Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas with Highly Sensitive Kids

We think of Christmas as the most wonderful season for kids, but it can be a little complicated for us and many other families. I have two very sensitive kids, one has diagnosed anxiety while both of them have some sensory processing challenges.

Don’t get me wrong, they love Christmas. Their little bodies are quite literally tingling with excitement and anticipation. They feel the spirit of the holidays coursing through their veins. Their senses are bombarded from every angle with beautiful and exciting things to take in – food, presents, lights, people, activities, and more! It’s so hard to contain all this beauty and excitement, they may just burst. Unfortunately, when they burst it won’t be holiday cheer that explodes everywhere but a confused tangle of emotion they can’t quite manage as the holiday preparations and expectations build.

Loud noises, lots of people, the pressure of accepting gifts, the anxiety of anticipating gifts and fun events, and the complete lack of their normal schedule are all things that throw my boys off their game. Worst still, it’s been building since Thanksgiving and Christmas is only now right around the corner.

With this in mind, as we navigate this holiday season, we try to make choices that will set them up for a positive experience. They are still overwhelmed, bouncing from the highest of highs to confused rages as they don’t know how to regulate themselves well enough to keep up with the onslaught, but they are much better off than they could be without these choices.

We ask friends and family to keep gifts to a minimum. We’re not trying to be pushy or unappreciative. We’re not trying to cheat our kids out of the Christmas experience. We just have visions of a little boy last year, crying in his room that he didn’t want any more presents because he was so overwhelmed. With less presents, they are able to appreciate and enjoy each one instead of feeling the need to shut down. We also encourage them to choose presents in line with our values. No violence. Things that encourage creativity, imagination, and cooperation. It’s confusing for the kids otherwise. We are blessed by family who try incredibly hard to support us in these choices.

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We focus on giving. We spend all month making presents, decorating cards, shopping for less-fortunate families, and talking about gratitude. This year, my son was very concerned he didn’t have money to purchase gifts and that everyone is always giving him gifts. So he broke into his piggy bank, and we went shopping. He also wrote heartfelt cards to friends and family and donated money to our church’s world hunger program. These things were inspired by him and helped him navigate the feeling of not being able to participate in the giving of the season. It also helps us steer away from the gimmes.

We try to regulate our kids’ food options. We’re not trying to be party poopers about fun holiday food. We have seen the affects of food dye and sugar on their bodies. It adds another layer of overwhelm that they have to sort through. For the past two weeks (or more!), everywhere we have gone has tried to offer them treats filled with these things… school, church, occupational therapy, the dentist (really, the dentist! Candy canes to take home and hot chocolate flavored toothpaste), and every other well meaning person who wants them to have a once-in-a while treat that is clearly not very once-in-a while. So food dye is completely off limits, and sugar is kept to a somewhat reasonable level. These are firm limits for us which makes the decisions less stressful.

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We avoid electronics and too much screen time. Screen time and electronics are an enticing escape for our kids from the overwhelming real world. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give their bodies and minds a chance to truly calm down and reset. Furthermore, it is very challenging for our kids to switch gears from electronic time back to the real world. We find it best if we say no to video games, phone and computer time. While we try to avoid exposure to too many commercials for all the season’s must-have toys, we do enjoy our fair share of Christmas movies!

We give them ‘outs’ during holiday entertaining. Both my boys know that their rooms are off limits to guests unless they expressly open them up. Even then at any point, they can close their rooms off and that is their safe space. It is a space, familiar to them, where they know they can go to escape, regardless of what is happening. Middle of dinner? Go ahead. Presents being opened? If you realize you need a break, great job being aware of your body, go take it. Their rooms are equipped with some of their favorite tools for centering themselves – music, calming essential oils (bergamot is a favorite!), weighted blanket, books, drawing supplies, and a chin up bar for meeting their bodies’ need for heavy physical work. When we travel, we bring some of these items with us and set up a safe space for them there even if that safe place is in the car.

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We spend as much time outside as we can. Outside is familiar and safe to our kids. Noises are less intense outside of the confines of four walls, and there is plenty of space to spread out. Climbing, swinging, and running help their bodies feel grounded, and in imaginative play they regain a sense of control and direction.

And finally, we adjust our expectations. We know this is a really hard time for our kids. We know this is a really hard time for us trying to navigate and meet our kids needs with my husband working round the clock during his busiest work season. We try not to picture perfect Christmas gatherings and set ourselves up for disappointment. We know we are all doing the best we can. We are continually trying to adapt the season to be less stressful for us, but in the meantime we focus on loving each other through it and know we’ll recover together.

As we go through these final days of preparation and move into days of celebration, these will be the things we focus on to help our children find balance in the chaos. Each year, we try to fine tune our approach in the hopes that we won’t spend two months recovering from two weeks of supposed “holiday fun”. I’m already keeping notes for next year so that we can be intentional with our plans. We find in daily life that some limits give us and our children the freedom to explore and enjoy ourselves. The holidays are no different. We can’t celebrate Christmas the way much of culture thinks we should at the expense of our children. We can embrace the specialness of the season without throwing out all of the things that ground our kids.

What do you find works to help your family, and especially your kids, find balance through the holidays?

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Now, because I can’t help but share this, here is a reminder after all the chaos is through to keep the meaning of Christmas with us all through the year… (B is at the mic, and E joins him… from their school holiday program).



  1. Good for you for knowing your boys so well, explaining it so well (my guess is your family understands even better because of how you define and explain your reasoning) and for putting your children ahead of any expectations for the holidays. I get overwhelmed easily and don't always take as good a care of me around the holidays.

  2. Holidays can be so incredibly stressful! My son, who just turned 6, is known for having melt downs when his emotions get the best of him. It could be Christmas, his birthday or just another day after school and he is flat on the floor freaking out because of something dumb. Huge emotions in these little people can be hard to deal with!


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