December has arrived, the holiday season is here, and "its the most wonderful time of the year"- unless you have a child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). While so many families enjoy snowy mornings, days off from school, countless holiday parties with sweet treats/ fun activities, and less structure than typical, for children (and adults) with SPD, the holiday season can be a season of chaos, anger, frustration and dysregulation. Parents and educators of young children talk about how even the sweetest, most compliant, most focused child can be "off" with the excitement of the holidays, but a child with SPD may seem even more "out of sorts". So many of our clients report that the incidence of tantrums, physicality, and outbursts increases by epic proportions between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Here are some signs to look for so you can recognize if and why your child is struggling to stay self regulated (and I've included some simple OT-inspired strategies to try)
Lack of Structure/ Change in Routine
The regular routine and daily schedule is disrupted with concerts, parties, days off of school, later bedtimes, later meals. If your child has sensory processing challenges, he or she may seem more irritable, more reactive and less patient in general. Why? Routines are predictable, and structure helps a child to control his or her environment. For a child with sensory processing disorder, an overstimulting, sensory rich environment can be overwhelming, and an unexpected change in routine requiring your child to quickly adapt to an overstimulating environment can be even MORE overwhelming... and lead to an unexpected meltdown.
How you can support your child
A familiar structure and routine will help your child to know what sensory stimuli to expect in a particular setting. As OTs, we often recommend that parents keep certain components of their child's schedule as consistent as possible through the holidays- even something as simple as the morning routine, a scheduled "sensory break" midday and/ or a consistent bedtime routine. That way, if unexpected events occur, you can comfort your child by letting him or her know that "lunch is in 20 minutes" or "we have our break after this activity". Parents should also highlight or review the daily schedule with their child and give a "heads up" with any changes. In addition, if there are known changes to the daily routine that you can prepare your child for ahead of time, creating a visual schedule and talking about the schedule that morning or the night before (with or without pictures or check boxes for completed items) can be a very concrete way to help your child know what to expect. Concrete expectations allow your child to know when they will have down time, breaks and opportunities to regroup/ re-regulate, which can be key for a child with sensory processing challenges.
Mall Shopping Trips/ Grocery Store Lines
Any parent who goes to the grocery store before a major holiday, snowstorm (or Patriots football game) knows how incredibly crowded and chaotic a public space can be right, especially right before a major event! Long lines and crowded spaces can be overwhelming for adults (as well as children), but if your child has sensory processing challenges, he or she may become extremely overstimulated by the sights, sounds, smells and movements that accompany busy, sensory rich, public spaces. For a child who is sensory defensive (or oversensitive) to visual, auditory, or touch input, large groups of people, loud noises, and unexpected touch can put an already oversensitive nervous system into overdrive and cause a fight or flight response (which can look like an outburst or tantrum). This reaction can easily misconstrued as misbehavior, not listening or "poor parenting", as opposed to a reaction to sensory stimuli and overload.
How you can support your child:
If you must bring your child to this type of public place during the holiday season, try to choose a time that is not quite as busy (early AM is usually a more quiet time at stores). If your child already receives OT, you can talk to your child's therapist about particular tools that may be specifically effective for your child to use in these overstimulating environments. This can include headphones, earplugs or a thick hat pulled over the ears (for auditory sensitivity), sunglasses, a visor or baseball cap (for visual sensitivity), fidget toys, sequin slap bracelets (for tactile seeking needs), chewerly/ sugar free lollypops (for oral seeking reactions) or other proprioceptive tools for increasing calm and promoting focus (weighted vest, compression clothing, compression socks/ sleeves, etc). Remember that not all tools work for all children, so check with your child's OT to see which strategies will be the best option for your child.
The Weather Outside is Frightful and There is no Time for Exercise
Physical activity, especially in the form of heavy work, is KEY for promoting self regulation and focus in a child with sensory processing challenges. Children are generally more sedentary during winter months for a variety of reasons, and this correlates with why children seem to have more difficulty staying focused (and even sometimes show skill regression) during winter months. Freezing temperatures, snowy weather and hectic holiday schedules also limit motivation and time for parents to bring their children outside or generally keep them moving. If your child has sensory challenges, he or she will NEED to move and will NEED input. Heavy work is the best gift you can give your sensory seeking child during the holiday season. And sometimes, becoming creative with practical tasks is the only way to provide your child with heavy work in the winter.
How to support your child:
For a child with sensory processing challenges, physical "heavy work activities" should be provided for 10-15 minutes, every 2-3 hours (or as prescribed by your child's OT)... which equals multiple times per day! This can be challenging enough to do as part of a regular daily routine, but maintaining this routine can be even more difficult during the holidays and winter months. My first inclination is to recommend that my clients bundle up and go outside anyway! Find time for exercise and physical activity! In an ideal world, there is plenty of time for snow forts, sledding, rolling down a snowy hill, or inside, building forts with heavy cushions, or performing planks, wall push ups, and burpees as part of an exercise routine. But Im a busy working parent as well, so I understand that these activities may not always be realistic, especially during the holidays. The key is multi-tasking! Most children inherently love to help their parents (disclaimer- older kiddos benefit from incentives), and parents actually really appreciate the help with daily tasks. Here are some "helpful heavy work" activities that will improve your child's self regulation and get you through the holiday madness: pushing a laundry basket full of clothes down the hall for folding, transferring wet sheets and towels from washer to dryer, carrying grocery bags or gallons of milk/laundry detergent, folding heavy comforters, shoveling walkways, washing and drying windows.
Whatever you choose to do to help your sensory child through the holidays, just know that there are so many families experiencing the same struggles, and so many resources (including OT) that can really help. If your child receives OT services, increasing the frequency of OT sessions during the holiday weeks can be beneficial for providing organizing proprioceptive and vestibular input and for supporting your child's ability to process and modulate sensory information (which will create a consistent and familiar routine). And when all else fails, deep long hugs, warm baths, snuggles under heavy blankets and a quiet nighttime story can end a hectic holiday day on a peaceful note.
Written By Amy Wheadon, MS, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist and mother of 3 children
KidSHINE LLC Owner