The holiday period is generally something we think of as a positive time of year with all the celebrations, decorations, presents and delicious food. However, for some of the people we support (young and old) the holiday period can be a social and sensory nightmare!
Holidays and gatherings can be overwhelming and tiring, even for people who love attending them. So it is really important to consider what you/ your child need to be comfortable and advocate for that. Consider what challenges might come up and how to best support your child to cope at this time.
Below is a non-exhaustive list of challenges that might arise and how to support or advocate for your child. Hopefully, these tips will help you to consider some small changes that might make a big difference!
Eating unfamiliar food if you have a picky eater
A lot of our end-of-year celebrations centre on food and sharing meals with family and friends. For a lot of our children meal times are hard! They might be hard because making healthy choices is challenging, or they might be hard because of feeding or eating disorders.
We need to consider for children the social and sensory environments can impact their eating. If they are feeling unsafe, eating will be incredibly hard.
- ♦ Let your child know what foods to expect will be available and what the expectations are of them. For example “You can choose whatever feels safe for you to eat” or “You need to eat some lunch first, then dessert”
- ♦ If your child has a very restrictive diet you may wish to ask the host if it is ok for you to bring some foods you know they will enjoy, or if they are happy to prepare some safe foods for your child.
- ♦ Meal times at gatherings often don’t match our usual routine. For people who thrive on routine and structure to understand their day this can be difficult. Think about how you can communicate this change to your child, or if it is ok to bring some food that they can have at routine times to avoid disrupting their routine and having a “hangry” child on your hands.
- ♦ Consider how you will manage the well-meaning comments from family and friends about your child’s eating to reduce both you and your child’s stress.
Considering the sensory environment
- ♦ Let your child know who their “go-to” person is
- ♦ Make sure the “go-to” person is also monitoring and suggesting proactive support if they can see the early stages of sensory overwhelm or a meltdown
- ♦ Have noise-cancelling headphones available if your child is sensitive to noise
- ♦ A sensory kit with some items may be helpful to have on hand. Items such as sunglasses or a hat to decrease visual input, a favourite essential oil to cover up food smells, fidget toys and some crunchy or chewy snacks might add distraction or some contrasting sensory input and help your child to regulate.
- ♦ Develop an exit plan so you know how you will manage this. This might mean taking 2 cars so that 1 parent can go home first if your child is not coping.
- ♦ Ask the host if there is a quiet space that can be set up as a safe corner to escape to if it gets too much.
- ♦ Request that the music be turned down at the table so that they can focus on the conversation at the table, or if they need a separate space to eat advocate for that.
Managing all the social demands
- ♦ Be proactive! Speak with your family and friends or the host of the event about things that may be challenging for your child and how they can best support you/ your child to have a good day.
- ♦ Try to space out your social engagements, you’ll likely discover what their “recharge” timeframe is. You might need a few days between events.
- ♦ Plan and prioritise who you really need to see over the holidays, versus who can you catch up with “soon”.
- ♦ Think about activities that “fill their cup” and help them to recharge their social battery.
- ♦ Allow your child to opt in/ out.
- ♦ Ask family and friends not to expect or force hugs, kisses, or photos.
- ♦ Consider how to adapt or create new traditions that meet the needs of you and your family.
- ♦ Where possible, maintain your routine; this predictability is very supportive when children are stressed or anxious.
- ♦ Consider how many decorations you put up, if your child is distressed by making changes around the house, you may want to restrict the decorations to just one room.
- ♦ Consider how you will communicate changes in routine. E.g. a calendar that shows the main event or location you are going to each day. Use daily schedules so that you can show and give them a plan for the day.
The holiday period is an exciting, but potentially overwhelming and stressful time of year. Being proactive by knowing what the potential challenges might be and developing a plan is key. Managing the social and sensory aspects, including the expectations of others can be challenging both for you and your child. Remember to be kind to both your child and yourself and plan for a holiday period that matches your and your family’s needs.
Paediatric Multidisciplinary Team Manager
Occupational Therapist, BAppSc(OT)
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