Written by Deb Hopper, Paediatric Occupational Therapist
What is a sensory safe Christmas and the key tips for surviving Christmas Holidays?
Not long now until Christmas. Santa’s can be found everywhere (I almost bowled one over yesterday at our local shopping centre!), and in the weeks leading up to Christmas, it seems as if everyone is on the pre-Christmas crazy treadmill. Many of us are trying to survive the end of school activities, concerts and assemblies, let alone thinking about how to survive Christmas. This time of year can be very overwhelming for children from a sensory perspective, and taking time to think about strategies for a sensory safe Christmas and holiday season can reap benefits!
So why bother to think about a sensory safe Christmas?
At the end of the year when kids and adults are tired from the year’s activities, our sensory systems are tired too, and it’s much easier for us to “tip over the edge”. From a sensory perspective, when we are tired and pushed into doing activities outside our normal routine, we can feel a little anxious at times, or we might be pushed into feelings of frustration and more irritable that usual and reacting with less patience than usual. As adults we might be able to hold this in a little more, but for children, the emotional impatience and “behavioural” aspects may overflow like a waterfall! (Just ask my admin assistant and myself after our morning routines or explosions with our kids just this morning!)
When we experience intense emotions, such as at Christmas time, they can “overflow” in many different ways including:
Physical: nausea, headaches, fatigue or pain
Emotional: anxious, mad, scared, sad, overwhelmed
Thoughts: might be racing, we might forget more things, confusion and difficulty problem solving
Behaviours: that might bubble over might include needing more time alone and isolating self, crying, yelling or screaming, meltdowns, or overeating.
Think about Christmas day or holiday events from a new perspective
1. Friends pop in unexpectedly Christmas afternoon (unexpectedness)
2. Rather than being in a normal week routine or school and work, we start the holiday routine and go to the park and beach a lot more (novelty)
3. At the fireworks there are lots of crowds, noise and fun things to look at, and then the noise of the fireworks (increased intensity)
4. At a BBQ for a street party there are lots of new people to meet and people we haven’t seen for ages. There are lots of new names to remember and new kids to play with (complexity)
5. Aunty Eva comes for Christmas. She brings with her tensions and past family politics. Everyone is playing happy families, but the kids know you don’t get on (incongruity)
6. There are lots of trips to the beach, but 4yo Jack remembers he can’t tolerate touching the sand (negative associations)
7. A visit to the local fair is on the agenda for the older kids, but Abby hates going on the rides and all the people make her feel on edge (fast past movement, sound and too much to take in visually)
These events all have qualities of alerting stimulation. Yes, they are fun, are exciting events, and things we generally look forward to over the holiday season, but they can also put our sensory systems into an overwhelmed zone, which can trigger anxious thoughts as well as negative behaviour.
The pressure of families meeting up for the first time in a long time and the expectation of playing happy families amidst the stress of life can also push us into the anxious zone.
How to create a sensory safe Christmas and tips for surviving Christmas and the holidays
1. Build a holiday calendar. This is great for parents to keep track of what’s happening, as well as for children to know what’s coming up from day to day. Download our LS4K Transition Holiday Calendar for Dec Jan Feb.docx.
2. If you are travelling, build in some familiarity for your child by packing some of their favourite toys, blanket and pillow. The smell and feel of your own pillow can help you get to sleep easier and gives a sense of familiarity and safety when not in your usual surroundings.
3. Talk about the holiday events with positive associations. For example, remember when we went camping last year and how fun it was to chill out in the hammock and swim in the lake?
4. Encourage your child to document the things they do, the people they see and where they go. If you are travelling, visit information centres and collect pamphlets and they can create a scrapbook or journal with pictures of places they have seen.
5. If going to the shops is a trigger for your children with the busy-ness or sounds being too much, try and go to the park before and/ or after. Using their muscles and using movement to fill their sensory systems can make them calmer before you get to the shops and then help them recover afterwards.
6. Have a time limit for how long you will stay at the shops so the kids know how long they need to hold it together for – and make sure you stick to this timeframe, otherwise it might all fall apart in the middle of a supermarket aisle.
7. Before sit down meals, encourage active play outside if possible. This fills their nervous system, gets some of the wiggles and energy out and will make sitting down to eat easier.
8. At meal time, if they have wiggly legs, encourage them to push their legs against the sides of the chair to help calm their body.
9. When visiting others, work out a code phrase or word that your child can tell you if they aren’t coping well. EG, if feeling anxious or wiggly, they could say “Mum, I’m feeling I’m in the yellow zone, what can I do to feel better?”
10. When you arrive, chat to your host and ask if there’s a quiet place that your child can hang out if they need some quiet time. Show you child and give them permission to come here if they need to, and leave a bag of favourite books or toys in this space as a calming activity if they need it (and this will also add an element of familiarity which can help reduce anxiety).
Remember, if your child it finding it hard to manage his or her behaviour this Christmas and holiday season, have a brain storm about what the triggers might be and brainstorm how you can make your current situation and environment to be :
– More familiar
– More consistent
– Create positive associations
– Slow the pace of the day, decrease expectations
– Change to a quieter activity with less sounds, movement or visual input
– Revert to simpler activities that your child enjoys.
Articles for more information on surviving the holidays.