The holidays with a sensory kid can add another whole layer of stress, but despite all the extra stimulation, I’ve got 23 hacks to not only help you survive, but also to enjoy the season.
Long before Theo was ever her kid, she imagined taking her future child to see Santa. Of course, he’d wear a cute Christmas plaid bow tie and adorable little suspenders. She’d hold her son’s little hand as they patiently and excitedly waited their turn for her child to get a chance to tell Santa what he wanted for Christmas.
Just thinking about it reminded Jessica of all the wonderful holiday memories from when she was little.
But, that’s not exactly how it went down for Theo.
The problems started before they even left the house. Theo refused to not only wear any sort of tie or suspenders, his mom couldn’t even get him into a pair of dress pants without him screaming like someone was trying to cut his leg off.
And, once they had arrived at the mall and stood in line, his mother had to practically tackle him to physically keep in the line.
By the time it was Theo’s turn to get his picture taken, both he and his mom were disheveled, sweaty, and totally frustrated. While Jessica mustered every ounce of patience she could find from the depths of her soul, Theo finally had a total meltdown on the floor in front of Santa.
Theo did not get his picture taken with Santa.
Around the holidays, kids seem to have freak outs on the regular. But, in Theo’s case, there was something more going on. For him, it was about sensory processing. And, for Theo and any other kid that has sensory needs or issues, the holidays can be 10X harder as they have to face even more sensory input than the rest of the year.
And, going to see Santa is just one of a ton of challenging situations during the holiday season!
As an occupational therapist and mom, I’ve got all sorts of holiday sensory hacks for you so that you keep your sanity and find some joy!
Sensory Hacks are Great, But…
Before we get into the list, I have to say a word about sensory hacks, tricks, and tips. Obviously, I think they’re helpful or I wouldn’t be writing this post, but they’re only part of the solution.
What’s even more helpful is to understand what your child’s sensory issues are. That means which of the 7 senses are being affected. Like for Theo, his problems started with putting on dress clothes, it’s likely that he’s sensitive to different textures which means his tactile sense is in need.
When you know what sense needs help, then you target addressing it.
The short term solution is the sensory hack you’ll find below, but the long term solution is actually improving his sensory processing so that he’s not so sensitive in the first place!
This can be done through a tool that OT’s like myself commonly refer to as a sensory diet. It’s powerful and when done right changes the way you and your child live and function every day.
Sensory diets are for kids with known sensory issues, but not all kids have a diagnosis or need one. Head to Sensory Red Flags to see if there’s any signs your could be missing.
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23 Sensory Hacks for the Holiday Season
These sensory hacks are for the entire holiday season, starting with Thanksgiving, and really anytime your kid has to manage themselves in a highly stimulating environment. My advice is to read through the list and write down any hacks that would help your child through a challenging situation.
But, also pin this post, so that you can find it quickly because sometimes other challenges arise that we weren’t planning on with sensory kids. Remember that sensory needs fluctuate so it’s not uncommon for something that never bothered them before to suddenly start to bother them now.
Lastly, keep in mind that sensory kids tend to have a couple of different issues with sensory needs at the holidays:
- They’re sensitive to sensory input in general, get overstimulated and generally melt down
- They get overstimulated by all the sensory input and get wild and have a hard time listening
- They need a lot of movement everyday and not getting that outlet can make them aggressive or constantly moving.
There are hacks for each of these situations below. In no particular order, here are 23 sensory hacks to use this holiday season with your sensory kid:
1. If your child is sensitive to different textures of clothing, then forget the dressy clothes. Do a check of your priorities (I know it’s had to let go) and give them a choice of 2 outfits you’re okay with them wearing from their regular pool of clothes.
2. Or, if it’s really important to you for your child to wear a special holiday outfit, go shopping together and find something you can agree to in advance. Try not to talk them into something while you’re in Target because when it comes time to put it on a few days or weeks later for the second time, they might down right refuse.
3. If you want to try and go see Santa, ride the holiday train, or go look at Christmas lights, get there early to beat the crowds. Crowds mean noise, lots of incidental touching and bumping, and all sorts of extra stimulation. Or better yet go on an off day like a Tuesday, if you can make that work with your schedule. A little pre-planning can go a long way.
4. Besides public events, it could also be helpful to arrive early for family parties and dinners. It’s a whole different situation when your family is the first to arrive at Grandma’s versus when you walk in with all the cousins running around and well meaning aunts and uncles storming the door for hugs. When you arrive first, the sensations build over time and kids have more of a chance to adapt to them, instead of being bombarded all at once.
5. Whether you’re hosting a party or going to someone’s house, think about a space where your child can retreat to if they get overstimulated. Most of the time this is a quiet bedroom that’s out of the way. But, a cheap pop up tent, like this one, can also work and travels well! Make sure you tell your child what the plan is so they know they can come to you when they’re getting overstimulated.
6. If your child like’s wearing a ball cap or one with a large brim, bring it to any party or public event. Lights and large amounts of people can be a lot to take in, having a simple visual block can help tremendously.
7.Call your relatives ahead of time and let them know any accommodations you’re making for you child, like why they’ll be wearing a t-shirt instead of a dress with tights. Or, ask for permission to use that room that’s away from all the action.
8. If your sensory kid is particular about what they eat and stuffing and gravy isn’t on their “I’ll eat that” list, then bring a side dish of something they do eat so they don’t just fill up at the cookie table or skip a meal – that will only add to any potential meltdown. Check out these 5 holiday dinner ideas for picky eaters.
9. While it might seem rude to let your kid pop in some air pods or headphones in the middle of a party, have them handy in case the noise gets too loud. Again, you want to talk with your child in advance and show them what you’re packing so they can let you know if they need it.
10. Before you go to ANY stimulating holiday event, party, or dinner, think about what your child needs the most. It’s probably not one more quick trip to Target. Instead, give them time to chill if that’s what helps regulate them, or space to jump on the trampoline, ride a swing, or squeeze between the couch cushions. Before you arrive anywhere, you want to have their sensory systems as balanced as possible so they can tolerate more sensations!
11. Crunchy snacks also help some kids stay calm, or keep them from running wild. Think about having apples slices, raw carrots, nuts, or granola on hand.
12. Not all sensory kids get overstimulated and melt down. Some have a hard time listening, following directions, and/or staying calm in stimulating holiday environments. For kids that need to move, take a 5 minute break in the middle of the party and let your kid run around outside, even if it’s cold. Encourage them to run hard and fast!
13. Have your child help carry in presents and packages to parties and dinners. The heavy work and deep pressure input they get can help calm them too.
14. As soon as you leave your car, stomp or march to wherever you’re going. Park down the street from Aunt Sally’s if you need to so they can get some strong, grounding proprioceptive input in.
16. Have your own drink handy with a spouted rubber top. The sucking from the straw is also calming and they can bite on the top of they need extra input. This is one I like for younger kids, and this is a good one for older kids.
17. Put on their chewy necklace, even if they haven’t used it in a wild. Uncle Joe won’t even question this modern design, because it just looks like a kid’s necklace, but for the kids that licks or mouths everything it can help a ton. The chewy necklace can also give calming input across the board.
18. If a lot of people are opening presents at one time, the noise gets very loud and paper and boxes fly everywhere. If your child gets overwhelmed, have them open their presents separately or propose taking turns instead of mass opening.
19. Use joint compressions in the long line while your waiting for Santa, before your kid needs to sit down for that formal dinner, or when your kid won’t stop running around. If you’ve never used joint compressions, learn how here.
20. Put a small plastic snow globe, like this one, in your purse and give it to your child to look at when you’re waiting in lines. If there’s a lot of noise or crowds, it can help them focus their attention on one singular thing and help keep them from getting overstimulated.
21. Have a fidget or hand sized stuffed animal in your bag of sensory tricks too for when your kid is getting overstimulated or they can’t keep their hands to themselves. Use whatever texture fidget spinner your child responds the best to, or have a couple of options. Some kids love to hug and squeeze a stuffed animal, others may do better with a stress ball. Get more fidget ideas.
22. Give your child a small book bag to wear that has all of the sensory tools they might need it in (i.e.: headphones, snow globe, crunchy snacks, etc.) when you’ll be in busy shopping areas. Not only does this keep their supplies organized and close, the weight of the book bag gives steady deep pressure that is calming.
23. Put a string of holiday lights in your child’s bedroom at night to serve as a nightlight, the soft glow of the steady (avoid blinking for most kids) lights can be calming after a busy night.
There you have it, 23 different sensory hacks to happily survive the holiday season with a sensory kiddo! I bet you have some more ideas though, share them below so we can all get even more inspired with your own hack.
More on Sensory Kids
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.