For children with sensory challenges, the holidays can be a tricky time. The season is undoubtably exciting, but all that excitement – along with changes in routine, lights, crowded activities, music, lots of smells, and new foods – can simply feel like too much.

We checked in with our occupational therapists for advice about how to help your child feel calmer during the festivities, so she (and you) can be available to enjoy them!

Stick to routines as much as possible

With shopping, events, parties, and family gatherings, your daily routines are likely to shift during the holidays. But trying to stick to basic routines, like sleep and meal times, can help your child feel regulated.

When you do anticipate changes in routine, prepare your child.

Going to a holiday party? Or to the mall to buy gifts? Let your child know, more or less, what to expect. You can talk, use a social story, or draw pictures to prepare her for what she might see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. Make a plan together about what she can do if she’s feeling overwhelmed. You can even mark the date on a calendar so she can see when it’s coming up.   

Bring earplugs and/or plan for a “noise break” at events.

If your child has auditory sensitivity, earplugs at noisy events (especially musical ones) can help. You can also plan to bring your child to a quiet place after a certain amount of time for a “noise break.” Spend a few minutes there, and use deep breathing or other calming strategies to help her re-set before rejoining the event.

Bring comfort items.

Pop a favorite toy or other item(s) in your bag in case you need them. The familiarity and positive associations related to comfort items are surprisingly helpful for children when they feel overwhelmed.

Bring backup food.

If your child is sensitive to certain textures or tastes of food and you’re heading to an event or get-together, pack a few things you know she will eat. She may want to try new foods, but if she doesn’t, you’ll be prepared.

Strategize about the best place for your child to stand or sit.

When you get where you’re going, consider the best place for your child to be. If she’s sensitive to smells, find a spot away from where the food is being prepared or served. If she’s sensitive to touch, avoid places where she’s more likely to be brushed against or bumped into.

Dress smart.

If your child is sensitive to certain clothing, dress her in something she’s comfortable in – even if it’s not a party outfit. You can also consider weighted clothing if that helps her feel organized and calm.

Give permission to skip social interaction.

When a child is trying to cope with extra sensory stimulation, the pressure of social interaction can feel like a lot! Let your child know it’s okay to simply wave hello or goodbye, and that you’re not expecting her to hug, shake hands, give high-fives, or engage in conversation.

We hope these tips help your child and you feel less stress and more joy this holiday season!