The holiday season is exciting! It’s filled with songs, smells, tasty limited-time treats, parties (before covid-19!), decorations, traditions, and so much more. The excitement and energy make the season special for many of us. But, we often forget that what we think is exciting and fun can induce anxiety, sensory overload, and meltdowns for many children - particularly those who have sensory processing disorder. We’ve put together a holiday survival guide to help you and your sensory kiddo enjoy the season! After reading this guide, you’ll be able to avoid common challenges, implement your favorite tips and tricks, and have a successful holiday season filled with magical memories.
What Are Some Common Challenges?
Let’s get started - what are some common challenges that the holiday season can bring up for a child with sensory processing disorder?
1) Sensory overwhelm. Smells, sounds, visual stimulation, and more! During the holidays, decorations go up all across cities and throughout many homes. New smells are everywhere, and new songs are playing in stores. There is a lot going on, and this can easily create anxiety for a child struggling with sensory processing disorder. This happens because they are unable to properly and quickly process all the new stimulation - and this creates the feeling of overload and dysregulation.
2) Changes in routine: Children with sensory processing disorder thrive on schedules and routines. So when the holidays arrive - it can be very disorienting and frustrating. School schedules change (especially during this time), and routines get flipped upside down and mixed around. While most kids would be excited to go to grandma’s house for a holiday dinner or go to pick out a Christmas tree, a child with SPD may be filled with anxiety thinking about who will be there, what the place looks like, and how they will know what to do. Instead of being excited for new events or activities, a sensory child may be hesitant to change their routine.
3) New Expectations. The holidays can mean lots of new expectations for your child. New foods, new clothing, maybe new toys too. A child with sensory processing disorder can become easily overwhelmed when they are expected to try new tastes or textures, new clothes they are not used to wearing, and new activities. The expectations of others can affect parents too! People who might not be aware of SPD will have expectations for how you and your child behave in public or during activities, which can put pressure on you as the parent to have a “perfect” outing or activity.
Holiday Tips For Parents With Kids That Have Sensory Challenges
Now that we know what kind of challenges a sensory kiddo might encounter during the holidays, here are 5 tips that will help them stay regulated and happy throughout the season!
1) Be prepared!
You can be a huge help to your child if you prepare them for the holidays by avoiding or decreasing triggers. Not all sensory kids are triggered by the same things, so be sure to know what types of stimuli are your child’s regular triggers. Do they get overwhelmed easily by smells or sounds? Do they get easily overwhelmed with transitions or routine changes? When you know your child’s triggers, it becomes much easier to prepare for the holidays and avoid scenarios where your kiddo might be overwhelmed. For example, if your child is sensitive to strong smells, avoid using strong holiday scents in your home.
2) Remember to regulate.
Even though schedules and routines will change throughout the holiday season - it’s super important to consistently include regulation and sensory play. For example, if your child benefits from a morning sensory routine like jumping on the trampoline or playing with a sensory bin, try your best to continue those small routines every day. Your kiddo’s “sensory diet” can help them stay calm and regulated if they encounter an unexpected holiday-related stressor. Provide extra opportunities for regulation, calming techniques, or sensory play if you can!
3) Think about the details of holiday activities.
Details are everything! When planning holiday-themed activities for your family, pay close attention to the details. Will this activity be inside or outside, and will that affect my sensory child? Will there be loud music, no music, or other unfamiliar sounds? Children with SPD can often become overwhelmed or stuck on specific details of a venue, which can lead to feelings of anxiety and dysregulation. It can help to have a backup plan or portable calming sensory kit too!
4) Make a holiday time routine - and use practice!
Children with sensory challenges truly thrive when they have a great routine in place! During the holidays when schedules change and routines are adjusted, sensory kids can become easily overwhelmed. Help get them back into a routine by creating a Holiday Time Routine. You can use visual calendars and schedules, social stories with pictures, and of course - sensory routines! Practice can be key as well. Practice going through social stories for new events, practice new transitions slowly and break down tasks into small steps.
5) Let go of perfection and expectations.
This tip is crucial, and applies to all the tips above! Sensory processing disorder can be unpredictable. We can prepare, create routines, decrease overwhelming stimuli, and more, but sometimes things just don’t go as well as we planned. As a sensory parent - you’re well aware of that! Sensory parents can feel pressured when going in public or doing activities, especially during the holidays, because of how people expect their child to behave. For example, maybe you decide to have a holiday movie night at home with your family and watch the movie Elf. Your sensory kiddo gets overwhelmed by all the sounds in the movie and wants to turn it off halfway through. It can be disappointing for the rest of the family, but it’s ok! When you let go of wanting the “perfect” outing or activity, you can adapt to your kiddos needs and be flexible.
The most important thing to remember from this guide is to let go of perfection! You can even use the mantra “prepared and not perfect”. Sensory processing disorder can present itself in so many different ways, especially during the holidays. So do what you can to prepare, help reduce the sensory overwhelm, and enjoy the small wins and time with your loved ones - even if that means only making it through the first half of Elf. Happy holidays!