Sensory Stress Busters During the Hectic Holiday Season
What a delight the holidays can be! Yet if you’re the parent of a child with sensory issues, making it a jolly holiday can be challenging. The stressors of unpredictable schedules, sudden transitions, and sensory input that disturbs your child are as plentiful as holiday lights this time of year.
Naturally, we all try to make time to simply appreciate the decorations on houses, trees, and shops—along with the messages of hope, giving to others, and love during the holiday season. But when your child is refusing to cooperate or howling at the sound of bell ringers in front of stores, your seasonal stress can start to rise. Fortunately, there are stress busters that can help you and your child with sensory issues.
Find a quiet, low-stimulation getaway
Anywhere you might find yourself as you visit relatives, do shopping, attend parties and gatherings, or make use of planes, trains, and automobiles to travel, there is somewhere quiet your child, and you can escape to. It could be a bathroom, a space outdoors or in an empty room in someone’s house, or a quiet hallway. The more you can reduce the stimulation, turning down the lights and the sound, all the better. Carry earplugs or noise-reducing headphones your child can slip on. Sit quietly with your child, offering the comforts you know help when he/she is at risk of becoming overstimulated and overwhelmed.
Use deep pressure for calming
Not all children respond well to deep pressure for calming, but most do and will communicate through their words or actions that pressing gently but firmly against their skin, joints, and ligaments feels good and can help reduce stress. If your child uses a weighted lap pad or stuffed animal, or perhaps a weighted or compression vest, be sure those items are with you and use them as directed by your occupational therapist (if you have one). Always be sure your child can easily breathe, move, and communicate when using weighted and compression products. Consider simply using deep hugs and slow squeezes of the hands, wrists, forearms, etc., working your way up each arm to provide calming deep pressure on your child. For some kids, wearing a snug knit cap can good indoors as well as out—and a deep, reassuring hug is often quite a stress buster for some.
Don’t forget heavy work
Often, pushing, pulling, lifting, or carrying objects or their own body weight works for calming a child with sensory issues. Typically combined with some deep pressure against the skin, heavy work might look like pushing a stroller, shopping cart, or carpet sweeper. It could look like shoveling snow or pushing a snow shovel along a sidewalk or driveway toward the curb.
Bring along Hermione Granger’s or Mary Poppins’ bottomless purse wherever you go
Okay, your purse or backpack might not be as deep or magical as those purses in the movies, but carry with you small items you know can help your child de-stress and get needed sensory input. Stash away a non-breakable snow globe, a fidget, a juice box or milk box with narrow straw that provides oral comfort, sour gum or candy, or a bag containing a piece of cloth with a few drops of essential oil on it—choose one that helps your child feel calmer. In fact, choose some items for yourself for a mini stress break!
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Create a visual to-do list using your cell phone
Many kids with sensory issues are less stressed if they can see what their agenda is. Let your child see pictures of where you will be going next and look up what is happening this afternoon. Alternatively, bring along a printout of photos that he/she can look at to get a sense of predictability as you and your child go about a day filled with new experiences and unfamiliar places.
Teach your child a basic mindfulness practice for self-calming
In a pinch and in preparation for what might be a stressful experience for your child, you’ll want to have him/her know how to do mindful breathing, chewing, or even walking. The idea is to focus completely on the present moment and action, refocusing on the task whenever the mind starts to wander. Practice at home together, sitting in meditation, chewing a raisin slowly, or walking at a snail’s pace, aware of each movement of your muscles as you propel yourself forward. Over time, you’ll both find it easier to remember to slow down and use mindfulness practices to self-calm and self-regulate mood, focus level, and activity level. Then, don’t be surprised if your child suggests that instead of getting frustrated by holiday traffic you do some mindful breathing yourself!
Turn down the volume on stimulation
You might love the smell of baked cookies, the twinkling of tree lights, and the sound of holiday singers on a recording, but all of these new sensations together may be too much for your child. Be aware of how much your child can handle and don’t push too much as he/she struggles to tolerate high levels of stimulation—and unfamiliar sensations.
Customize Christmas and other holidays
Talk to your child with sensory issues about sensory input he/she would actually enjoy and how that could be a part of your special family holiday celebrations. Ask questions and carefully listen as he/she expresses a love for the smell of the snow (yes, some kids with sensory issues can smell it!) or kneading cookie or bread dough. Let your child know it’s okay to leave the room if the baking smells become too strong. Customize the holiday experience by letting him/her make a holiday custom of watching watch a favorite family movie yet again—even though it’s a movie that doesn’t really have anything to do with the holiday. Enjoy it together. Make a point of doing the holiday activities that help your child with sensory issues truly take pleasure in this special time of year and say no to the ones you feel you “ought” to do but dread. You get to define how your family “does” the holidays, so make conscious choices about what to do and not do that keep the stress away.
Nancy Peske is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant who has co-written or ghostwritten numerous bestsellers and award-winning books including the newly updated Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues, coauthored with Lindsey Biel, OTR/L. Nancy lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her husband and her son who was diagnosed at age two with sensory processing disorder and multiple developmental delays.
This article was featured in Issue 82 – Finding Peace This Season