sounds are often overwhelming to them. While older children learn to deal with loud sounds by mentally brushing them off after the initial shock, toddlers react with fear. They typically find loud sounds threatening, and will quickly dissolve into tears when startled.
Helping Your Toddler Deal with Loud Sounds
It's normal for toddlers to be startled by loud sounds. If your toddler begins to perceive that a particular loud sound, such as a toilet flushing, is a threat, he'll express his fear by crying or running from the sound. Should your little one establish a pattern of irrational fear of a loud sound, you can help him overcome it through small-step desensitization. For instance, if toilet flushing sends him under the bed but you'd like to start potty-training, try role-playing with him. Use small model people and a pretend bathroom. Have him play-walk his doll into the bathroom and use the dollhouse toilet. Make a silly flushing sound and have your toddler imitate you. Let him work through what using the toilet is like in this non-threatening manner. Then play a reward game with him; set a timer to 20 seconds. Your toddler's mission is to turn on the bathroom light, toss a rubber duck into the bathtub, flush the toilet and get back to the timer before it goes off. Continue helping him to learn that some loud sounds are just a part of daily life. Given consistent practice opportunities in desensitization, he'll come to terms with this particular loud sound.
Atypical Reactions to Loud Sounds
Children dealing with certain conditions or disorders can have unusually violent reactions to loud sounds. Because toddlers on the autism spectrum or those who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder cannot efficiently buffer incoming auditory signals, loud sounds are enormously exaggerated. Carol Kranowitz, expert and author on sensory integration dysfunction, describes atypical responses to loud sounds as an inability by the brain to process sensory information in a reasonable manner. If your toddler regularly over-reacts to loud sounds, she might be having a harder-than-normal time integrating incoming auditory information.
Strategies for Dealing with Atypical Reactions to Loud Sounds
If you have a toddler with a condition or disorder that predisposes her to ongoing problems with loud sounds, you can teach her coping strategies. First, if you know that you will be entering an area with loud volume, such as an indoor swimming pool where sound is amplified, have her practice putting her hands over her ears. Or provide her with ear plugs. If she's attending preschool and a fire alarm is scheduled, her teacher can give her advance warning and permission to cover her ears tightly. Being up front with your toddler will help her to be prepared for loud noises. While you never know when you're out for a walk if a car will come by and backfire, you can anticipate things that might happen and talk about them with your toddler. Remind her that she can always cover her ears or ask for a hug to help get through the overwhelming episode of a loud sound.