The stores are full, your inbox is too, and you are wondering how to handle your sensitive child’s reactions to family and school events. You are not alone.
Everyone knows about the “holiday blues”, where our dreams and expectations come up against real life: awkward family relationships, conflicting demands on our time and finances, etc. But for kids with sensory and emotional sensitivity (I don’t see these as always separate issues, by the way), surviving the holiday season can be very difficult indeed. The excitement and the novelty of the holidays affect them more intensely and are not always welcome additions to their days. Here are some suggestions to make things better:
Think about an event before you commit to it. The hour of the day, the size and the activity, the duration of the event are all considerations. You know your child, so you can identify what factors will be the most challenging and what will be easier to handle. In general, sensitive kids do best with smaller, shorter, quieter and earlier events.
Create your own event around your child, and invite others to join in. When you get to design it, you have more control over how things play out. Some suggestions would be cookie decorating, visiting a nursery or outdoor holiday display, making wrapping paper with crayons and stickers, and watching a holiday video party.
Get your sensory diet activities all set up for an event that you can’t or won’t cancel. Your OT should be able to help you craft a plan to reduce your child’s overall sensitivity with input such as deep pressure, breath control, tactile input, etc. Just ask. Most of us would be happy to help you.
Do not forget the basics of keeping any child calm at an event: enough sleep, enough to eat and drink, and being healthy enough to participate. If your child is ill, tired, or hungry, you need to think carefully about how well he will manage, and make the decision to cancel or alter your plans. Sometimes the situation isn’t going to be fixed with a few bounces on a therapy ball and some joint compression. In these situations, your child isn’t any different from any other child.
Kids with sensory sensitivities may need some assistance to enjoy the holiday season. Here are some simple ways to make it merry and bright for all!
Select your holiday celebrations with the spatial, sound, and visual complexities in mind. Many children are completely overwhelmed with large spaces (auditoriums, church halls, etc.) and the multi-sensory experience of crowds, lights, and carols. These children are so much happier out looking for the perfect tree on a tree farm or watching a favorite holiday movie at home. Make up your own new family tradition that will be easier for your child to handle. It can still be a wonderful family event that everyone remembers for years to come.
Choose the timing of group experiences. Arriving early and leaving early may be the best plan for kids with sensory sensitivity. If you are meeting friends or relatives, ask them to arrive early and not be offended with your “cameo” appearance. Are you worried about looking different if you leave early? Well, if your child becomes agitated or even aggressive due to overstimulation, you will be getting a lot of unwanted attention anyway. Better to have a happy child and a short/early experience. Does your child beg to stay even though you know he will be overstimulated later? Have a great second act prepared. Follow a stimulating event with a mellow experience, such as a favorite video at home or hot chocolate at a cafe’.
The holidays have special foods that many kids look forward to and eagerly devour. Your child may not want to try them, and may not even like to smell them. When children are overwhelmed with sensory input, they can be hyper-sensitive. Respect this if it happens. This is not the moment to force a taste, but it might be helpful to take a bite of a new food yourself and demonstrate your enjoyment. You may get more interest if you don’t even suggest that your child try a new food. Not even a “no-thank you” portion. The lack of pressure that they perceive might sway them toward trying something new. The holidays ARE a time for miracles, after all! If it is expected that you and your child will be eating a meal, ask your hosts if they mind you bringing foods that your child will eat. Most people will want your child to be happy, and your child will see you as an understanding and thoughtful parent that “gets” his situation.
Prepare for events that could be stressful with creativity and attention to detail. If you need to bring your sensory sensitive child to a pageant or a performance that you know could be very difficult, have another adult or teen available if you need to duck out with your child. Make sure your child is fed, hydrated, and rested. Avoid the temptation to pile on the events that day. Keep the daily schedule as familiar and comforting as possible. Have snacks and toys that are comforting available if he needs to shift his focus to regroup. It would be wonderful if your sensory-sensitive child could revel in the novelty and excitement of the season, but some kids are happier when things stay the same every day. Respect why he has this need for routines, and celebrate in a way that makes everyone feel great!