How To Help Your Child With Sensory Issues Cope With Holidays and Social Gatherings

Good evening, everyone, and Happy Thanksgiving. Speech-language pathologist/momma here. Today is Saturday, but my Thanksgiving festivities are still continuing in order to squeeze in as many family gathering opportunities as possible. Today is the last dinner (this is my 3rd), and I find myself feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated, while at the same time looking forward to seeing some more family this evening. If your child becomes overwhelmed easily by sights, sounds, smells, and textures, I can only imagine how they must be feeling around the holidays and how you must be feeling as well. Today’s post is going to be some tips that will help you and your child cope with the festivities any other social gatherings that you and your child may attend in the future, such as birthday parties, for example.

First of all, remember that these are just suggestions. Unless I personally know your child, I am not able to tailor all of these suggestions to your child’s specific needs, so I am going to try to address as many different individual personalities and sensory needs as possible, and hopefully you’ll find a few that apply to your child.

Festivity Coping Suggestions

Prepare your child. As soon as possible, start preparing your child by discussing where you are going, why you are going there, what they may see and hear there, and who they may see and hear there. Structure and knowing what to expect is comforting. If possible, show them pictures from Facebook, for example, of certain people they may see there, the house, pictures of similar occasions, etc.

Code words and/or signals. Develop a code word or signal for you and your child to use. I suggest only using one and choosing one that will not be confused with anything else. Your child can use this code word with you or any other close family members or friends to let them know that they need a sensory break.

Take sensory breaks. An example of a sensory break would be allowing your child to go into another room that is quiet, with no other people, and allowing them to stay in there until they feel ready to re-enter the social situation. Even if that sensory break is in the bathroom or the laundry room, use whatever is available.

Call ahead to the host. If the host of the festivity you are attending is not familiar with your child, give them a call, inform of them of your child’s unique sensory needs, and ask if there are any certain things you can prepare your child for; sounds, smells, number of people, flashing lights, for example, that may be present at the gathering. While speaking, you can also ask if there is a certain area your child can go if they need a sensory break.

Take comforting or “go-to” items. For example, if your child is comforted by a certain toy or object, make sure you have it sitting by the door or already packed with your belongings so you can use it if necessary. If your child becomes overstimulated by noises, take some noise cancelling headphones.

Role play. If it is going to be a noisy place, turn the t.v. on in the background or turn some loud music on. If it is going to be a place with a lot of different smells, burn a few different types of scented candles, and begin practicing how you will greet people and practice using the code word/signal. Also practice ways your child can politely leave situations and/or conversations if they need a sensory break.

Encourage your child to be straightforward. Especially if your child is older and the people he/she will be around is old enough to understand, encourage your child to be straightforward with his peers and educate them about his/her unique sensory needs and how he/she may have to occasionally take a break from a situation in order to regroup.

Gentle pressure and/or gentle movement. Start at your child’s shoulders by GENTLY squeezing with your hands, work your way down their arms, and over their hands. For some children, they love this and it helps calm them, while others can’t stand it. This is something one of my occupational therapy friends showed me. Repeat the process until your child begins to show signs of calming down. There will be times, however, that your child may not like this pressure, even when they normally do. For the gentle movement, stand behind your child and place your hands over their forearms and guide their arms, one at a time, in gentle, sweeping motions. You can also hug your child from behind or from the front and move from side to side as if you all are slow dancing. During therapy sessions, I will sometimes stand behind one of my students that particularly responds well to the gentle movement, and I will slowly guide his hands to do the patty cake motions while gentle singing the patty cake song. He can do this independently, but he enjoys the gentle pressure combined with the gentle movements.

Create object association for sensory coping. That sounded odd, I know, so let me explain here. Back in the day, a baby who was referred to as “Albert” took part in a study. To make a long story short, Albert was presented with a number of animals and objects, one of which being a rat. Albert did not react negatively to any of these animals or objects. The next time, however, Albert was presented with the rat, one of the scientists made a very loud noise, causing Baby Albert to cry. Each time they would present the rat to Albert, they would pair the presentation of the rat with a very loud noise and every time Albert would cry. Over time, the noise was removed when the rat was presented, but Baby Albert would still cry. According to the researchers, Baby Albert associated the rat with the loud noise, thus he would cry when he saw the rat even though the loud noise was no longer present. I feel sorry for Baby Albert, but the point is object association is a real thing and can be used in a positive way.

This activity is something that will take practice and preparation. Let’s suppose your child experiences visual sensory overload; he/she becomes overstimulated with a lot of moving objects, flashing lights, etc. When your child is at home and begins to experience this, turn off or dim the lights, put on some soft, classical or spa music, and put some sunglasses on your child or give them the blue teddy bear. Over time, turn off the lights after an extended period, eventually leading up to the point to where you no longer turn them off, and eventually lead up to the point to where you no longer play the comforting music. The end goal is to just give them the sunglasses or blue teddy bear and they associate the sunglasses or teddy bear with comfort and an escape. This, of course, is easier said than done. If your child likes routine, your child will have to learn that you are not always going to turn off the lights immediately and will not always turn the music on immediately.

Quick Note About Teaching Object Association or Coping Strategies

Be consistent. Ya’ll know I had to throw my favorite phrase in there somewhere! With object association, it is very important that you use only ONE particular object in order to help them associate that object with being calm and/or in control. If you must, buy multiple duplicates of this item to keep in your car, bag, purse, in case it gets lost, etc. When teaching coping strategies, be consistent. Very few of us, myself included, master new skills after being introduced to them just one or two times. Some skills take several times, maybe even weeks, of practice and exposure to use the skill appropriately. So be patient with the process and consistent with how you present it. Teaching object association and new coping strategies will initially be unfamiliar to your child, and if they’re like me, they don’t always welcome change.

Coping Strategies for Specific Hypersensitivities

Chances are, your child will not always have the opportunity to take a sensory break in a different environment/room. Suppose you and your child are waiting in line at the airport or they are participating in a fire drill at school? Giving your child the ability to cope with these overstimulating environments will prepare them for successfully dealing with these situations. The suggestions below were made with the goal in mind of giving your child as much control as possible of the given situation they may find themselves in. For example, if your child becomes overwhelmed by a lot of noise, the suggestions focus on helping your child control what noise they are going to focus on.

Hypersensitive to visual stimuli? Sunglasses, a particular book, focusing on a particular spot or area on their hands or arms, creating “blinders” with their hands (pretend they are looking through binoculars so they can focus their eyes on a limited amount of space).

Hypersensitive to noises? Sound cancelling headphones, humming quietly to self, singing a well memorized song in their head, listening to music of choice through headphones, clicking tongue while counting the number of times they click their tongue

Hypersensitive to smells? Pinching nose, carrying scented chapstick they like so they can place it under their nose and focus on that smell, inhaling through mouth and exhaling through nose reduces smell sensitivity

Hypersensitive to textures? Have gloves handy, carry with you a small piece of fabric or an object that is your child’s favorite texture, baby wipes, hand sanitizer, or lotion to “erase” the previous texture they did not like

I hope everyone finds something in this article that is helpful. If anyone has any stories they would like to share, strategies they have tried and found to be successful, or would like to ask me any questions or request more information, please leave in the comments below!

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