For children who have difficulties maintaining a regulated state, the holidays can be especially difficult. There’s a lot of unpredictability: new faces, new locations, and what happened to the normal routine of going to school? But there’s plenty you can do to help create some predictability. Here are some tips that can help your child maintain regulation courtesy of LEEP’s Head of OT, Michaja Prendergast, MS OTR/L.
Create a daily schedule. Each day will be different but if you communicate to your child what’s on the docket for the day, he’ll feel more in control of the situation and there will be less “surprises” which can lead to disregulation. At bedtime, talk about what will happen the next day. A trip to the zoo? A long car ride? A big family party? Lay out the details that can help make it more concrete, especially talking about the timing and what the experience might be like. If you’re attending a big party, it may be helpful to have some photos of his cousins, grandma’s house, or whatever else might help to set some expectations. Review the plan again in the morning.
Reflect on the day together. A great time to do this is bedtime when your child is calm and relaxed. Simply talk about what happened during the day. If your child is non-verbal, some visuals and narrating may be helpful. Others may be capable of leading the reflection, discussing what they did and didn’t like and what things were easy or difficult. You’ll be surprised how this time can empower your child and make them feel more connected to the day.
Remember joy and excitement can be disregulating. We often think of disregulation as coming out of frustration, but joy and excitement can be equally disregulating. Validate his excitement (“You’re so excited to meet Santa!”) and then do the things you normally do to reduce stress in his environment. That might include finding a quiet place for a break, playing with a favorite toy, or a sensory activity.
Pack your sensory backpack. Wherever you’re going, whether it’s shopping at the mall or visiting cousins, put all your child’s favorite regulating items (gum, headphones, toys, play-dough, etc) in a backpack…and make him carry it! That homemade weighed proprioceptive can be very calming and may help prevent meltdowns before they start.
Incorporate movement and sensory experiences everyday. This doesn’t mean going out of your way to plan activities – just finding new ways of incorporating your child in your day. If you’re grocery shopping, have them help you carry the bags in the house. If you’re shoveling snow, put them to work, too. Those big motor movements can be very calming. For some additional sensory play ideas, check out this fantastic list.
Be flexible. In addition to new faces, locations, and a lack of the normal schedule, there are also holiday traditions to adapt to. All this may be exhausting your child’s mental reserves. Keep in mind your child may need some exceptions to the rules – he may need to wears his cozy sweatshirt with his fancy church shoes to sit through a service. Sometimes we have expectations of how something should go and it’s good to keep in perspective of what’s realistic during a difficult time.
Pointing out these modifications to members of your extended family can be a great way to teach them about what sensory means to your child. Show them how sensory inputs can empower them. Explain how playing with some kinetic sand can make waiting for a train easier. If your child is craving movement and you decide to take a walk around the block before dinner, invite other members of the family along. The more people who understand how your child functions, the better!