6 tips to Prevent Sensory Overload in Children and make Your Holidays filled with laughter! Learn what it can look like and how to manage it.
I love the Holidays!
They give you a chance to celebrate, indulge, and reflect!
BUT… I don’t love being in a state of Sensory Overload or seeing my kids in Sensory Overload during the holidays. That is not fun for anyone.
What is Sensory Overload?
Sensory Overload is when you have reached your threshold for one or more of your sensory systems and you can no longer process the information.
Each sensory system has a threshold to which it accepts and processes sensory input. Once that threshold is met, the additional input sends signals but hits a roadblock with no detour signs.
The feeling of sensory overload differs person to person. It can also range from a mild discomfort sensation to a strong fight or flight response.
What Sensory Overload Symptoms Can look like…
Sensory Overload Symptoms in Children can look different in each kiddo. Some common signs include:
- Uncontrollable Crying often to exhaustion
- Covering their eyes or ears
- Avoidance of certain people or places
When you reach your Sensory Threshold, a short break will NOT bring your Kiddo back to “zero.” BUT it will give them a break and hopefully time to process the info a little longer.
Another way to explain it is imagine water dripping into a cup for each sensory input that is being processed. The stronger the input the faster the water drips. When the water is to the brim of the cup, the sensory threshold is met.
Any additional sensory input causes the water to overflow. Taking a short break from the sensory input is like taking a sip of water from the cup. It is not dumping the cup out and starting over.
The Best Way to handle Sensory Overload in Children is to Try and prevent it with these 6 Strategies.
# 1. Plan Ahead
This is the biggest and easiest way to prevent Sensory Overload in Children at the holidays!
Yet, I know that it is hard to do when your plate is already full of things that “Have to be Done” on a daily basis.
But, if you can plan ahead, then you are not running around with high stress, anxiety, and sensory overload. Although I wish this was not the case, your kiddo’s can pick up YOUR stress and in return become stressed.
Stress decreases your acceptance to sensory input amounts.
Plan Ahead to Decrease Holiday Sensory Overload in Children by:
- Decorate the house early
- Try to maintain your kids typical daily routine and limit running into over crowded stores
- Spread out Family Holiday Festivities rather than lump them all together if possible
- Write a list of people that you need to get gifts for AND gift ideas
- Hire a high school student to wrap the presents. I have not had the luxury of doing this yet, BUT as a kid I helped several families wrap Christmas presents!
# 2. Make Unfamiliar Items….. Familiar
The Holidays often mean decorating your house. For kiddos who like predictability this can be upsetting to them.
You might be thinking, “It would be fun to wrap the stair railing with blinking lights!”
While your Sensory Kiddo is thinking, “Where am I supposed to put my hand without getting poked and why wont the lights stop blinking.”
I am not saying, don’t decorate! Yet, place items purposefully and keep your sensory kiddo in mind.
Holiday decorations tend to be bright and busy! This can be very overwhelming to Kiddo’s who are sensitive to visual input.
Decrease Decoration Sensory Overload by:
- Bring decorations out early so that they become familiar
- Decorate the house over a period of time rather than all in one day
- Show your Kiddo if the item makes any noises or moves. There is nothing worse than being startled by an unexpected noise or movement when you open the door, walk by something, or step on a mat.
- Limit decorations in doorways and high traffic walkways
- Do not decorate their bedroom. Keep it a safe, predictable, spot for them.
- Try to limit decorations to a few items and less “Griswold” style!
- Be aware of holiday decorations that have a scent.
- The power of smell is very powerful and can bring back wonderful memories. But it can also send a sensitive person to their limit very quickly
# 3. Limit Presents
Celebrating the holidays can mean giving and receiving gifts. Although gift giving can be fun, it can also be really hard and cause Sensory Overload in Children.
Opening a wrapped gift, for some kids, is a high anxiety task.
Their thoughts could be racing with:
- What is in the box?
- What if I don’t like it?
- Why are there so many? I just want to play with the one I just opened.
- What am I supposed to do once I open it?
- Did they have to use so much sticky tape?
- Does everyone have to watch me?
Can you imagine thinking about all of those things when you are given a pile of gifts to open?
Meanwhile the person giving the gift is sitting on the edge of their seat and can’t wait to see the reaction toward the present!
Decrease Gift Opening Sensory Overload by:
- Practice wrapping and opening gifts with silly items around the house.
- Practice what to say when you are handed a gift and what to say EVEN if you don’t like it or want it!
- Remove some of the anxiety of opening a gift by practicing it for weeks in advance – This was the answer for one of my Kiddo’s! We practiced opening gifts for Christmas, every week, for 7 weeks. That was his first year he was able to enjoy Christmas morning with his family at age 5.
- Limit gifts to just a few to help prevent becoming overwhelmed
- I know easier said than done!
- Leave some gifts unwrapped
- Yes, an element of surprise is taken away, but your kiddo will still have a reaction to the new toy!
- If your Kiddo likes to play with one gift for a while, let them and have someone else take a turn
- Plan ahead to have family exchange gifts on a different day
- Leading up to the Holiday, open one gift wrapped book every night! My kids LOVE this new tradition that we have started!
# 4. Check Sound Levels
With the Holidays come social gatherings and music! And most holiday celebrations are inside so the noise level just gets amplified!
After adding talking, laughing, pets barking, music, T.V., and kitchen timers going off, it can become pretty loud environment.
Coming from a large family, I also understand that as noise levels increase, people talk louder so that they can be heard. Thus making it even louder.
Decrease Auditory Sensory Overload in Children by:
- Play background music without words if needed
- Try Noise Cancellation headphones
- Set up a time for your Kiddo to go outside, or in a room away from the noise for a period of time
- Have a relative who talks or laughs loud? Have your Kiddo sit on the other side of the table of them if possible.
# 5. Pick Comfortable Clothes to Wear
The Holidays often mean getting dressed up. I know that I have spent way too much energy and time getting my kids Holiday outfits together….. just to get a “nice family photo”.
Ask me how many nice family photos we have that were taken on a Holiday. Zero!
No matter how hard I try, we were never ready early enough. Or by the time a picture could be taken, someone refused to wear their suspenders and their “uncomfortable” shoes were no where to be found.
You might see fancy dresses and handsome suits while your kiddo sees stiff pants or itchy tights.
That is not to say don’t get dressed nicely for the Holidays. I do like to make the day special by wearing something better than our normal day clothes.
Decrease Holiday Clothes Sensory Overload by:
- Choose clothes that do not have a known irritant.
- If your kiddo can not stand dress shoes, wear boots instead
- Fake fur, although soft, can move and touch your kiddo’s skin lightly and unexpectedly. One of my kiddo’s likened this to a spider crawling on her neck
- Opt for elastic waist bands without belts paired with a sweater
- Tights don’t stay up? Where leggings instead
- Pick clothing that is your Kiddo’s favorite color! They may be more tolerant to wear something different.
- For Kiddo’s who really resist wearing different types of clothes, place Holiday Clothes out weeks in advance. Tell them they are going to wear it for whatever Holiday. It will eventually become a familiar outfit.
# 6. Have Realistic Expectations
The Holidays can be overwhelming but they are also a time to make great memories.
Before you find yourself amongst the hustle and bustle of the season, set aside time to write down how you want your Sensory Kiddo to experience the Holidays
Once you have that, then all your decisions moving forward will be easier!
It is MUCH easier to meet your Kiddo “where they are” rather than constantly pushing them out of their comfort zone….. especially during the Holidays.
More Ways to Decrease Sensory Overload in Children over the Holidays:
- Create a keyword or action with your Kiddo that says they need a break
- Prep your Kiddo with activities that help regulate their sensory system.
- Prepare some foods that your Kiddo likes to eat
- Have a safe place for your Kiddo to decompress
- Check in with your Kiddo to see how they are doing
- Know that it is OK to leave early
- Do not let family criticism of what you are “letting your kiddo get away with” penetrate. In my house, we say “Shield Up!” The shield “blocks” all things negative and makes you less reactive!
Most of all enjoy your Holiday with your family!
However it might look, it is yours.
If you have any questions, please leave a comment below. I am sure that you are not the only one with the same question! I read all comments and would love to hear from you!
More Sensory Related Posts:
- How to Avoid Sensory Overload in Children During the Holidays
- Increase Focus In Class with Easy Sensory Strategies
- Remote Learning Brain Breaks for Kids To Improve Focus
- 18 Rainy Day Activities for Kids On the Move!
- 12 Calming Waiting in Line Strategies That Work!
Kelly is a licensed Occupational Therapist with 15 years of experience servicing school-aged children and Early Intervention. She is the founder of OT Perspective and a mom to 4 children. To learn more about her, check out her About Me page, here.