Sensory Issues and The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

December 13, 2015 Christmas, Developmental System, Sensory Processing Issues 1 Comments

The holidays are “the most wonderful time of the year,” or at least that’s what they say on the radio from Thanksgiving until Christmas day, right? All kidding aside, the holidays are a wonderful time to enjoy spending time with your families, going to gatherings, doing special activities, eating lots of good food, and dressing in your holiday best. These are all the things that many of us look forward to all year long.


So why then do we need a set of tips aimed at helping us “survive” something so wonderful, you might wonder? Well, if you are a parent of a child with sensory issues you may already be familiar with the problems that can happen in your home when changes in routine occur. Throw in the many noisy, even chaotic, atmospheres of big family gatherings, dress shoes that are rarely worn, tights or button up shirt that rub the wrong way, or the smorgasbord of fancy, rich foods, and the sugar (Oh! The sugar!) and you have a recipe for melt-downs and other disasters for sure.

Here are a few ideas that you might find helpful in supporting your child with sensory needs during this busy time of year.

1. Knowledge is power

Just knowing that sensory issues are a real thing and not just behavior is a powerful tool in your parental toolbox. When you can step back, take a breath and look at your child’s behavior through this filter, it can help you realize that her nervous system is having a difficult time processing and organizing the sensory information.

It can help you to feel less frustrated by the change in behavior and more likely to feel empowered to assist them in feeling better.

2. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

For a child with sensory concerns, it is far better to prevent the nervous system from becoming dysregulated in the first place, than it is to go about trying to repair it.

Remember, you know your child best! Before heading out to that big family dinner, think about what your child’s sensory preferences and sensory dislikes are on a typical day. Consider adding in some activities for that gathering time that you know to be effective in helping her feel calm. (Be sure to check out the hints and tips section below!)

Think ahead to what each event might hold for his sensory concerns and ask yourself if there are aspects of those events that would fall into his “sensory dislike” column. If you can identify those triggers, then you have the ability to look for supports and resources that will help you avoid or lessen the impact of those parts of the event for that child and for those with whom you are spending holiday time.

3. Be a detective

This tip goes hand in hand with that ounce of prevention. Keep your eyes peeled during your holiday activities for the slightest sign that would indicate that your child is having difficulty with her sensory processing needs. Closely watch her facial expressions. Check in on her energy level through the course of the time. Listen to her tone of voice when she’s interacting with all those cousins.

Is she communicating with her body language that she’s nearing her limit for new or different sensory input? Consider her body language and other communications of which she may not even be aware yet. Jump on the opportunity to use those prevention strategies!

4. Go with the flow and be flexible

You may be the only one in these moments who can be flexible (wink, wink). Know that you may need to tweak plans for the sake of your child’s needs and that’s ok! In fact, be willing to consider making a backup plan for you and your family that may give you the added ability to be flexible.

Try to remember that this isn’t the only holiday event and that there will be other family gatherings to come. Think to yourself, “there is always next year,” and in the end if it provides an opportunity for connection with your child in those moments of high stress, then your flexibility becomes a “double win!”

5. Communication is key

You know that old adage, communication is the key to success? Well, it’s true! Communicate with your family or friends with whom you will be spending time and let them know in advance that you are going to be putting some things into place to support your child’s needs. Communicate with your child, let him know you are there for him and that together you can create a plan to help him enjoy his holiday season and manage his feelings successfully! An example of an excellent tool you can employ for this is the use of visual supports (like a picture schedule or other things mentioned in the hints and tips section below) and children’s books.

6. Collaboration can ease anxiety

We all like to feel like we have some control over things and our children are no different. In fact, this is likely even more true of your child with sensory needs. Having a voice and working with you collaboratively to create a preventative strategy can help her to feel safe.

Her world will feel less unpredictable and uncertain if she contributes to crafting a plan that addresses her needs. There are some strategies below that will help you give some control to your child and hopefully allow her to feel that safety and security, and thus create the opportunity for a more successful experience during your holiday activities.

7. None of us are perfect and that is OK

All of the above strategies are absolutely worth the effort to put into practice. But don’t beat yourself up if things still don’t go as you had hoped they might! It happens. Acknowledge that it’s going to happen, and let yourself be OK with it when it does.

Think about what your own sensory preferences are and give yourself a sensory break, too. This is an excellent form of self-care and should not be ignored during this most wonderful time of the year!

So you see, while the opportunities for chaos and meltdowns often come hand-in-hand with the fun of dinner at Grandma’s house and Christmas parties with old friends, it can still be The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Honest! It might require some planning and creativity on your part. It will definitely require some flexibility and new levels of understanding from you and your loved ones. But it can also yield some real connected-ness and increased trust and security within your family and the wonderful-ness of that can’t be quantified, now can it?

Hints and Tips:



Try this:


  • Noise reducing earphones, earplugs or earmuffs
  • Breaks to a quiet area
  • Calming, quiet music

Changes in routine:

  • Visual Supports: a picture schedule can help set up the day’s activities. This will help the child feel he has some control over what is coming next and relieve anxiety about the unknown.
  • Social stories: create a simple story or look at your library for books that would support your child in this situation.  
  • Be mindful that changes in routine can be very challenging. Whenever possible try to maintain some consistency in your normal routine.

Chaotic environments:

  • Offer quiet space breaks. Listen to calming music, color, put a puzzle together, give an activity that you know can increase his or her focus and thus de-stress.
  • Offer hugs and deep squeezes. This can help the body feel more “grounded.”
  • Compression type clothing, like the sports undergarments, snug PJ’s or tights; can help your child feel like they are getting a hug which can feel comforting and help them stay regulated. They can even wear these under their clothes.
  • Hand-fidget toys, like squeeze balls, stretchy bands, and tango-type toys all have resistance to them. This provides the body with sensory information that can be calming.
  • Breathe! When we are stressed we tend to hold our breath. Take a quick break to have your child do an activity that encourages them to let go of holding their breath. Blowing bubbles or making music on a kazoo, or deep breathing exercises can encourage them to release the stress of the environment and of holding their breath.
  • Stretch together. Encourage your child to do a few simple stretches. This will help release muscle tension and further encourage regulated breathing.


  • If your child does not like certain fabrics, tags, etc. then now is probably not the time to force them to wear that new Christmas outfit. Let them pick out something that is comforting and feels good.
  • Consider bringing a change of clothing so that they know they have options and choices for moments when stress escalates.


  • Holidays often bring tough dietary choices for us all. There is usually an overabundance of foods with sugar and dyes that maybe you typically avoid during the year. It is very hard to say “no” to these treats at special get-togethers. If these are a real issue then try to communicate ahead of time. Ask the host if you can know about the menu in advance and plan accordingly. You can also try work together to create a menu that would work well for your child. You can have your child’s input for planning a strategy together, too.
  • There might also be food choices presented that are not part of your child’s sensory preferences. This too could be a trigger. Again, try to plan ahead and take some food options that you know your child will like.
  • In general, try to make sure your child is staying hydrated with plenty of water.
  • Crunchy foods can give your child a lot of good sensory input to the mouth, which can be organizing and calming.


  • BEFORE the day’s busyness starts have your child participate in movement activities that are structured and organizing for their brain.  Instead of telling them to “go play,” have them do purposeful play: go to the playground, crawl through a homemade obstacle course in your living room, play hopscotch, march through the house like toy soldiers, etc. This type of movement helps to keep the nervous system regulated. The effects linger even as the day unfolds.
  • Bath time can be a great way to end the day and de-stress. For your child AND for Mom, after everyone is tucked in for the night!

Below are links that you may find helpful:

Jen Hatmaker: Parenting Kiddos Who Sabatoge Big Days
Do 2 Learn: Picture cards to help create picture schedules
Therapro: Basic tools and equipment to meet your child’s sensory needs
Therapy Shoppe: Basic tools and equipment to meet your child’s sensory needs
The Goodenoughs Get In Sync: Book about a family with different sensory issues
Sensational Brain: Resource for creating sensory diets

Apps that you may find helpful:

Breathe, Think, Do: An app for preschoolers to show them how taking some deep breaths can help calm them down)
Huff N Puff: An app for engaging your child in fun breathing activities, it provides visuals on the screen for them to target and has a cause and effect response
Fluid: An app that is visually calming, using the sounds and sights of water flowing over rocks. Good to use when taking a quiet time break

– image by Tish Goff

Guest post by Judy Rohrbach OTR/L, Occupational Therapist

One response to “Sensory Issues and The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

  1. Jessica says:

    We’re a big fan of They have a couple sample videos on their website and on YouTube.

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