Two down, two to go! Halloween and Thanksgiving were here with their sweets, pies, costumes, decorations, visitors, expectations, and lots and lots of sensory input. If you’re reading this, then you’ve made it through the first two legs of the holiday seasons perhaps not unscathed but alive and well. But don’t worry, the biggest are just around the corner. So, as you prepare for the presents, the food, the lights, the music, the traditional expectations, the social anxiety, and the sensory overload, take a breath, have a seat, and take a few minutes to read this. Because Sensory Fitness and Lakikid have made the ultimate survival guide to a sensory friendly holiday season.
So, as you prepare for the presents, the food, the lights, the music, the traditional expectations, the social anxiety, and the sensory overload, take a breath, have a seat, and take a few minutes to read this...
I know, I know. This advice is redundant. There is so much preparation that goes into the holidays already. Food, decorations, guests, traveling, holiday movies, and presents. Let’s not forget the presents. With school breaks, holiday trips, sweaty uncles in the guest room, and a change in the schedule, it will also help your kiddo to prepare for the change in routine.
If you are planning a trip, allow your child to be a part of the planning. Or give them the itinerary or even the whole schedule of the time off from school. This can sometimes come back and bite you in the butt as if it’s something you planned, and the plan falls through…oh no! But even going over that with your kid can help. Maybe even having a plan B (And plan B doesn’t even have to be written out because sometimes plan B can be something cooler than plan A) but literally write the words “plan B”.
Kids with sensory difficulties often struggle with the unexpected. As they spend most of their day walking in and out of environments that affect them unexpectedly. Too loud, too bright, too fast, not fast enough, it’s scratchy, it’s wet, and so on and on and on. So having the schedule in a good visual spot can help prepare the child for what is to come.
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2. Keep your daily schedule.
Yes, I know what I just said above. But not everything has to change. ESPECIALLY if you have a sweet sensory diet that works for your kid. Any sensory strategies that you use on the reg at the same time every day, keep those! Those are good. Those are important.
Whatever is working with your kid then keep doing that. Just because there is no school, you’re on a trip, or grandma is sleeping on the fold out, then bring the weighted vest and puddy on the plane, scope out the pool and playgrounds in the area near the hotel, and maybe grandma can join in the daily couch jump (don’t jump on the plane seats. I’ve tried this. Our trip ended). If they’re using daily sensory strategies that work at someplace like school, then do your best to recreate those strategies wherever you may be. I’m a firm believer in what Teddy Roosevelt said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”.
Movement is important. As if you didn’t know this. Anybody who’s read anything I’ve written in the past knows I push this. With a break in the schedule, big expectations on the horizon, smelly holiday incense (Sorry, I can’t do it. I’ve tried. I can’t do it), grandma on the fold out, stress can easily rise. Especially if you’re lighting incense. But guess what? Movement can help! Jump on couches, climb trees, crash into pillows, roll on the floor. Those big gross motor activities get our blood pumping, our muscles working, and release groovy neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. Brain chemicals like these help us regulate our emotions, reduce stress, and are good for a gabillion other reasons. Big movement is excellent before hopping on the plane, train, or automobile.
Whatever motivates the kid. Do that! I’m always promoting activities that really engage our vestibular system (like swinging, bike riding, scooters, etc.), tactile system (crashing, rolling, smooshing, deep pressure), or proprioception (heavy work. Active muscle use). These are the ones that give us the most body input and awareness. I usually suggest reducing visual and audio input like screens and music. But there is no reason why these things can’t be combined like Go Noodle on YouTube or Nintendo Wii. Getting movement daily and multiple times a day is important for development and overall health but crucial for sensory health.
*Sensory Fitness and Lakikid to not condone the burning and smelling of incense. Matt just doesn’t like it because it makes his nose tickle and reminds him of his grandmother’s couch in 1980 that smelled like lemon aerosol air freshener and cigarettes.
4. Let’s wrap up that wrapping
That’s right. I said it. Try using something else besides wrapping paper. Besides the fact that it’s completely terrible for the planet, especially the paper with the glittery stuff that gets all over any fabric in the house and lasts for 12 years, it is also super crinkly and can be visually overstimulating. Just by saying the word “wrapping paper” I bet you can right now hear krcklckclckcrkl right in your ear and feel the smooth but somehow sharp feeling at the same time, on your legs and arms as you sit on the pile that always makes its way to your couch.
Present time is filled with crazy expectations of the unknown anyway. This can be too much to handle in and of itself. Couple that with crinkly, multicolored, shiny paper and this can be the launch button to a meltdown. Gift time may still be tough but reducing the visual and audio input is never going to make it worse.
Fun tip! If you’re ordering from places like Amazon, then your job is already done for you. It comes in a quiet, sturdy, earth tone box ready to be stacked nice and evenly under your tree that doesn’t have any ornaments or lights anymore because those too were too overstimulating. If you’re old school and don’t use a parcel delivery service then use one from that stack of boxes that someone in the house usually saves because who in their right mind would throw out a perfectly good box.
5. Traditions don’t have to be traditional.
What the heck does that even mean? Here’s what I mean. With holidays come traditions. With traditions come expectations. With expectations comes a level of stress. Living up to traditions can be hard. Some of our kids like to have things like they were last year. And that’s cool! If continuing traditions is not a problem, then just go ahead and skip to number 6. But I’m not really talking about the kids this time. Sometimes us as parents put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make everything perfect. We might have had a warm fuzzy holiday feeling growing up and we want to recreate that same feeling for our kids and ourselves as well. But sometimes when things don’t go the way we planned in our head then that can be a downer. And if we’re down, our kids know that. And if they know we’re down, then that can be very hard for them and now your perfect ham dinner by candlelight ends in a burned table cloth and tears of rage.
Maybe that’s a bit extreme but hopefully you see my point. If you don’t see my point, then here is my point. If you have a relaxed attitude and disposition about something, then those in the room will feed off that energy. The same is true if you’re stressed about things being perfect. If you want your holiday to be a happy and relaxed holiday then being ok with things as they happen instead of “supposed to happen” then you are creating a happy and relaxed impression and creating a happy and relaxed memory associated with this time of year. Which is what It’s all about anyway. Being happy and relaxed with family. Even Grandma on the pullout
6. Sensory Space
The big day is here! Grandma set up her pullout, sweaty uncle took over the guest room, unopened gifts are ticking timebombs of anticipation and tears, and insert other out of the norm potential stressful situations that you know will set your kid off.
Having that sensory space where kids can reduce the sensory input can be extremely helpful. If you don’t have one already, having a sensory space for kids with sensory difficulties can be a game changer. It could be a closet with a mat, crash pad, or stacked with pillows. A cozy spot under a bed with fidgets, headphones, and soothing lights. Or a hammock or Lycra swing hung in the garage or playroom. Somewhere your child can get some big gross motor movement and/or a quiet chill out spot to avoid Aunt Kate’s goose honking laugh that sets everyone in the room off.
If you have the luxury of a sensory space like this in the house, then make sure you’re proactive about using it. Be sure your kiddo gets their good sensory input as much as they need it throughout the day. It’s Ok to escape there when they’ve already become overwhelmed but usually getting that good sensory input periodically in the day can help them deal with the unscheduled noises, smells, and other overstimulating holiday cheer.
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As amazing as the holidays can be they can also be a huge source of stress for kids and adults struggling with sensory processing.
But by doing a little preparation, making some modifications, managing expectations, and making sure kids (and adults!) get plenty of movement, the holidays can go as close to smooth as real life actually lets us. That and carefully explaining to all our open-minded family members that sensory processing difficulties are real. But we can save that advice for another blog. Happy sensory friendly holidays ya’ll!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Founder of Sensory Fitness. As an occupational therapy assistant, personal trainer, and special education teacher Matt Sloan has directed his experience into specialized fitness programs for everyone while catering to sensory difficulties, neurodiversity, or any special need. Matt also brings sensory education and strategies to educators, parents, fitness professionals, and anyone working with a sensory difficulties to provide sensory strategies, create sensory friendly environments, and promote the importance of movement in learning and everyday activities.