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Helping Kids Survive Holiday Celebrations

December 17, 2011

In the past, I have dreaded holiday parties. To be honest, I avoided them whenever possible. They were often just too stressful and full of sensory landmines for my kids to enjoy, which made the parties pretty miserable for my husband and me, too. Since I couldn’t very well avoid all holiday festivities, I needed to find ways to cope.

And unless you live in the wilderness far from civilization, chances are you will have to attend at least one holiday party this year, too.

Don’t despair, though! There are many things you can do to prepare yourselves and your kids so that the parties are enjoyable.

Over the years, I have discovered some things that have helped both my son, who is 7, and my daughter, who is 5, cope better with big holiday family parties, and they may help you, too. Here are my suggestions….

Exercise Beforehand

I try to do some exercise with my children before we go to a party. My son, who is a sensory seeker, responds very well to heavy work. It calms him and makes him much more able to deal with extra sensory input. If the weather is decent, I take him for a bike ride before the party. Otherwise, we set up an indoor obstacle course that includes jumping on the mini-trampoline and crawling through tunnels. Try to incorporate an activity that your child enjoys and ones that tend to calm him down. Extra heavy work will help regulate your child’s senses, so he will be more able to handle the sensory stimuli at the party.

Get the Kids Outside

I know most of us live in locales where the weather is not very pleasant this time of year. Still, it helps tremendously if, while at a loud party, you are able to get your children outside the house for a while. I typically offer to take all my kids, along with their cousins on a walk around the block. We take the opportunity to get some fresh air and admire all the Christmas decorations. This has multiple benefits. My daughter, who is very sensitive to noise, gets the chance to have a bit of peace and quiet; and my son, who has lots of extra energy, is able to run and let off some steam.

Feed Them Ahead of Time

I don’t know about your children, but mine rarely eat much at big parties with lots of people around. I used to try and fight them, until Mother’s Day a few years ago. At that particular party, my son ate absolutely no dinner. My sister offered him a piece of cake before I realized what she was doing. I was just about to take the cake away from him, when he got up and walked away. He was too wound up to even eat a piece of cake!

When we got home, the kid devoured three sandwiches. Even though he was obviously hungry at the party, he couldn’t calm down enough to eat. Now, I make a habit of feeding my kids before a party. Gatherings with lots of people are not the place, in my opinion, to battle with my kids over food. Also, I imagine it must be very difficult for a child with SPD to regulate his senses in a stressful situation, and even more so when he is very hungry.

Along with that, if your child is a picky eater, be sure to bring food with you. Don’t force your child to try a new food at a party. He is already dealing with enough uncomfortable sensory stimuli! Besides, who wants to fight at a Christmas party?

Secure a Calm Down Spot

When we go to a family party, I always find a quiet, peaceful place my son and daughter can go to if they get overwhelmed. I tell them ahead of time where to go if they need some alone time, and this has prevented so many meltdowns. If your child is too young to remove herself from the overwhelming situation, monitor him closely and take him to the place when you think he is getting over stimulated. Give her some time to regroup before returning to the party.

Ensure Kids are Well Rested

Dealing with loud, chaotic parties is difficult in the best of times, but if your child is already tired she will have an even tougher time handling all the sensory input. If your child still naps, do what you can to ensure her nap schedule is not interrupted. Also, try to make sure your child gets extra sleep the night before a party.

Schedule Wisely

Most families have many parties and events to attend during the holiday season. With kids who have sensory difficulties, these parties are fraught with potential difficulties. Try not to schedule too many activities in one day. You may also want to eliminate some parties so your child has some down time. I know it is tempting to try to attend all the fun activities you’ve been invited to, but seriously consider what your child can handle. Be realistic; it may mean you will need to decline some invitations, but this will prevent your child from becoming totally over stimulated at the functions you do attend.

Advocate for your Kids

You know your child better than anyone else. Don’t let family members or friends convince you to do something that you know makes your child uncomfortable. Don’t give in to peer pressure. For example, just because all your nieces and nephews are visiting Santa at the mall doesn’t mean you have to take your child, especially if you know it will scare her. It helps me if I remind myself that the point of these activities is for my kids to have fun. If a particular event will be stressful to my child, the fun is lost.

Have an Escape Plan

Whenever we are going to any kind of function, my husband and I discuss when we should leave the party. We also make what we call our “escape plan.” Basically, we know what behaviors to watch for that tell us the kids have had enough and it’s time to head home. We have a policy that if one of us thinks it’s time to go, the other agrees without argument. We split up and each take charge of certain tasks. Usually, I get the kids dressed in coats, while Bill herds them off to the car where they wait as I gather all our things. It helps if you have a system in place ahead of time.

Bring Calming Tools

My 7-year-old son chews on a blanket to calm himself down; he doesn’t use it all the time, but it definitely helps him when he is stressed. I know this is odd, so I sometimes would prefer if he left the blanket at home. Holiday parties, though, are pretty stressful for him, and they are not the time to try to wean your kid off of a calming, comfort item, no matter how disapproving Aunt Gertrude might be of your son’s blankey. So be sure to bring it—I often keep the blanket in the car and only pull it out when I can see my son needs it.

The holiday season is a very stressful time for most people, even those who do not deal with Sensory Processing Disorder. So, it is not surprising that this time of year can wreak havoc on your kids’ sensory regulation, sleep and behavior. Try your best to keep schedules as consistent as possible and plan ahead when you will be heading out to holiday parties. Do these things and the parties should go much more smoothly.

Patty Porch is a mom to three, one with Sensory Processing Disorder. She contributes to Our Journey Thru Autism and blogs at Pancakes Gone Awry

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