The holidays are fast approaching and although this is a time for family, memories, joy and giving, it can also be a time of stress for children and their families, especially when sensory processing difficulties come into play. The lights, carols, sounds of bells, Christmas trees, smells of pine and peppermint, Santa and his Elves at the mall, as well as increased traffic and shoppers out in the community can create a state of sensory overload for many of us. Just imagine how a child, maybe even your child, feels during this time. The house, entire neighborhood even, can look different with trees trimmed, lights on and blinking and decorations galore. Driving up to your beautifully decorated home may cause stress for your child if it looks different than usual. Try including your children in the decorating process. Maybe even tell a story or talk about decorations, what specifically will be in or on your home and how it will make the environment look different. When decorating your home, it is important to consider and respect your child’s sensory preferences and needs. This may include choosing lights that stay lit rather than ones that flash or change color, choosing decorations that are silent rather than ones that make noise. Holiday stories may also cause anxiety, stories about reindeer on the roof, being naughty or nice etc.
Taking shopping trips and general trips into the community during the holidays are times to consider implementing sensory diet techniques more than usual. When you are aware that your day may include activities involving a great deal of sensory information, try to schedule other times of the day to involve calming activities. It will be important to watch your child for signs of sensory overload, shutdown or fright/flight/fight behaviors. Meltdowns may become more frequent, causing your holiday errands and shopping to become more difficult. Other signs of stress include: changes in sleep wake cycles (having a more difficult time than usual settling down or waking up), changes in overall activity level, changes in their interactions with others (more aggressive than usual). Prepare your child for any changes in routines; use calendars and visual schedules whenever possible. Writing and drawing a list on a small paper or whiteboard to take in the car can also help. Have your child/children cross off each errand/store as it is accomplished. This should also decrease the “Are we done yet? When can we go home?” questions. You could also try giving your child a “visual shopping list” so they are part of the shopping process and this could keep them attentive, involved, prevent them from pulling everything off of the shelves as well as giving a sense of accomplishment. Baseball caps can decrease the spatial and visual components of being at the mall and oral input (gum, sucking candy etc) can also be organizing.
Please remember to be consistent. If you say you are going to one more store and then going home for dinner, it is important that you follow through with this. Children have a hard time understanding how time elapses and phrases such as “just a minute” or “we will leave soon” may cause your child to become easily frustrated.
A holiday event itself can be difficult as there are typically many more people around possibly bumping into you unexpectedly, more noise and movement and many unfamiliar or strong smells. Keep an eye on your child during the event. Watch for signs of stress and facilitate opportunities to take breaks from family members, go for a walk, and have the child “help” incorporating heavy work activities. Allow the child to stand on the outskirts of group activity (i.e., if the cousins are playing loudly). Maybe go for a walk, have the child get firewood from outside or something out of the car. Also, inform family members that it would be appreciated if they would allow the child to warm up to them prior to approaching them and invading the child’s space before they are ready.
Spending more time in the car can be difficult as well. Keep activities in the car to help with the driving around. If your child gets carsick easily, incorporate heavy work. Provide your child with chewy snacks or gum/lollipops. Wearing a baseball cap in the car can decrease the amount of spatial and visual input too. Play calming music in the car, slow rhythmic music, low frequency sounds such as drumming or classical music can be great. Avoid strong air fresheners or smells in the car as well. If in a car seat, try to provide your child with a surface to place feet flat or push against the back of the seat in front of them.
When sleep/wake cycles are interrupted this can impact the entire family. A bedtime routine is important. Over time, a routine can help your child’s body get ready for bed before even getting to the bedroom. If bath time is part of the bedtime routine, bring PJ’s into the bathroom and put them on after a vigorous rubdown with a towel before ever opening the door and changing the temperature. A warm towel thrown into the dryer 10 min prior to bath time can also be nice. Background noise such as a humidifier, fan or heater or soft calming music may be helpful, especially if you know music/auditory input is helpful for your child. Respect your child’s preferences for sleepwear. A child who is sensitive to touch may not like footed pajamas or may prefer tighter fitting pajamas that offer deep pressure to the entire body. Heavy blankets or large pillows may be beneficial too as well as stuffed animals to hug or cuddle with. Massage, joint compressions or pillow squishes may be a way to provide calming input prior to bedtime. Some children need to be slowly awakened as well; including slowly introducing light into the room, massage, gentle squishing, or rocking. Always limit conversation first thing in the morning for a child who has a hard time waking up.
Be sure to catch your children being good! This includes praise for following directions or routines, displaying appropriate behavior etc.
And most of all, have a wonderful, happy and healthy Holiday Season and New Year!
Sara Pereira, MS OTR/L