25 Tips to Reduce Sensory Overload at Your Holiday Gathering

Holiday gatherings are the perfect storm for the dreaded sensory-induced meltdown. We all get a little overwhelmed during the holidays, so imagine what it's like for kids whose nervous systems are more sensitive to sights, noises, smells, tastes and textures.

These kids are working extremely hard to hold it together in the midst of all the extra holiday sensory input but at a certain point they reach their max capacity and next thing you know, you've got a level ten meltdown on your hands and a holiday gathering that's suddenly been cut short.

I've been there many a time. Sigh.

When my older son was younger, I dreaded big family gatherings. Meltdowns and extreme clinginess were par for the course as were confused/ bewildered expressions from onlooking family members.

Through trial and error, I've learned several meltdown-reducing tactics that have made holiday festivities less dreaded and more enjoyable.

Here are my top 25 tips to reduce sensory-overload-induced-meltdowns and to increase the likelihood of your family being the last to leave instead of the first!

1. Look for the signs. If you notice any of the following, it's time to spring into action: behavior that is hyperactive, aggressive, withdrawn or defiant; increased whining; increased clinginess; child covering ears.
2. As soon as you notice any of the signs, give your child a break.
3. Bring a sensory tool kit.
4. Do sensory diet activities before the party.
5. Bring your own food.
6. Make sure your child eats! Low blood sugar = meltdown-inducer.
7. Pre-designate a quiet place for your child to decompress.
8. Go easy on the sugar.
9. Bring a healthy dessert- my boys love these gluten-free holiday cookies.
10. Bring noise cancelling headphones.
11. Talk to your child about who will be there and what to expect.
12. Email family/friends beforehand about your child's challenges.
13. No fancy holiday clothes!
14. Let child pick his own clothes.
15. Bring distractions- child's favorite toys, iPad, fidgets, something novel.
16. Do a quick sensory diet break at first pre-meltdown signs (10 jumping jacks, 10 tight squeezes, 10 frog jumps, 10 wall push-ups).
17. Don't force eye contact.
18. Keep bedtime as close to your child's usual time as possible.
19. Be cautious about screen time - avoid over-stimulating shows/ games.
20. Tag team with your partner- take turns being on "meltdown watch" so you can each have some time to relax and enjoy the party.
21. For older kids, come up with a "code word" for when they're feeling too stimulated.
22. Bring pj's to change into so if needed, your child can sleep on the car ride home.
23. Plan a sensory-friendly game, like Twister or this one for the kids to play.
24. Give lots of praise for cooperative, positive behavior.
25. Last, but not least: let go of expectations- take a hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst approach!

While I can't promise your holiday will be sensory-overload free, I can promise that using these tips will help decrease the number of sensory-induced meltdowns and at the very least, make them easier to manage.

Have a wonderful holiday and remember, your child won't always struggle with the things he struggles with now. Next year at this time, he'll be in a different place and so will you.


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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.