Winter holidays are for making memories: spending time with family, decorating your home, shopping for the perfect gifts and more. But a jam-packed schedule, no matter how joyful, can be overwhelming for kids who process information from their five senses a bit differently than their peers.
Researchers estimate that between 5% and 16% of school-aged children live with a sensory processing disorder (SPD), meaning they have trouble organizing and responding to information that comes in through their senses. Kids with SPD can be overly sensitive to stimulation (sensory avoiders) or undersensitive (sensory seekers), although the former is more common.
Too much stimulation—especially when part of a new experience—can prompt stress and anxiety, and even a “fight or flight” reaction. Here are eight holiday traditions that could be troublesome for a child with sensory issues, plus strategies for accommodating them.
1. Holiday lights: Bright, twinkling lights are a classic way to deck the halls—but it could be too much for a child with SPD. Let yours choose which decorations to display and where to put them. Perhaps create alternative decorations instead, such as garlands made of popcorn or colorful construction paper.
2. New foods: There are certain foods we look forward to eating once a year (green bean casserole!). But these new tastes and textures might not go over so well with your child. Whether you’re the hosts or the guests, let them contribute to the menu so there is at least one dish they will eat. Bonus: This is also a lesson in declining food with a polite “no, thank you.”
3. Disrupted routines: You work hard to establish a family routine, only to see it go out the window in November and December. There will be some days when you wake early to open presents, eat dinner at 4 p.m. and stay out late mingling. This is a vote for sticking to a normal schedule every other possible day. After every big event, build in much-needed time for your kiddo to recover and settle back into their routine.
4. Crowds: Large holiday parties and bustling department stores can be overwhelming for kids who don’t like crowds. (Honestly, nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, we all may be a little out of practice.) You might want to stick to smaller gatherings and join religious services at off-peak times. If you attend a holiday concert or pageant, sit near the aisle or exit so you can leave early if necessary without disturbing others. Finally, shop online to save everyone the trouble of battling mall madness.
5. Loud sounds: Music, caroling, bells, boisterous crowds … these sounds of the season can be multiplied for someone with SPD. Dial down the volume when you can and establish a quiet area where your child can retreat if they need a sensory break. Earplugs and noise-canceling headphones can also help them cope.
6. New smells: Freshly baked cookies are wafting from the kitchen, firewood is crackling in the fireplace and you’ve lit your favorite pine-scented candle. No matter how lovely, the layers of unfamiliar scents can be overpowering for a child with SPD. You may need to introduce one smell at a time or relegate strong scents to a specific area of your home.
7. Formal clothes: You want your family to wear their holiday best, but many children are sensitive about clothing they are unaccustomed to. Offer them clothes made from softer fabrics, like cotton, and remove any scratchy tags. Let them choose their outfits (within boundaries) and try everything on before the big event. Prioritize comfort over formality or matching here—you want your kids to be relaxed, above all.
8. Physical contact: Your child may resist hugging people they do not know well—or even people they see all the time. This is understandable! Allow them to choose how they greet others and let them practice their signature wave or high-five before holiday gatherings. It may be a good idea to give your friends and relatives a heads up, so they are aware of your child’s sensitivities and can be ready to greet them in the preferred way.
Happiest of Holidays
Your family’s sensory-friendly holiday plans might look a little different, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the blessings of the season. As with any holiday, the key to parenting success is to set expectations, plan ahead and remain flexible. You know your child best, so honor how he or she is feeling—and be prepared to advocate for them as needed.