Keeping the Holidays Sensory-Sensitive

Kindering therapists address sensory processing issues and a number of developmental challenges every day. The following material was written by Teresa Fair-Field, Kindering Occupational Therapist (OT), about dealing with sensory processing disorder (SPD) during the holiday season for children who celebrate Christmas as well as many other holidays. Also, be sure to read her original poem about SPD and the holidays – Taming the Grinch in your House – by scrolling down or clicking here.

Be sensory-sensitive

If your child is accustomed to strong smells such as cooking, candles, perfumes, and incense as part of your daily routine then you may not need to make any adjustments. However, many families have holiday rituals and activities that are unique to this time of year that may be overwhelming for the sensitive child who may not be used to them or find them as pleasant. Depending on your family, you may choose to switch to unscented products, or to ask visiting guests to limit perfumes and fragrances. Alternatively, it may be easier for your child to have a gradual immersion to holiday sights and smells. Rather than putting up decorations and fragrances all at once, consider making gradual changes to the child’s environment, and include them in the process. Children who are sensitive respond better when they are actively participating in a sensory experience. Sensory ‘surprises’ are almost never well received.

Don’t expect a performance

Often we expect our child to do something or show off a new skill for others, and we are always excited to brag about our child’s accomplishments, having worked so hard on them through the year! Most children resist ‘performing,’ even if it is a skill they know well. If there’s something you are excited to show off at holiday time, take a series of videos of your child throughout the month when they are in familiar settings and with expected others. Ask their teacher or therapist, in the playroom or in class, or another parent in the home setting to help facilitate. Then, you can brag about your child’s new skills and accomplishments without creating frustrating expectations when the child is not able to do it on demand.

Allow a motor break

Your child may need an occasional outdoor break before, during, and after holiday or religious activities. Remember what your therapist has suggested be done on a typical day—your child’s ‘sensory diet.’ Your child will still need those experiences (and maybe even more frequently) at a holiday event where behavioral expectations are high, and the sensory demands are significant. Bundle up and go outside!

Look for ‘heavy work’ and ‘special jobs’

The inside and outside world at holiday time is remarkably beautiful, but everything seems to be ‘look but don’t touch.’ Try and think ahead to places you are going with your child and prep in advance some (unbreakable!) ways your child can participate. Maybe a pinecone, or a mini pine stem can be a fidget toy. Perhaps your child can push in the chairs. Or look for a durable battery-operated light, strobe, or lantern that your child can safely activate, and make doing so your child’s special job.

Touch and hugs

Some children prefer to initiate touch and hugs, and can have strong reactions if they are approached for hugs that they did not seek out. While it can be uncomfortable to discuss with family members who are visiting, it can be equally hard to explain a child’s strong reaction when the hug is not well received. By discussing this in advance with visiting family, a family member may forget and initiate hugs anyway, but will have a better understanding when they have a strong reaction. High fives and fist bumps are usually in safe personal space and frequently taught by the therapy team. If your child is new to high fives and misses the connection, it’s best to distract the adult rather than force the child’s participation.

We wish you a happy and safe holiday season filled with family, friends and memory-making adventures!