8 Tips to Manage Sensory Disorders at the Holidays
“The most wonderful time of the year” is here, whether we are ready for it or not. For many of our kids from hard places, all that wonderful-ness can also represent big changes in routines, in familiar foods, with clothing, and noise. Some of those changes are enough to trigger melt-downs of epic proportions for kids who struggle with sensory processing disorders. When you have a child with a sensory processing disorder, it can be hard to enjoy your family traditions and special occasions together.
Here are 8 tips to help you prepare for the season and support your child with sensory processing disorder at the holidays.
When it comes to sensory disorders, knowledge is power.
Simply understanding that your child’s sensory processing disorder is real and not just willful “acting out” behavior is a powerful tool in your parental toolbox. When you can look at your child’s behavior through this filter, you realize that her nervous system is struggling to process and organize the sensory information that is not part of her regular experience. Educating yourself and helping your child understand how her brain works is empowering for both of you. When your child’s challenges manifest, you have an opportunity to respond from a base of understanding and can choose compassion rather than frustration at the change in behavior. You will feel equipped to assist her in behaving differently.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
When your child has a sensory processing disorder, it is far better to prevent the nervous system from becoming dysregulated in the first place, as opposed to cleaning up the “mess” of a melt-down later. Keep in mind that you know your child best! For example, before that formal holiday dinner at the fancy restaurant in town, think about what your child’s sensory preferences and dislikes are on a typical day. Does a small coloring book and crayons help create a sense of calm and peace when he is stressed? Is there a snack or drink that represents familiarity and safety to him in a new place?
Pack a small bag of tricks before you leave. Give the child a voice in what he packs. Talk about what he is choosing and why. That choice is empowering for both identifying his dysregulation and coping with it. If you can, you might even consider in advance to manage or even remove sensory aversions that you know would seriously trigger him. This might mean enlisting the help of another family member or even the restaurant staff on occasion.
Be a student of your child and her sensory processing disorder.
This tip goes hand in hand with that ounce of prevention. Talk with your child before an event about how she can communicate to you that she is feeling maxed out or triggered. Keep your eyes peeled during holiday activities for the slightest sign that would indicate that your child is having difficulty with her sensory processing disorder. Closely watch her facial expressions. Check on her energy level through the event. Listen to her tone of voice when she’s interacting with all those cousins. Is she communicating with body language that she’s nearing her limit for new or different sensory input? Then be sure to jump on the opportunity to use those strategies you created together to build her sense of safety and trust that you take her feelings seriously.
Go with the flow and be flexible.
You may be the only one in these moments who can be flexible (wink, wink). Know that you may need to tweak the established plans for the sake of your child’s needs and that’s ok! In fact, consider making a backup or even an exit plan for you and your family to increase your ability to be flexible. If you do have to change plans or leave early, decide ahead of time that it is okay to feel disappointed but that this isn’t the only holiday event of the season. There will be other family gatherings to come. Tell yourself, and your child, that “there is always next year.” In the end, if changing plans gives you an opportunity to build trust, safety, and connection with your child, then your flexibility becomes a “double win!”
Communication is key to managing sensory disorders.
Talk honestly with family or friends who will be at the seasonal activities. Let them know in advance that you are putting some things into place to support your child’s sensory processing disorder, in light of the holiday events. Most importantly, communicate with your child, let him know you are there for him and invite him into the planning so that he too can enjoy his holiday season and handle his feelings successfully. An excellent tool you can employ for this is the use of visual supports (like a picture schedule or a social story) to help him understand his feelings and what he can choose to do to manage them. Many kids enjoy creating the stories, brainstorming the choices of tools and the possible outcomes to help them internalize their new coping skills.
Collaboration eases the anxiety of sensory processing disorders.
We all like to feel like we have some control over things. Our kids desire to feel that empowerment as well. In fact, this is often even more true of your child with sensory processing disorder. Giving her a voice and allowing her to work with you collaboratively to create coping strategies can help her to feel safe in your care for her. When she feels that “overwhelm” rising, remembering that she contributed meaningfully in the plan that soothes her dysregulation often aids in the soothing itself. For example, when you are in an event where you sense her anxiety rising, you can quietly whisper to her “You are ok. We knew this might happen and we worked together to fix it. Are you ready to take a short walk out in the parking lot with me? We can deep breathe out there together.” She’ll feel covered, equipped and assured that she is not alone in the overwhelm.
Repeat after me: “None of us are perfect and that is OK.”
All the above strategies are absolutely worth the time and effort they require. But you can’t plan for every situation and you can’t control others who add to the circumstances. Don’t beat yourself up if things still don’t go as you had hoped they might! It happens. Acknowledge that it’s going to happen, and let yourself be OK with it when it does. Talk with your child beforehand about that possibility and role play a fun, exaggerated “Oh, well, THAT didn’t go like I planned for it go!” type of response.
Healthy self-care is crucial!
Don’t forget to think about your own sensory challenges and preferences and be sure to schedule some down time for those things that bring joy and meaning to your holiday experience. Your sensory break time will undoubtedly look very different than your child’s looks, but it is no less important. When things are frantic and stressful, you will be far more equipped to handle them if you’ve engaged in healthy self-care. Self-care is crucial all year round, but it definitely should not be ignored during this “most wonderful time of the year!”
Yes, this holiday season can bring plenty of opportunities for chaos and meltdowns for your kiddo with a sensory processing disorder. But in the middle of all those family dinners at Grandma’s house, raucous cousin fun, and fancy parties with old friends, it really can still be “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” It might require some planning and creativity on your part. It will require flexibility and understanding from you and your loved ones. But if it also yields some connected-ness, increased trust and security within your family, well that kind of wonderful-ness of that can’t be quantified, now can it?
**Special thanks to my friend and co-author, Judy Rohrbach, OTR/L and adoptive mom of two great kids. Your help both in better understanding my children’s needs and in crafting this piece is deeply appreciated!