Sensory Differences and Holiday Events: Simple Life Hacks for Happy Memories

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!

By Cathy Collyer

I am a licensed occupational therapist, licensed massage therapist, and certified CBT-i sleep coach in private practice in the NYC area. I have over 25 years of professional experience in adult and pediatric treatment. It has been a joy to help people of all ages improve their ability to grow and thrive! Occupational therapists are focused on enhancing a client's functioning in everyday life. We are practical healthcare providers, interested in teaching, adapting actions and environments, and building a client's useful skills for living their best life, regardless of their challenges. I am the author of five books, including "Staying In The Room: Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID" and "The Practical Guide To Toilet Training the Autistic Child". I lecture on many subjects, including sleep, trauma, and development. Contact me to learn more about how I can help you achieve YOUR goals!

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