Celebrating the holidays can be difficult for your sensory sensitive child. For children with sensory sensitivities traveling, rich food, varying amounts of activity, and even hugs from infrequently seen relatives can feel uncomfortable or actually painful. Thankfully, there are ways to reduce the overload.

As my 3-year-old looked at her pile of Christmas presents and the group of relatives waiting expectantly for her to open them, she burst into tears and ran from the room.

Eating dinner with our extended family of 10 and opening gifts one by one as the others looked on were our family’s treasured traditions, but they only made Katie miserable. The lights, laughter, crackling paper and festive music added up to sensory overload for my daughter with autism.

Educate Relatives on Sensory Sensitivity

Before adjusting beloved traditions, let relatives know how the sensory sensitivity can grate on your child’s nervous system. Explain that this causes irritation similar to what they might feel if trapped in a room with strobe lights and loud dance music while wearing an itchy wool sweater and eating lemons.

The Purpose Behind Describing Your Child’s Sensory Sensitivity

By explaining your child’s sensory sensitivities, you prepare your family for the possible breaks you may take with your child when things become overwhelming. Describing what your child is feeling creates empathy for the sensory overload they may experience during the holiday celebrations.

Modify Plans for Your Child

We used to fly five hours to meet relatives and then immediately drive with them another four hours to our holiday destination. After a trip ended with Katie screaming for an hour, we broke the journey into two days and traveled alone. Disappointing relatives is difficult, but I learned that accommodating extended family isn’t as important as meeting our child’s needs.

Planning Ahead for Sensory Overload

Knowing your child’s triggers and what may cause a sensitive sensory reaction is important when considering travel for the holiday season. You want to celebrate with your child, and you want them to feel safe and calm, as well. Planning ahead allows for you to think through the possibilities and choose the best course of action for you and your family.

Do Less Each Day

Can you schedule the fancy dinner on one day and gift-opening the next? It helped Katie if we unwrapped fewer gifts over several days rather than all in one sitting. By doing less each day, you give your child some room to breath after the festivities of the day. Let your extended family know ahead of time that it would be helpful to spread things out over the course of a few days.

Provide Familiar Things & Calm Breaks

Katie found sensory relief by swinging outside or reading a familiar book in a quiet room. If you cannot find a soothing break for your child, seek ideas from an occupational therapist with a specialty in sensory integration.

Final Thoughts on a Sensory Sensitive Child

These changes helped Katie and blessed the entire family. We realized that the sensory extravaganza of previous years actually diminished our joy over Jesus’ birth. Katie’s challenges reminded us that Christmas is not about ornaments, presents, food or family traditions. This freed us to appreciate God’s incomparable gifts of eternal life, love, joy and peace.

Karen Crum is the author of Persevering Parent: Finding strength to raise your child with social, emotional or behavioral challenges.

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