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Dec 02, 2015

by Molly Buist, Owner and Clinical Director of The Center for Childhood Development

The holiday season is especially difficult for children who have sensory processing challenges—there are oversized decorations, crowded malls, nonstop music, social interactions, and don’t even mention the food. Children with sensory processing challenges have difficulty sorting out information gathered through their senses. They might experience increased anxiety about the holidays and the days leading up to them, refuse to eat at family gatherings, or become extremely overwhelmed.

Below are five strategies to help your child enjoy the holidays with as few meltdowns as possible.

  1. Know your child’s sensory profile: Some especially common sensory triggers around the holidays are loud noises, nonstop music, bright lights, and active environments. If you are aware of your child’s triggers, you can create an action plan and anticipate his response.
    • Give your child noise-cancelling headphones/earplugs or relaxing music.
    • Call ahead and ask friends and family to turn their Christmas lights down or off while you are visiting their homes.
    • Move with your child to a less chaotic environment or quiet space to regroup.


  1. Adjust your expectations: The joyous Norman Rockwell painting of the family sitting down to a holiday dinner is not reality for most families, and this is especially true for children with sensory processing difficulties who are also picky eaters.
  • Pack your child’s favorite foods and allow her to leave the table.
  • Talk with family members in advance and gently ask them to monitor their comments about your child’s food preferences.
  • Consider reducing the number of gatherings you attend or the amount of time you spend at each gathering.
  • Invite family members to come to your house where your child will be in a familiar environment with comforting toys and objects.


  1. Maintain routine as much as possible: Children with sensory processing challenges tend to thrive in structured, more predictable environments.
  • Prepare your child ahead of time for activities outside of your regular routine.
  • Create a fun holiday calendar with pictures of planned activities.
  • Come up with a family tradition that may help enhance predictability and provide a “routine” that occurs yearly.


  1. Plan for break times: When you will be in an unfamiliar environment, bring along what is most calming for your child:
  • an iPad for some game time
  • arts and crafts
  • a portable DVD player with a favorite movie for a quiet space


  1. Assess how important the activity is for your child: Look ahead at your scheduled activities and ask, “Is this a must-do?” Some events may be too challenging, and there may be some they can skip.
  • Consider allowing your child to stay home with a babysitter or stay at a friend’s house.
  • Sometimes missing one event can help make the next event less overwhelming.

I hope these give you some tools to help your child during the holidays. I wish you some quiet downtime and as few meltdowns as possible so you can enjoy creating special memories together this holiday season.

Read the full article in the fall 2014 issue of LifeLines magazine.

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