The winter holidays, breaks from school and work, and spending more time together as families can create many opportunities for joy. For many of us, this is what makes the winter months both more bearable and so special.
However, the winter months can also generate opportunities for overstimulation, especially sensory overload. The winter months bring visual displays, lights, music, crowds of people, different foods, novel smells, and wearing formal types of clothing for holiday events. These changes can provoke anxiety in many children, especially those with specific sensory sensitivities.
For those parents preparing to support their families through the holiday season’s impending changes and the potential for sensory overload, Sprout has some suggestions.
Touch. If your child is sensitive to touching or wearing particular textures or materials, they may have a hard time adjusting to clothing made to keep them warm. Similarly, formal attire deemed appropriate for certain holiday occasions like religious or family gatherings can cause distress.
To navigate this, it can be helpful to plan ahead. For example, if you know that your child struggles with particular textures or materials, don’t try to purchase a winter coat for them on your own. Instead, plan a trip to a store with a variety of options (TJ Maxx, for example), where your child can try on coats and tell you which ones they are comfortable or uncomfortable touching.
This opportunity encourages self exploration and autonomy for your child. It also reduces the likelihood of a meltdown when they need to put on their winter coat, as they have chosen it for themselves and already feel comfortable with it. Similarly, for any holiday events (or family pictures!) that they are asked to ‘dress up’ for, choosing the outfits ahead of time and practicing wearing them for longer periods of time can reduce distress on the day of the event itself.
Smell. The aroma of cuisine unique to the holidays or winter months is often powerfully ingrained in our memories. When I reflect on winters past, I recall the scent of fish engulfing my grandparents’ home as they prepared for our Christmas Eve “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” While this olfactory memory is comforting and joyful to me, it is repulsive to my sister because she hates the smell of fish.
Children will respond differently to the scents experienced in the winter months, and those responses may not always be positive. One way to prevent this situation from escalating into a meltdown is to respect your child’s preferences. If they feel overwhelmed by an unpleasant smell, offer them the opportunity to go to a different room or to spend five minutes outside breathing the fresh air. Forcing a child to tolerate the smell for too long can induce anxiety and increase the likelihood of escalating emotions. If physical breaks are not available, bringing a mask with you or encouraging your child to carry something that smells good to them (an unlit candle or essential oil, for example) can help them to cope.
Taste. Similar to smell, taste is a powerful sensory experience. During the winter months, you might notice that your child won’t consume hot beverages (like hot chocolate vs chocolate milk, for example) – or that your child does not like the taste of things containing a particular ingredient, like cinnamon or melted cheese. Sometimes these aversions have to do with food texture as well as taste.
One way to prevent major mishaps during holiday gatherings, as well as to make sure your fridge and cabinets are well stocked with things that your child will eat throughout the winter months, is to, again, plan ahead. Keep a supply of foods you know they will eat, accounting for appropriate nutritional value, for the day when they won’t eat the soup you’ve made for dinner because it contains celery.
Similarly, consider when this is a battle worth fighting versus when it is better to let it go. For example, leisurely days at home might be a nice opportunity to calmly introduce your child to new foods and support them through coping and communication skills related to eating foods that aren’t their favorite (as this will likely become a helpful skill for them to have long-term). On the other hand, at a big holiday event or family gathering where there are potentially other sensory variables interfering, it might be beneficial to have prepared/transported an alternative meal option for your child as something that will be familiar and comforting to them.
Hearing. Over-exposure to music and crowds of people can exhaust a child with auditory-sensitivities. For example, some holiday music incorporates the sound of bells; bells might be incredibly overstimulating to a child with an aversion to the sound they produce. Similarly, whether at a large family gathering or other crowded environment, hearing multiple people talking at one time might deplete a child’s auditory capacity. The effort it requires to comprehend and selectively respond to multiple auditory stimuli requires executive functioning skills that your child is likely still developing.
Two relatively inconspicuous tools that you can offer your child during these times of auditory overstimulation include noise canceling headphones as well as headphones they can use to listen privately to music or sounds that they prefer. This supports distress tolerance and cultivation of broadly applicable coping skills. Again, identifying these sounds or songs ahead of time can go a long way in the moment.
Sight. Walking into Walmart feels stressful to me sometimes during the winter months. Between decorations, displays, and deals- there is so much to visually take in. For a child with visual processing sensitivity, this experience and so many others during the winter months may similarly be distressing.
One tip for managing visual overstimulation throughout the winter months is to allow your child’s room to be a safe space. In other words, don’t force them to decorate. Offer that space as a place they can return to if and when they feel overstimulated – an environment that can remain consistently calm regardless of what’s happening elsewhere. Additionally, identify these spaces in the homes you may be visiting for holiday celebrations or in the stores and other spaces you might frequent throughout the winter months.
Overall, it is wise to help your child to cultivate an emotional vocabulary that they can comfortably rely upon in moments of distress. Encourage your child to verbalize when they feel overwhelmed or overstimulated, and be open and flexible to supporting them through it.
Their sensitivities might not make sense or resonate with you – and may also feel like inconveniences. However, punishing, discouraging, or avoiding these issues will not be fruitful. Instead, try to empathize with your child by reminding yourself of a smell you detest or a time when a crowd overwhelmed you, and rationalize that their experience might be even more heightened due to sensory processing variabilities. This will help you to remain grounded in your values as a parent, even when you yourself are frustrated with making adjustments and accommodations. In the end, accepting and learning to support sensory processing differences will enable you to enjoy more present moments with your family, make wonderful memories, and celebrate your loved ones for who they are.
Written By: Mary Beth Spang, Ed.M., Sprout Intern
Sprout Center for Emotional Growth and Development was founded in early 2013 out of the love for the study and practice of early childhood and family wellness. Sprout Center for Emotional Growth and Development is designed to address the needs of children and their families in all stages of life.
Consultation, training and supervision are also provided for all agencies and individuals that serve an important role in a family’s life including parents and caregivers, Childcare providers, Educators and Schools, Medical professionals, Legal representatives, Parenting groups and other organizations.
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