The Holidays and Sensory Overload

Reducing and Surviving Sensory Overload During the Holidays

Holidays can be an amazingly fun time! Parties, decorations, songs, tasty treats and even smells fill our environment. For most of us, this is what makes the holidays so special. However, these are the exact same things that can bring on anxiety , meltdowns and sensory overload in many children, especially if they struggle with sensory processing disorder. I’ve gathered up some fantastic tips from real parents of children with sensory needs on how to prep for the holidays with kids with sensory needs.

The holidays can be completely overwhelming. Just think of everything that comes to mind when you think about the holidays yourself. Everything from hot cocoa to apple cider, busy malls to crowded houses, new foods to old favorites, street lights to tree lights… new sensations are absolutely everywhere. Now imagine for one moment, that your brain is unable to process that information and separate it all into separate categories. Imagine for a moment that you are bombarded with all of this information at once and still are expected to behave, attend in school and function the way you do on a normal day. Hard to imagine, right?

This is what children with Sensory Processing Disorder and other sensory needs struggle with on a day to day basis, making the holidays an even more stressful time of year {for both the children and parents}.

What is Sensory Overload During the Holidays?

When most people are getting excited about dinner and Aunt Suzy’s house, a child with sensory needs might be overwhelmed just thinking of all the new people they  have to encounter, Grandma Sophie’s perfume, Aunt Judy’s new baby crying, cousin John wrestling him to the ground, and then there’s the foods and smells. It can all be just too overwhelming for these children.

Believe me, I know. If you are a regular here, you know just how much our son struggles with sensory processing and regulating his behavior and body due to these struggles. On a normal day, we might see outbursts, hyperactivity, and even meltdowns. Then the holidays come. This starts 2 weeks before Halloween and lasts until Mid January. The countdowns, the anticipation, the excitement is just too much to handle some days.

Before I knew about sensory processing, I just thought I was doing something wrong. I just thought he was acting out.

Signs of Sensory Overload

Here’s the thing. Sensory overload can happen to anyone. It can happen to a typically developing child, a child with special needs, and even adults. It is more likely to happen to the children with special needs, but it does not mean that we shouldn’t all be aware of this possibility as we enter the holidays.

It might be a child in your class, a friend’s child at a party or it might even be your own child. Recognizing these signs can be vital in helping them cope and regulate this holiday season.

  1. Behavior is Heightened and Busy: this might include jumping off furniture, running in the house, spinning, and pushing, just to name a few.
  2. Extremely Bothered by Noises: in spaces that seem quiet or subtle to you, this child might be covering their ears,  screaming, making extra loud noises, to drone out the sounds that are overloading their brain.
  3. Aggressive Behavior:this might present itself as hitting, pushing, pulling, arguing, and even biting others
  4. Meltdowns Occur More Frequently: suddenly, and without warning the child might throw themselves on the ground, cry inconsolably, throw things, or even scream at you
  5. Withdrawn from Activities: this child might refuse to participate, refuse to go to a family function, or might even curl into a corner to read a book


Parent Tips for Reducing and Surviving Sensory Overload

It wasn’t until I learned ways to provide him with sensory support, that I learned ways of reducing sensory overload during the holidays.                                                                                                                                                                                Here are real tips and real advice from parents living with and supporting a child with sensory needs every day. These tips can help any child (or adult) during the holidays.

Preparing for the Holidays

Making sure if we go to someone’s house I bring food I know he will eat . ~ Nikki

No new clothes … Only clothes he has worn and approved will be worn on a big holiday day , so if I want him dressed nicely we have to practice wearing those clothes .  ~Nikki

Keep it simple so they can enjoy it! ~Britany

Ratchet expectations of yourself and your children down. Don’t allow others to dictate how you will spend your holiday. If you do go somewhere, come late, leave early, lots of planning. One of my biggest regrets is that I allowed the expectations of others to affect what was best for our family. Hard lesson to learn. ~Lisa

We try to be intentional with our plans and keep them low key. We brainstorm as a family the things individual really want to incorporate and scale it down to the ones each person holds most important. Lots of rest before any outing and additional transition time for winding down when we return (even if it means leaving early)  Above all we’re flexible…no event or activity is more important than taking care of each other and enjoying our time together (so sometimes we forego things). ~Shannon

We explained the accommodations he needed to thrive and nicely let the family know that we would only be at events that fit his needs…events don’t get scheduled during nap, and the aggressive dog stays at a relative’s house while we’re scheduled to be in town. ~Naomi

Seriously reduce the guest list. ~Karen

Take many breaks from family/friend get togethers. Really important that we don’t book every minute – which I love doing. ~Carolyn

Survival Tips for Children

Watch closely for signs of stress. Get out before meltdowns (yours or theirs) ~Carolyn

Make sure his bag of tricks is full and his sensory diet is well and truly in place, we check in with each other over the day to make sure he is still on track. If I see the warning signs I will feed him and then get him outside to run around or give him a “hug” . ~Nikki

My son has a teepee tent he can go and retreat to when it’s too crazy for him. I also have his bucket of sensory toys that vibrate, flash, fidgets, and softness of a plush stuffy. ~Jeanine

We locate and plan for a sensory retreat in any location we might be and have a signal to communicate if things are feeling overwhelming. ~Shannon

NO CLOTHES that they don’t pick out themselves. ~Regina

Try smaller visits before and after with gifts, kind of like 3 small Christmas celebrations instead of one big over whelming one. ~Ginette

I ask if there is a room he can go to when it gets to be too much for him. ~Sheryl

Avoid sugar and food dye.~Carolyn

Survival Tips for Parents

Breathe! ~ Regina

Don’t expect that in your wisdom that family won’t think you’re nuts over-sheltering your child. Educate them if they really want to hear it, but otherwise don’t be the stressed out mom. Just treat everything as calm and normal. ~Regina

I definitely have learned to lower expectations for the boys so that I don’t get overwhelmed myself We practice “just say no” to many invitations that come our way. I’ve also stopped cooking a big Christmas meal – which seriously cuts down on my anxiety and stress allowing me to enjoy the day with the family. I cook a Christmas Eve meal which we have early before we go out for one last look at lights. The we come home and put out reindeer food (making this is a great sensory experience!) on the lawn and cookies in the kitchen. I buy a pan of biscuits 1/2 cooked from a local restaurant and have them Christmas morning with various fillings. Happy Holidays!!!!! ~Karen       

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    This article was taken from on 11-29-16

For more information on The Goddard School in Franklin (Cool Springs) visit our website and our Facebook page