By Senia Lee, OTR/L
There are plenty of Hollywood films reminding us that holiday gatherings with extended families can be overwhelming for any of us – let alone a child who is easily over stimulated. Instead of avoiding these gatherings (or wishing you had), plan ahead for success with these tips:
- Stick to your child’s usual daily routine as much as possible – before, during, and after the event.
- Talk to your child about what to expect. Start talking about it a few days before, then continue to review it each day.
- Talk aloud with your child, write it out, or use pictures - whatever works best for your child.
- Tell them when you will go, what the house/location might look like, what they might smell, what sounds they might hear, who will be there, what you will do there, how they might feel, when it will be time to leave, and what they can do if they need a break.
If the gathering is at your house, be sure your child’s room (or another room that they may “retreat” to) remains as close to normal as possible – i.e. don’t have guests place their coats on your child’s bed or offer to have Aunt Betsy care for her infant in your child’s room.
Up the sensory – incorporate extra sensory activities (as recommended by your therapist) into the day, both at home and at the gathering.
- Can all the cousins have animal walk or wheelbarrow races?
- Can they create an obstacle course together?
- Have your child sit on your lap during gift opening or other appropriate times, providing deep pressure through bear hugs, shoulder presses, arm squeezes, or foot massages.
Ideas for an Effective Break:
Identify how and where your child can take a break, if needed. Talk to the host ahead of time and find out if there is a quiet room you and your child can retreat to. Ideally, your child would know when they need a break and request one. But don’t wait until it’s too late!
- Offer your child a break periodically or schedule a break time, such as 30 minutes before the meal.
- Go into the designated “break” area with your child, especially since the space may be unfamiliar to them.
- Bring a “Break Pack,” with calming activities and comfort items from home.
Consider which of these types of breaks your child may need and do your best to support them in the right ways.
Type 1: The Retreat:
After all the social interactions and hub-bub, your child may need some quiet “Me” time. Try to avoid the urge to ask questions or talk about what’s been happening.
- Let your child explore the “Break Pack” on their own
- Follow your child’s lead regarding how much they are wanting to engage with you during this time
- Let your child decide when they’re ready to return to the activity or provide gentle time warnings if you need to return at a certain time
Type 2: The Debriefing
Some children may benefit from reassurance and engagement with you and debriefing on the events of the day.
- Explore the “Break Pack” together. Read a book aloud or sing through a favorite song together.
- Talk to your child about their favorite activity so far, something that’s been hard or frustrating, or something they are looking forward to.
- Talk about what’s coming up next.
- Take turns rubbing or drawing on each other’s backs.
After the event, jot down some notes for yourself of what went well (hopefully a lot!) and what didn’t go so well. Include a few pictures of your child at the event that they can look at if they’re feeling nervous in the future. This will be a great resource for getting ready for these gatherings next time around.