The holidays can be such a magical time for our children. Bright lights, holiday music, parades, parties, and visits with Santa can create lifelong memories. For children with sensory sensitivities, and their families, these events with bright lights, loud noise, and lots of commotion can bring about a stressful state that can be overwhelming.
Even more difficult for the parents is the judgmental looks from other parents when your child has a meltdown in a store, or an older child throws themselves on the floor refusing to do that fun activity other children are enjoying. It can make you want to retreat home and spend the holidays alone. There may be certain situations where it would be beneficial to stay home; but there are simple strategies you can implement to help your sensory sensitive child stay regulated during the holidays.
How to Make the Holiday Season More Enjoyable for Families With Sensory Sensitive Kids.
Here are the top suggestions to make the season bright:
Enjoy the fun during “off” hours
Crowds can be tough for anybody, but children with sensory sensitivities it can be overwhelming, sending the child into a fight, flight or freeze state. The noises, movements, and chaos can spike your child’s stress state and alert their system to run away or have a meltdown. To avoid the problem, try attending activities during the “off” hours by following these tips:
- Instead of watching the tree lighting or big parades, try driving around in your car (a familiar environment) to see the neighborhood lights with soft music playing.
- Instead of visiting Santa at a busy mall, try looking for “sensitive Santa” events happening in your area. More and more of these events are being offered.
- Seek out activities that you can do at home to create a magical holiday season; bake cookies, cut out snowflakes, build snow forts, family movie night, and create memories at home with loved ones.
Get them moving before the festivities
Specific movement that incorporates proprioception & heavy work with calming vestibular movement can help regulate your child before they get overwhelmed. These movements will help calm your child’s nervous system in preparation for the festivities. We recommend doing this series of movements before leaving the house for any activity that may cause stress. We use these for prevention.
- 10 jumping jacks or two-foot hops for younger children
- 10 cross crawl (touch right elbow to left knee, then left elbow to right knee) alternating between the two – standing or seated
- 10 pushups for proprioception; younger children can hold a plank or try mountain climbers.
- Finish by crawling on hands & knees (or crab crawl with belly towards sky) for 3 minutes.
Understand How to Calm Your Child During a Meltdown
No matter how we try to avoid situations where our child may be triggered, we cannot always predict what will cause them stress. There are several simple strategies you can use during a meltdown to help calm their nervous system back to a regulated state. Many of these strategies listed below stimulate the vagus nerve which is connected to our parasympathetic nervous system; the calm, regulated state. Teach your loved ones to help by using these strategies as well; a team effort is always helpful.
- Use deep pressure to elicit calm: giving a big bear hug; pressing firmly down on your child’s shoulders; massaging gently but firmly on arms & legs; use a therapy ball to roll across your child’s body; or squish them between two pillow or couch cushions.
- Play instrumental classical music. If you have to leave an event, turn this music on in the car to elicit a relaxation response for your child.
- Take them outside. The cold air stimulates the vagus nerve.
- Get your child to laugh. Make funny faces, tickle (if they tolerate) and be playful. Laughter stimulates the vagus nerve.
Be Kind to Yourself and Your Child
The holidays can be a stressful time for all of us. When a parent is not regulated themselves, they cannot help calm a child. Co-regulation is a skill we need to understand and practice. When you can respond calmly or neutrally, you will help your child because they’re unconsciously picking up on your calmness, which in turn will cause their nervous system to calm down. Your child will feel secure. Use the strategies below to regulate yourself before holiday adventures.
- Take 5 minutes to meditate with an app, such as Calm, or simply sit in a comfortable position while focusing on deep breaths.
- Talk a walk or exercise before heading out for holiday fun.
- During a stressful moment, take a deep breath and count to 10 before dealing with your child.
- Find fun ways to connect with your child during events. See the holidays through their eyes.
- Smile. Even “fake” smiling instantly makes your brain think you are happy.
A Final Word from Brain Connex Therapy
For many people the holidays can be a stressful time of year, whether you have a sensory sensitive child or not. If we reframe our expectations of the holiday season we can handle situations with more ease and find joy in the season. The winter season is the perfect time to slow down, be with ones you love, and create new memories.
Celebrate the small victories and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Enjoy the season through your child’s eyes, and notice all that makes your special child uniquely wonderful.