Happy Holidays With (Sensory) Kids

I originally started writing this as a post for how to deal with kids with sensory issues during the holiday season.

But then I realized, a lot of these could apply to all children.

I think kids have more pressure to perform during the month of December, than they do all year.

And by perform, I mean, play the perfect, well behaved, child.  Which we all know, for the other 11 months of the year, is the furthest thing from the truth.

So take a moment to realize that the planet is not going to self destruct if…

  1. Kids leave the table before the meal is finished.
    Who made up the rule that kid have to sit for the whole holiday meal?  Seriously?  Who?  Your great-great-grandmother’s third-cousin-twice-removed?  What is going to happen if the kids leave the table before the meal is done? Relax. It really isn’t the end of the world if kids don’t eat every last morsel on their plate.  And if your house is anything like ours, they’ve probably been snacking on goodies and treats all day and really aren’t that hungry anyways.  So, let them go.  Let them get up from the table once they’re bored and send them off to play. You know what will happen?  You’ll have a nice, quiet dinner with adult conversation, and without wanting to pull your hair out while they fidget and whine.

  2. Your kid doesn’t want to eat holiday dinner at all.
    It’s new food.  Different from what they’re used to.  That can be a huge deal for some kids. Do yourself a favor and bring along some of their favorite foods and snacks, so if they don’t want to eat the fancy turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce, then can at least have something.

  3. They open one (or two…or three…) presents before Christmas Day.
    This is another of those ‘who made that rule’ questions I have.  I wrote about this last year, and we’ve implemented the same thing this year.  Christmas Day is out, the 12 Days of Christmas is in. Throwing a ton of presents and wrapping paper and lights and noise and family and the list goes on at a kid and expecting it not to be overwhelming?  Is simply not realistic. So instead, Vista opens her presents from friends when they are received, and her presents from us in the days leading up to Christmas.  Christmas day is reserved for stocking and Santa presents.  That is plenty.  The bonus of doing it this way, is it also gives her time to open and enjoy each present.

  4. There is no Santa picture.
    Malls are noisy, loud places during the holidays.  The lights, the music, the people. Do you leave the mall after a Christmas shopping trip feeling relaxed and renewed? No, of course not.  It’s hella stressful for adults.  So for kids?  Is it any wonder that they’re a complete mess by the time it’s their turn to see Santa?  And THEN we expect them to smile and hug a complete stranger in a red velvet suit.   Uhhh…yeaahhh… about that.

    If a Santa picture is really that important, take the money you’d normally spend on a Santa pic, pool it with some friends and rent a Santa suit for someone to dress up in.  Then take the pictures at home.  Sure you won’t have the sleigh backdrop, but you might actually have a smiling kid in the picture instead.

  5. They don’t wear that fancy $200 Christmas outfit you bought them.  And the same goes for the reindeer sweater.
    Lets face it.  Fancy dress up clothes are not conducive to being comfortable.  And they’re really not meant for playing in, either.  If it’s really that important that everyone see them in that ‘ZOMG! It’ll look SO CUTE on her’ outfit, then have them wear it to the party, but bring some comfortable clothes they can change into.  The other option is to find a happy medium.  V’s wearing velour pants (http://bit.ly/velourpants <-not any sort of affiliate link, just sharing a pair of comfy pants) with a sparkly top.  Cute, no?  Both are comfortable, but still dressy.

    VistaXmas2010 Happy Holidays With (Sensory) Kids

  6. Your kid doesn’t want to hug your aunt’s brother’s cousin’s daughter.
    Touching can be a big thing for sensory kids. And a lot of people (never mind just kids) don’t like strange people in their personal space.  Instead of hugs, try a handshake or the knuckle bump (or as V likes to call it ‘punch it out’).  Just be ready to throw yourself in front of Aunt Erma before she gets her sticky paws around your kid.

    I know for V, the other part of being around people, is that smell is a HUGE thing.  So someone wearing strong perfume? Forget it.  She won’t go near them.  The same goes for someone she knows changing their smell.  My BFF came over for coffee once and wore a different perfume than normal.  V wouldn’t go near her because she didn’t smell ‘right’.

    Another thing you can do is show kids pictures of the people they will be meeting, ahead of time.  This lets them prepare, and makes that uncle he sees once a year a little less of a stranger.

  7. They just want to play by themselves.
    New people, lots of noise, people wanting to pat them… Nightmare waiting to happen for a sensory kid.  We’ve learned to bring an iPad, or DVD player, and a set of headphones with us when we go places.  If it’s still to much for V, we designate a ‘quiet room’.  Somewhere she can go and sit by herself, away from the hustle and bustle, until she’s feeling ready to rejoin us.  When she disappears, we just politely explain that it’s a bit much for her, and she needs to wind down a bit.

The biggest thing is to follow their lead and pick your battles.  Nothing’s worse than spending your holiday arguing with your kid.  And if it means deviating from the norm so everyone ends up enjoying themselves a lot more?  Then do it.

Your sanity will thank you.

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12 Responses to Happy Holidays With (Sensory) Kids

  • Lisa says:

    Those are great tips for any kid. Our big problem over the holidays is too many people (especially grandparents) having too many expectations. Maya takes a while to warm up to people, including relatives. Often they don’t get it. My MIL is the worst for this, she always invites all her friends over and expects Maya to be all angelic and want to hug everyone. She often doesn’t want to hug her own dad, I’m guessing she’s not going to be game for hugging the weird new stranger in the room!

    I always try to be a shield for her and protect her from that kind of stuff.

    I feel bad for kids, there are so many expectations on them during the holidays.

    Jenn Reply:


    Have you tried sending an email / letter to people just letting them know to let her approach them on her own terms, otherwise she gets overwhelmed.

    I’ve done that when we’re going to see friends or family that might not be as familiar with V’s quirks.

    The book ‘Out-of-Sync Child’ has a great ‘form letter’ at the back of it, to send to people to explain why your kid might act different. It’s meant for sensory kids, but I really think it applies to all kids around the holidays.

    Lisa Reply:

    @Jenn, I would if I thought it would work. Unfortunately it is pretty much just my mother-in-law that we have the issue with and we’ve told her over and over to give Maya space but she just doesn’t listen. She thinks since she is the Grandma Maya should just automatically want to hug her and spend time with her and her friends. My kid is shy, she is not going to do that.

    So glad we aren’t going home for Christmas this year, it is going to be so peaceful.

  • Ashlee says:

    Great post! My little guy can be very shy and I have to be the mean Mama bear and tell them to just QUIT! The food thing applies to both. I refuse to make them eat any of the “weird stuff.” That’s just not fair. I hope you, V, and Bill have very Happy Holidays!!

    Jenn Reply:


    Exactly. For shy kids, holidays can suck big time!!
    It’s good that at least he has you to step in and run defense for him.

  • Heather says:

    Kudos Jenn!

    Also, sometimes, the kid just wants to go be alone. LET THEM BE!
    For God’s sake, let them decompress some!

    (oh..am I the only one with that problem?) ;)

    Jenn Reply:


    Yeah, I’m usually the one hiding out WITH her in the back rooms. lol

  • Tricia says:

    Thank you Jenn! This was a really helpful post, as you said not just for sensory kids but for people with all kinds of kids. I related to every single example you’ve given here. Micaela, has had issues for years with holiday events – she is an incredibly intense child who doesn’t do well with crowds and stimulation – she just gets more and more wound up and over the top. Even now that she is older and can control it better, we inevitably have meltdowns when we get home. It’s only been the past two years that I’ve figured out how hard it is for her to hold it together for these events and then hold it together later when she’s with me.

    The food issue is such a pain in the neck. My Mom is a really good cook, but when we were visiting last year, she forgot that my kids eat earlier than they did and they were hungry and cranky because they ate too late. This year at Thanksgiving we went to a good friend of mine, who is also a stickler for manners. Her kids are almost too good to be true. Brian ate NOTHING on his plate and we got several looks – stressful for me and him and then when he asked to leave the table, he was told no. It just adds to the already high expectations that we have of them.

    I’ve simplified things over the years and we have Christmas down to a much more managable event. We also open presents over the week (those Hannukah people have the right idea) and have Santa and stocking on Christmas. I don’t buy them a lot – never have, they have enough as it is. It’s just overwhelming and I think it makes the kids equate Christmas with getting instead of being together. I also cook a small turkey and don’t expect them to eat a lot just what they normally would have. I have asked my in-laws to make a day after Christmas to spend time with them – my mother in law is a tyrant who expects perfection from kids and they don’t like it at all. Not to mention that M has her birthday on the 27th as well, so in years past we’ve had really really tough Chrismasses with her. Cutting back on my own expectations has been the first step, but it’s harder than I thought not to want to feel judged. Thanks for this great post!

  • Melissa Palmer says:

    Let’s face it – Christmas is for kids. They should have happy memories, not painful ones!

  • Nicole says:

    I totally agree with this for any kid. Santa came to the poptart’s school and she wanted nothing to do with him. Why would I put her through a noisy, hot mall and have her be all upset for a photo? There are much better photos with her grandparents to be taken :>

  • Angi says:

    I’m going to be honest, it not only applies to every kid…it applies to me. Merry Christmas, Jenn. I hope you, V and Bil all have a wonderful holiday.

  • punkinmama says:

    So, I’m obviously late to the party, but just wanted to chime in that these points are not just good for holidays, but all the time.

    If we’re going somewhere for dinner, I almost always take something that I know Punkin will eat. The number of foods he will eat is limited, and I don’t really want to have a starving, upset kid on my hands at any point, but especially when we’re guests somewhere.

    I never make Punkin eat everything on his plate. I’ve tried to suggest he eat more bites of something, but if he says he’s not hungry, how am *I* supposed to tell him differently. I just have him eat it later when he does say he’s hungry (sometimes – if I’m honest, I don’t always remember to do this. Whatever.)

    Also, Punkin stayed in his PJs all day on Christmas. Even at my parents’. Even at my husband’s family. He was comfortable. He was happy. Duh.

    Anyway, thanks for a great post that more parents should read and take to heart!

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