10 Tips for a More Enjoyable Holiday with Your Sensory Child

Ahhhh, the holidays. That wonderful and joyous time of year when parents of sensory-sensitive children brace themselves for more meltdowns, more disapproving and puzzled looks from family and friends, more unsolicited parenting advice and more...stress.

Even typically developing kids, heck, even typical adults, experience heightened stress during the holidays (cut to me frantically wrapping presents), so just imagine what it's like for kids with sensory processing issues- bright lights, blaring holiday music, new foods, new smells, changes in weather, more plans, more transitions, more noise, uncomfortable holiday outfits, crowded gatherings, disrupted routines- can you say sensory overload?

When I think back to my son's first Christmas, the image that comes to mind is of him screaming and me trying (unsuccessfully) to soothe him. While the rest of my family was unwrapping gifts, laughing and enjoying themselves, my son and I were in a quiet upstairs bedroom with the lights off.

Desperate to calm him, I tried nursing, swaddling, rocking, bouncing, shushing, turning on the sound machine, singing, patting, praying (for the love of God, please please please help this child!), nothing worked. I must have blocked the rest of the day out because that's all I remember.

The next few Christmases followed suit - excessive and seemingly never-ending screaming...desperate and unsuccessful efforts to soothe...me feeling exhausted and miserable.

My son is six and a half now and I'm happy to report that our last couple Christmases have actually been enjoyable. The shift was a result of several strategies I've learned (the hard way) and have begun incorporating at the beginning of the holiday season...

1. Let go of all expectations.

This is way easier said than done, but worth the effort. The bottom line is that expectations ruin experiences. So, the fewer you have, the better off you are.

Take my family's annual Christmas Eve party...

Old Full of Expectations Me - I'm so excited, this is going to be so fun! H will get to play with his cousins, open presents, and watch Miracle on 34th Street... he's going to have the best time!

New Zero Expectations Me - Well, it's Christmas Eve and we're heading to my parents' house for our annual party. My cousins will be there with their kids. We'll open some gifts and probably watch a Christmas movie. I wonder how H will do? I guess I'll find out in a bit!

I'm exaggerating, but you get the picture. The idea is to be objective, curious about and open to how things will go rather than fixed on things going a certain way.

This is a great rule of thumb for all parents of young kids, but especially for parents of kids with sensory processing issues, who are more likely to become overwhelmed during holiday festivities.

2. Take care of yourself.

You know the drill- you cannot take care of your kids unless you take care of yourself first. We moms have heard this a million times, but for some reason we have a mental block around it.

It's similar to my mental block around not nagging my husband about leaving drawers open- I know that if I want him to remember to close drawers and cupboards after he opens them, saying sarcastically, "Um, don't worry, I'll go ahead and shut this for you," before aggressively slamming the drawer shut, is not the way to get him to listen, but I just can't stop myself!

We must push past our mental (and behavioral) blocks if we want positive change! On that note, your new self-care mantra is: It's selfish NOT to take care of myself.

On that note, stop what you're doing right now and write down three things you're going to do this week to take care of yourself. Now write down one thing you're going to do today! If you want some accountability, scroll down and write them in the comment section at the end of the post and I'll check back in with you to keep you on track.

Here are mine... this week I'm going to order out instead of cooking for a holiday get together I'm hosting (cooking for anyone besides my family is very stressful for me!), go to yoga, and schedule coffee and a walk with a girlfriend.

Today I'm going to take a walk after dinner and listen to one of my favorite podcasts.

3. Educate family and friends about SPD.

One of the hardest things about parenting my son has been dealing with the judgments from others. The holidays are especially difficult in this regard because his sensitivities are heightened and family and friend gatherings are more frequent.

Judgments stem from fear, insecurity, or ignorance (sometimes all three!). If you feel judgment from family and friends about your child and/or your parenting, chances are they're either worried about/for you, they're feeling insecure about their own child/parenting, or they simply don't know anything about SPD.

The best way to nip their judgments in the bud is to educate them about SPD and how it specifically affects your child. That way, when your child doesn't respond to your Aunt Eileen's attempts to engage or insists on playing by himself when all of his cousins are happily playing together or screams bloody murder when the carrot sticks on his plate accidentally touch his piece of plain toast, you can focus your energy on helping him get regulated rather than wasting it while trying to explain his behavior. Click here to download a template for explaining SPD.

4. Plan ahead.

Prepare a schedule of holiday events (visual for younger kids, written for older) so your child knows what to expect.

Discuss the schedule regularly and give your child information about each event:

Who will be there?
What will your child be doing?
Is the event indoor or outdoor?
Will it be crowded?
Will it be noisy?
How long do you plan on staying
?

Knowing what to expect will help calm your child's anxiety.

5. Have an exit strategy.

Make a plan with your child for what to do if he starts to feel overwhelmed or too wired. With older kids, you can come up with a "code word" they can use to signal they need a break or they need to leave.

With younger kids, you'll be responsible for reading their signals, but you can still give them a plan and let them know that they can leave at any time.

Fill your family and friends in on your exit strategy so you don't have to worry about explaining if you have to make a sudden departure.

6. Say no.

Give yourself permission to say no to a holiday event or gathering even if it means a family member or friend is going to be disappointed. If you know the event is going to be over-stimulating for your child, don't go. End of story.

7. Bring food.

If you have a picky eater, a holiday gathering is not the time to challenge him to try new foods! Bring foods he's comfortable eating and resist the urge to encourage him to eat Grandma's legendary brisket.

This is a perfect example of when educating friends and family about your child's sensitivies will come in handy - you'll want to make sure no one else pressures him either.

8. Be cautious about excess sugar and food dye.

Sugar and food dyes have been shown to increase hyperactivity in children and can exacerbate sensory issues. Obviously this is the last thing you need when you have a sensitive kiddo (especially if yours is a sensory-seeker)!

It's a fine line because we don't want to be too rigid and we certainly don't want to completely deprive our kids of yummy holiday treats.

My solution? I host a holiday cookie-making party for my boys and their friends. This way I can curate the ingredients and then I have a batch of "sensory-approved" treats I can bring with me to holiday events.

Here's my recipe:

Cookies

Frosting

Sprinkles

9. Bring a sensory tool kit.

A sensory tool kit is a portable box, bin or bag full of sensory tools and toys that help calm or stimulate your child's nervous system. You'll want to bring this with you to each holiday gathering to help keep your child's system regulated.

For example, when you notice he's becoming over stimulated, you can grab the noise reducing earmuffs or the stress-reducing squeezey toy. If he seems sluggish and/or is having trouble focusing, you can pull out the gum (chewing gum is both stimulating and organizing to a child's system) or give him the monkey noodles for some stimulating proprioceptive input.

What goes in the kit will be unique to your child's sensory needs. Here's an article with 25 sensory toy ideas that are the perfect size to include in a kit.

We did a lot of trial and error to figure out what to include in my son's sensory bin. Here are the winners:

Monkey Noodle
Fidget Spinner
Pur Gum
Mini Etch a Sketch
Chewy Tubes
Rapper Snappers
Markers and paper (drawing calms my son)
Book of mazes
Wikki Stix
Squeezy ball
Bug out Bob
Thinking Putty
Water Wow

10. Limit the number of gifts.

This is a hard one for me. I tend to go a little gift-crazy on Christmas. But, I've learned (again, the hard way) that too many toys = too much stimulation = more meltdowns. Now, we keep toys to a minimum- one toy from Santa, one toy from mom and dad, one toy from the grandparents. For more tips on how to limit holiday toys, click here. The fewer toys competing for your child's attention, the easier it will be for him to stay regulated.

While the holidays may not be "the most wonderful time of the year" for parents of kids with sensory processing issues, they don't have to be the most stressful time either. With a little preparation, understanding, flexibility and patience (ok, lots of patience!), you can help make the holidays more enjoyable...for everyone.

What are your holiday-survival tips? Leave them in the comments below, the Sensory Mom community and I would love to hear from you.


FREE SPD Guide

Who has the time to read dozens of books on SPD?

Download my FREE 25 page PDF guide to Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder.

Hi! I'm Cameron, mom of two incredible, "differently-wired" boys who have sensory processing challenges, wife of a nerdy surfer, mindfulness practitioner and Parenting Coach with master's degrees in education and psychology.