Holiday Tips to Cope with Sensory Overload

Tips to cope with sensory overload

Holiday Tips to Cope with Sensory Overload

As we enter full swing into the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, we can all feel stressed and overwhelmed. But for persons with sensory processing, attention disorders, and neurodivergent individuals, the holidays may cause excessive anxiety.  

Rooted in our mission to connect people to their worlds, our HASA specialists share their tips for recognizing, minimizing, and coping with sensory overload during the holidays.

Recognizing Sensory Overload During the Holidays

Sensory overload can happen to anyone, although it may seem more likely to occur in children with special needs. However, it is beneficial to look for and recognize the symptoms in everyone. That way, you can assist in helping others cope and regulate this holiday season. We have all experienced a feeling of overwhelm and edginess during busy holiday times.

But what exactly signifies sensory overload? 

  • Physical activity is heightened and busy. Activity like jumping off furniture, running in the house, spinning, or pushing, are all examples of heightened behavior.   
  • Overly sensitive to noises. As a coping strategy to decrease the input, a child might be covering their ears, screaming, making extra loud noises. It serves to drone out the sounds that are overloading their brain.
  • Aggressive or self-injurious behavior. Examples may include hitting, pushing, pulling, pinching, scratching, or biting self or others
  • Sudden meltdowns or tantrums.  An overwhelmed child might throw themselves on the ground, cry inconsolably, throw things, or even scream at you.
  • Withdrawn from activities. Refusal to participate or even go to a family function. Perhaps they might curl into a corner to read a book or play with a toy alone. 

Consequently, noting these responses to sensory stimuli helps you quickly recognize the signs. Hopefully, then you could be able to prevent sensory overload. The key is to determine the conditions and create a plan for a healthy balance. Further, communication is essential. Know that not only is it ok, but crucial that you share your needs with other family members and friends.

Ways to Avoid Overstimulation

With sensory stimulating environments all around during the holidays, how can you help your loved one from becoming overwhelmed?  Remember that while stress is contagious, so is joy! The good news is that there are several steps you can take.

  • Create a schedule of events. Remember how you and your child thrive on schedules during the year? Well, apply that principle to the holidays. First, create a fun visual holiday event calendar and display it for everyone to see. Next, explain and share the information with the family about what events are coming up. Then discuss the details regularly and calmly. Lastly, ask and answer questions. Go out of your way and create a positive association with the upcoming schedule. 
  • Set realistic expectations together. Before you leave for holiday parties, parades, or other fun events have a quick family meeting. Establish how long you plan to stay and expectations for behavior. Again, communicate your plan with those you go with or the hosts of the event. Try to eliminate any surprises and be as honest and understanding as possible. 
  • Maintain nap and bedtime schedules. Keep regular sleep schedules a priority. Avoid the temptation to skip naps or push for later bedtimes. This is especially relevant amid the many holiday events. While it may seem like a bother, everyone benefits from a good nap or a restful night’s sleep!
  • Create a safe environment. Children can become overstimulated in a party environment. If you are planning a gathering, consider an intimate party. When going to a party, establish a safe, quiet space where your child can enjoy downtime. a party, establish a safe, quiet space where your child can enjoy downtime. Bring earphones and their favorite music, noise-canceling headphones, books, or a preferred toy.
  • Arrive early and leave on a positive note. Try to arrive at the venue/event 15-20 minutes early. That way you get there before the hustle and bustle. This allows everyone to ease into the activity. Plus, you can become familiar with the environment, such as finding quiet places or bathrooms. Further, if you sense your child/children have had enough, leave before it becomes too much. Hence, leaving on a positive note. 
  • Include everyone in the planning and preparation. Make the holidays inclusive and fun. Try to assign skill-appropriate tasks for everyone. Involving children creates memories, increases self-esteem, and strengthens family bonds. Resist the urge to redo or “correct.” Offer lots of encouragement and praise.  

Coping with Sensory Overload

The first step in calming an overstimulated child is to remain calm. When you are upset, it may cause the child’s emotions to escalate.  

  • Take a few deep breaths together.
  • Consider going outside for fresh air/walk (weather permitting).
  • Provide an embrace that offers a slow, steady resistance to the child’s tense muscles.
  • If in a safe place, lie on the ground and focus on the ceiling.
  • Play a game like “Simon Says” to distract from stress or encourage positive behavior. 
  • Reduce the noise activity if possible by turning down music or shutting off the TV.
  • Retreat to the designated quiet spot and do something together, like play with a favorite toy, sing a song, or read a book.