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From Thanksgiving to New Year's, there's so much to celebrate. We love to do it up big with decorations, shopping, music parties–and don't even mention the food! Each year, we vow to ake the holidays simpler, to do less and enjoy the time more, only to arrive at January feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and tired.
This season is especially difficult for children who have sensory processing challenges. Let's face it, the holidays are all about sensory overload: oversized decorations, crowded malls, nonstop music, social interactions, and again, don't even mention the food.
Children with sensory processing challenges have difficulty sorting out information gathered through their senses. This can often result in unpredictable or unusual behaviors. They might experience increased anxiety about the holidays, and the days leading up to them, refuse to eat at family gatherings, or become extremely overwhelmed.
So much is heightened and unpredictable about this time, and starting in late October, families I work with begin asking me about strategies for surviving the holidays. They especially worry about managing change in their children's structure and routing and about how they will behave at family functions.
These aren't easy answers, but below are some helpful strategies.
I hope this gives you some tools to help your child during the holidays. My wish for you is some quiet downtime and as few meltdowns as possible, so you can enjoy creating special memories together this holiday season.
1. Know your child's sensory profile
Be mindful of the sensory input your child finds overwhelming. As parents, we often get lost in the holiday bustle and forget to create downtime for ourselves, but downtime is extremely important for our children. Some especially common sensory triggers around the holidays are loud noise, nonstop music, bright lights, and active environments. If you are aware of your child's triggers, you can create an action plan and anticipate his response.
- Give your child noise-cancelling headphones/earplugs or relaxing music.
- Call ahead and ask friends and family to turn their Christmas lights down or off while you are visiting their homes.
- Move with your child to a less chaotic environment or quiet space to regroup.
- Support your child in taking these "sensory breaks" and comment on her response: "This quiet room seems to help you to relax. Let's plan to come here again if we need a break."
- Don't punish your child for reacting to sensory overload; his nervous system can't help it.
2. Adjust your expectations
The joyous Normal Rockwell painting of the family sitting down to a holiday dinner is not a reality for most families, and this is especially true for children with sensory processing difficulties who are also picky eaters. The smells, new foods, number of people, and all the chatter can be overwhelming.
- Pack your child's favorite foods and allow her to leave the table.
- It's helpful to talk with family members in advance and gently ask them to monitor their comments about your child's food preferences.
- Think about reducing the number of gatherings you attend or the amount of time you spend at each gathering.
- Consider asking family members to come to your house. This may create extra work, but it allows your child to stay in a familiar environment with comforting toys and objects.
3. Maintain routine as much as possible
Children with sensory processing challenges tend to thrive in structured, more predictable environments. Prepare your child ahead of time for activities outside of your regular routing.
- Create a fun holiday calendar with pictures of planned activities.
- Come up with a family tradition that may help enhance predictability and provide a "routine" that occurs yearly.
4. Plan for break times
This is an area where being proactive and planning ahead can be highly beneficial.
- When you will be in an unfamiliar environment, bring along what is most calming for your child: an iPad for some game time or a favorite movie, or arts and crafts.
5. Assess how important the activity is for your child
Look ahead at your scheduled activities and ask, "Is this a must-do?" Some events may be too challenging, and there may be some they can skip.
- Consider allowing your child to stay home with a babysitter or stay at a friend's house. Sometimes missing one event can help to make the next event less overwhelming.
This season is especially difficult for children who have sensory processing challenges.
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