There are two basic type of noise fears in children. The first is a fear of sudden, unexpected noises that startle a child, such as popping balloons or slamming doors. It’s common for researchers to use loud noises such as this to induce fear or stress in studies of animals, because the noise itself will create anxiety even if nothing bad comes of it. A sudden loud and unexpected noise can cause the same stress response in children. Most kids handle this stress well, startling in the moment but then recovering rather quickly. Others, however, struggle to cope with this anxiety, so that the anticipation of loud noises causes more anxiety than the event itself.
Other children may fear noises that are more routine and expected. A child may run and hide the moment a vacuum cleaner is turned on, for instance. Such children may find particular sounds frightening. Chronically loud noises may trigger secondary anxieties because they disrupt a child’s sense of hearing, which makes them feel more vulnerable. Much in the same way that children fear the dark because the absence of sight allows their imagination to run wild, loud noises that take away a child’s ability to hear their environment or be heard by others may create anxiety. It’s also possible (though still unproven) that certain frequencies of noise are simply irritating to some children, especially if they have heightened sensitivity or a sensory disorder. A child interprets these undesirable noises as painful, which leads to their reaction.
Dealing with a child’s fear of loud noises
- Give kids a warning before turning on an appliance that creates noise, so that they expect it and can prepare themselves.
- Let them look and touch things in the home before you turn them on. Some children might be helped if you let them flip the switch on and off, so that they feel empowered over this noise.
- Provide your child with earplugs if you are going to be attending a noise-intense event such as a fireworks display or drag race.
- Try to save noise-intensive tasks for times when a child isn’t around.
Helping children overcome their fear of loud noises
1) Start by trying to get to the bottom of it. Noise fears are often closely associated with another type of fear. For example, the noise of a vacuum cleaner may terrify a small child because they imagine being sucked up by its vortex. So have a talk to find out precisely what scares them. If your child is pre-verbal, chart their responses to different noises to see if you can get to the heart of what’s driving this anxiety.
2) If your child is afraid of the vacuum cleaner, do an experiment to show them that the vacuum suction is too weak to even pick up a box of tissues, let along a big object like them. Then have them throw the box of tissues across the room to demonstrate how much stronger they are compared to a vacuum cleaner.
3) For loud noises that startle, help a child reinterpret these feelings as excitement. Without being overly obnoxious or belittling a child’s fear, model a different response: When a sudden noise startles them, look directly into their eyes with a big smile on your face and say: “Wow! That was loud, wasn’t it! What do you think that was?” Over time this will coach them towards reacting with intrigue rather than horror, and they’ll come to interpret such a stress response in a different way.
4) Give your child opportunities to create loud noises themselves, such as playing a game where you bang on pans or smash lids together. This can give them a sense of empowerment over their fear.
5) Help your child understand SPECIFICALLY what creates the different noises that terrify them. This will often diminish their anxiety.