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Helping Your Sensory Sensitive Child Through the Holidays

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The holidays can be an exciting and joyous time of year for families. If your child is sensitive to sensory overload, it also can be a stressful and overwhelming experience for them and for you. Sensory overload is a common challenge for children with autism, ADHD, and other developmental disorders, but it can also be a problem for any child when there is too much stimulation.

To help your child avoid sensory overload during the holidays, it's important to recognize the signs and be prepared to take action. With a few simple strategies and a bit of planning, you can make sure that your child has...and that you have...a safe and enjoyable experience celebrating the season.

What is sensory overload?

Sensory overload is what happens when there is too much sensory input for a child to handle. Too much input can come from visual, auditory, tactile, or other sensory stimuli. The key is not that the child is experiencing too much of a particular type of input, but that there is too much total input.

Sensory overload can happen to any child in any situation where a lot is going on. Being prepared to help your child manage sensory overload is an important skill for any parent or caregiver.

Common signs of sensory overload

Every child is different and sensory overload can happen in any situation, but there are a few common signs that parents can watch for.

  • Rigidity and resistance to change - When a child’s environment changes, he or she may have difficulty adapting. This includes when expected changes happen, like when it’s time to leave a holiday event. The child may resist any changes to the schedule and become rigid or inflexible.

  • Tantrums - Tantrums can be a sign of sensory overload. Temper tantrums are often caused by a child’s need to self-regulate. When a child gets overstimulated, he or she may need to “crash” or regain control. A tantrum can be an outward sign of this need to regain control.

  • Withdrawn or “spaced out” behavior - Some children withdraw or seem to be “in their own world” when they are over-stimulated. They may be more quiet than usual or seem to be in a dazed or “spaced out” state. They may not respond to others around them or seem to be in a fog.

A young boy stacking blocks in a bedroom

Identifying potential triggers for your sensory sensitive child

When you are familiar with your child’s sensory needs, you'll be able to identify what might cause sensory overload. Your child may be really picky about certain textures, sounds, smells, sights, or other sensory experiences. Certain activities or environments may cause your child to become overstimulated more easily than others.

One way to identify potential triggers is to keep a sensory diary. You can write down what happened, where it happened, and how your child was feeling or behaving at the time. This can help you to identify patterns and see what activities or situations cause your child to become overstimulated.

Managing sensory overload during the holidays

With a few simple strategies, you can help your child stay in control during the holidays and avoid sensory overload.

  • Set up schedules and rituals - The holidays can be chaotic. To help your child stay on track and reduce sensory input, try to set up regular schedules and rituals. This can include things like a consistent meal schedule, a particular gift-opening ritual, and a consistent bedtime.

  • Try to avoid crowds - The holidays often involve lots of people and lots of crowds. Try to avoid places that will have large crowds if possible. If you have a particular tradition that involves going to a specific place like the mall or the zoo, try to do it earlier in the day when it will be less crowded.

  • Prepare for transitions - The holidays are full of transitions. You may be going from one activity to another and from one place to another at a rapid pace. Help your child prepare for transitions, and try to make them as smooth as possible. This may include helping your child prepare mentally for what is coming next.

  • Be prepared to take breaks - Even if you do everything right, there may be times when your child becomes overstimulated. You may be able to avoid most sensory overload, but it will not be possible to avoid it completely. Be prepared to take breaks when needed.

  • Keep your child’s normal routines - As much as possible, try to keep your child’s usual routines. This can be especially important if your child is on a special diet or has other medical conditions.

Sensory overload can happen anytime, but it can be particularly challenging during the holidays with all the hustle and bustle and more people in your child’s environment. By being prepared for sensory overload and knowing how to manage it, you can help your child and everyone in your family to have a positive experience during this busy and exciting time of year.

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All blog content shared through HealthSmart! Kids is for informational purposes only and not to be construed as medical advice. Always talk with your qualified health care provider for managing your health care needs.

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