Safe Harbour Therapy – Episode 18: Does your child experience sensory struggles over the holidays??
written by Megan Land McCarthy (Occupational Therapist (OT), Somatic Experiencing™ Practitioner) on 12/12/19
While many people get super excited with the first snow fall as it means the holidays are coming, for others, it is the beginning of a very overwhelming time of year. When we think about the holidays, we think of yummy food and drinks, catching up with family and friends, exchanging gifts, playing in the snow and many other amazing traditions.
However, for individuals with SPD, these rituals and customs can be daunting and sometimes even disastrous. These events occur infrequently(this is the only time of year that they occur), usually involve a large number of people and specific expectations for behaviour and are emotionally intense for all. Parents with children with SPD problems come to dread these occasions.
Let’s break it down by exploring what a holiday day is like for “Jenny”:
- First, Jenny wakes up and immediately notice the different smells of the food cooking, while pleasing to some, it can be overwhelming for sensitive noses.
- While her parents are busy prepping for these events, her normal routine gets tossed out the window and she need her daily routine to function at her best. She is now left to her own devices. While it may be great for some to sit and watch tv or play on an iPad in pj’s for long time periods, it isn’t’ great for Jenny. It also implies that the daily sensory input she normally receives (which then organizes her for the day) is being discounted.
- As time moves along, her parents start rushing and needing everyone to look nice. When clothing is an issue, being told she is not allowed to wear her favourite sweats as “today is a day to be dressed nice”, is like torture for Jenny, whose day already go off to a rough start. The feel of the stiff clothing and scratchy crinoline drives the now already disorganized and dysregulated Jenny up the wall.
- The family now travels to a home of a relative (that they don’t know well) and are greeted at the door with expectations of hugs and kisses. Jenny notices immediately the overwhelming scent of perfume wafting off her aunt. When Jenny states she doesn’t want to give a hug or receive a kiss, she is viewed as being rude. So instead her uncle reaches down and ruffles her hair – ‘cause that’s better! ?
- Cousins are arriving and the noise level increases, the kids all start running around and exploring the house, looking for toys and “kid food.” A game of tag has started, and due to Jenny’s levels of dysregulation, she pushes too hard and knocks her little cousin over. He starts crying saying she hit him, when she in fact just tagged him.
- Jenny’s parents come into the room and get upset with her, stating “You should know better” and “Don’t be so rough with others and keep your hands to yourself.”
- Jenny is upset for getting into trouble when she didn’t do anything wrong, so she starts jumping on the couch. She knows that jumping feels good for her body and has been told to use her “tools” to help keep her regulated (her OT told her that). She’s jumping and starting to feel her body start to calm down when her aunt walks into the room and LOSES it on her for jumping on the furniture. Jenny tries to explain what she’s doing but gets told “not to talk back.”
- Jenny hears her aunt out in the hall asking her parents…”What is wrong with her?”
- By the end of the evening, Jenny has had to manage all the noise, tolerate foods she doesn’t like to eat, being pushed around by cousins and then being told she can’t do the things that she knows will calm her down. At this point, she can’t focus, and feels out of control. She’s feeling very irritated and uncooperative.
- On the car ride home, Jenny asks her parents (who are upset with her) “What’s wrong with me? Why doesn’t aunt Patty like me?” At this point, she starts to cry because she’s feeling so yucky.
- Her dad carries her into her bed and she immediately falls asleep- she’s so tired from the day.
Not only has this day been hard for the child, but also her parents. Judgement from family members who do not understand sensory struggles is upsetting. Sensory needs left unmet can have a downward spiral effect on the whole family.
So, what are some ways to prevent these circumstances from happening:
- Plan a realistic day for your family!
- Make the holidays less stressful for all.
- Remember to be flexible – think about your child- what are their needs, what is the environment they are going into and what are the expectations?
- Invite your child to help with the holiday prep – when provided a role, this can help them manage their anxiety and their sensory needs at the same time.
- Helping with cookies is a great way for a child to help out! Cookies require a lot of tactile and heavy work – kneading, rolling, cutting, etc.
- They can help carry groceries.
- Go outside and make a snowman.
- Take play breaks –remember they are used to the school day and this routine – try keep their day balanced and routinized (snack and play breaks).
- Before the event:
- Let them know the schedule – what to expect, who will be there, what their role is – church service – sitting for this length of time etc.
- If the activities are at night – when child is usually settled for the day – balance activity and rest so that they are able to be regulated for the “exciting” event and not done after a long day of waiting.
- Discuss what toys (sensory) and other items they would like to bring with them that they know help calm them down.
- If travel is involved, prepare the child in advance as much as possible. Practice for the trip for a period leading up to the actual travels. Talk about the upcoming experience to help your child overcome anxiety. Act out or role play anticipated events in advance, from taking off shoes for airport security to standing in the x-ray machine.
- During the event:
- Limit the amount of time – especially with a lot of people and new surroundings.
- Upon arrival, seek out a quiet place that your child can retreat to when they start feeling overwhelmed.
- Encourage them to take breaks before “it is too late.”
- Take breaks with your child – go outside and shovel, build a snowman, have a snowball fight – this encourages co-regulation and heavy work at the same time- Settling for both!!
- When getting ready to leave – ensure they have had a transition cue- and allow time for that last goodbye – hugs only if familiar and favorite people that are settling for them.
- After the event:
- Use a calming routine and take the time to debrief with the child – what did they like, what worked, what was their favourite part of the night – all of this will provide you with knowledge for future events. They might need to have extra deep cuddles or other preferred heavy work or grounding activities before they go to bed.
It is important to remember boundaries at this time of year. We spend a lot of time teaching our children about boundaries and safety. This time of year, we often send mixed messages to kids. We will need to help our children to protect these boundaries we have put in place. This may mean not sitting on a stranger’s lap for a holiday picture. It may also include finding alternatives to hugs/kisses to family or friends without seeming rude.
Recognizing that these “fun events” are overwhelming for some and over stimulation occurs fast is the first step to success. As the adult in the situation, it is up to us to co-regulate and help our kids manage their environments and their emotions. When we are regulated, we can ALL enjoy the magic that the holidays bring!
For more information and support on this topic, please feel free to contact me via email – email@example.com and follow my Instagram feed.