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How to Make the Holidays Fun for Sensational Children

By Lynn Witzen, MS, OTR
Therapy Services Supervisor, STAR (Sensory Therapies And Research) Center

It seems like just yesterday that our kids were returning to school and suddenly, Halloween is over and the winter holidays are quickly approaching. For children with , this is not just a time of celebration. It is frequently a time of challenge for them as well as their families.

The celebration of Thanksgiving focuses on family gatherings and meals that are shared by all. When a family has a child who is a picky or problem eater, this can affect the entire holiday celebration. Others in the extended family may not understand that their child's reaction to food is not a "behavior problem," but rather represents a physiological manifestation of their sensory issues. Being proactive is essential to managing a food-centered holiday. This may mean preparing and bringing certain foods that you know your child will eat at Thanksgiving dinner. If you "think outside of the box," you may find items your child will eat instead, such as thinly sliced lunchmeat or cheese. Make it fun for your child by using Thanksgiving cookie cutters to make the food festive. Other children may enjoy this as well. In addition, parents might want to speak to extended family members in advance and, in a gentle way, ask them to reduce the number of comments about your child's food preferences compared to others at a dining table. A holiday such as Thanksgiving is not a good time to push your child to try new foods. Although there is great excitement and anticipation around the holidays, keep in mind it is likely a time of stress for your child because of all the family members that will be around and the added amount of sensory stimulation.

Children with Sensory Processing Disorder thrive when structure is provided, such as during a predictable school day. As the holidays approach, routines and activities at school become more unpredictable. It is fun for some, but for others this is an additional source of stress. School will likely be filled with greater sensory challenges during holiday time. Excited children become noisier; decorations provide greater visual input and the lack of routine make some children more anxious and reactive.

A fun holiday planner can help
your child stay organized during the chaos

When changes in the school routine occur, it is important to compensate by providing greater predictability and structure at home. This is a great time to make a holiday calendar. Create a list or insert pictures of planned activities that are outside the regular routine. Family traditions enhance predictability around the holidays since they are "routines" that occur each year and may be comforting to your child because they are familiar.

A key ingredient for success at holiday time is co-regulation. As life becomes more chaotic for a child, it is critical that he or she has someone who will help him or her stay regulated. This person must have a strong relationship with the child and be able to read the signs that their child is about to "dsyregulate" or melt down. In recognizing these signs early, you can help your child regain control. This is often frustrating for parents, especially during holiday celebrations. Every parent would love to have the freedom to just celebrate and leave every day cares behind for at least a short period. When you live with a child who has sensory processing problems, this is often not an option.

Parenting a child who has sensory processing issues is a 24/7 job. However, it is also important for a parent to set aside opportunities for a breather. Parents often ask their whether it is okay to take a break by having their child watch movies. Again, being proactive is extremely important. A portable DVD player with selected movies can be a lifesaver during family celebrations. A child can retreat to a smaller space for a defined period of time, (usually 90 minutes or the length of one movie), and then return to the gathering. A familiar toy or building set also provides an opportunity to retreat to a quieter area to regroup before returning to the celebration. It is helpful to have a parent present as the child transitions from retreat time to rejoining the group. The transition may involve conversation about the movie or even a walking or playing outside before re-engaging with others. It takes planning on a parent's part, but these strategies may ensure that the child and family can be part of the holiday activities for longer.

For children with sensory processing issues, communication and social skills are often a fundamental daily challenge. The greater the environmental stimulation, the harder it will be for them to access effective communication and social strategies. Help your child learn basic phrases to use when meeting relatives that he or she hasn't seen for a while. "It's great to see you" or "Happy Holidays" provide the child with a way to relate and interact with less familiar adults. Holidays and other sensory-intense times may also weaken the child's ability to communicate or sustain a conversation with other children. During these times, it may be hard for parents to foster their child's communication skills because their child may speak quickly and frequently change topics. Try to understand how stressful this is for your child and accept that his or her conversations with others may be limited. This is another time when providing your child with a retreat for frequent breaks from others may be welcomed. You and your child can pick a secret word to use to indicate when a break is needed. It's a great investment of time and effort so everyone can enjoy the holiday season!

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