Helping Your Child Navigate Holiday Transitions

by Keely White, M.S., OTR/L

Though the holidays are often filled with cheer, the hustle and bustle of the season can also be overwhelming for children with sensory difficulties. Lack of structure and familiarity can be stress provoking for our children who thrive on routine. Here are some tips and tricks to help your family proactively prepare for the holiday season.

Cultivate Predictability

One reason children thrive on routine is because predictability increases cooperation and decreases anxieties. Incorporating a visual schedule into your child’s day can help them anticipate and prepare for activities that may be outside of their typical agenda. Practicing disciplined morning and evening routines is important year-round, but it is especially essential during the holiday season. This intention will promote rest, consistency and familiarity as a foundational support for your family’s holiday season enjoyment. Setting expectations before an event occurs can be helpful for your child to mentally and emotionally prepare for family gatherings which can be both exciting and overwhelming. Letting your child know details in advance such as event location, time of day and familiar people who will attend the gathering helps them to foster a sense of control.

Managing the Downtime

With children being out of school for the holiday season there is often more downtime and room for boredom to set in. Simultaneously, adults typically have added demands placed on them during the holiday season from preparing food to purchasing and wrapping presents. Allowing children to play a part in helping with holiday season duties promotes a sense of altruism and satisfaction. Providing activity choices at the start of each morning (crafts, games, scavenger hunts, outings, etc.) allows children to look forward to various parts of their day.

Road Trip Readiness

Holiday travel can present challenges for children who are required to embark on long distance road trips. Preparing a “busy box” prior to the road trip can help increase stimulation and decrease boredom for your child. Busy box activity ideas include: sticker books, coloring books, felt design boards, clothespins, Play-Doh, Legos, magnets, beads and more. Plan to stop at least every 2-3 hours to allow your child movement break opportunities. Making movement fun will increase your child’s engagement while allowing them to regulate through sensory experiences. Equipment free ideas that can be performed anywhere include: Simon Says, hopscotch, stretching, sprinting races and freeze dance.

Tools to Succeed

Proactively preparing for moments of overwhelm can make soothing and regulation techniques more successful when those tough moments occur. Practicing coping mechanisms (deep breathing, taking a break, movement experiences, etc.) when your child is calm, significantly increases their effectiveness when utilization is required in real time. With the joy and excitement of the holiday season, transitions can be exceptionally difficult. Oftentimes gatherings are difficult for children to leave. Providing children with a verbal cue to let them know departure is coming can help ease transitions. Attempt using a timer to provide the child with a visual and auditory cue indicating a transition is coming. As we know, predictability increases cooperation and decreases anxieties. Rehearsing transitions while using timers in the home environment will help prepare children for larger transitions at outside gatherings. Home is where children feel safe and loved unconditionally. Oftentimes, home is where children display the most difficulty with emotional regulation and control. Building a “cozy corner” or safe space for your child to calm down is a tangible tool for soothing. Spaces can be designed with anything from a play tent to a cardboard box with pillows, blankets, books and preferred toys. The cozy corner should include items handpicked by your child to utilize as calming tools, ultimately increasing their motivation and engagement. This area should also be your child’s personal space, free from siblings. After the child has calmed down, they can transition right back to the activity they were doing before accessing their cozy corner.

The therapists at Pediatric Therapies have a wide variety of tools in their toolbelts! Please contact your child’s therapist for more information about options to help your child. All of us at Pediatric Therapies wish you and your family a healthy, happy holiday season.