By Janis D. Gioia, MAEd.
Many children with special needs, and even typically developing children, struggle with anxiety and sensory overload at the holidays.
With the disruption of routines, the frantic pace and the anticipation of things to come, many children spend the month of December having stress-induced meltdowns and other symptoms of anxiety.
The following ideas offer some creative ways to help you calm your child with special needs at the holidays, and into the new year.
Remember, you are the expert on your child. What works for some children doesn’t work for others, and what works one day might not work the next.
Try a walking meditation. Take your child on a 15-20 minute walk outside. For as much as they are able to, encourage them not to talk. Have them focus on their breaths and their body…their footsteps, the sensations in their body as their body moves along the path. Remind them to focus on what they notice as they walk: the cool, crisp air, the sun warming their face, the caress of the wind on their cheeks, the sounds of birds overhead, cars driving by, the smell of pine trees or smoke from bonfires…whatever they notice as the walk.
Make holiday cookies….out of Play-doh. Using soft dough, or even is a great way to calm children. Pinch Me Therapy Dough, lightly scented with essential oils, is a great choice.
Knead dough and bake bread. Find a simple recipe, or a frozen loaf from the store, and get your child involved with kneading, stretching and folding bread dough. Many children feel relief from stress when feeling the soft dough slip through their fingers. The aroma of the dough baking and the delicious warm bread out of the oven are also soothing, but if your child has sensory processing issues related to touch, this might not be a good choice. Remember, you know your child best.
String popcorn, raisins or cranberries and make a Christmas tree for the birds. Numerous websites give instructions how to do this…just make sure you supervise, plan for safety and use a large thimble. Once the garland is on the tree your child will enjoy watching the blue jays, cardinals and other birds enjoying the winter treat.
Take a candy cane bath. Mix a drop or two of essential peppermint oil in your child’s bath water. My favorite is from Eden’s Garden. When inhaled, peppermint oil is known for relieving anxiety and depression, and a host of other medical conditions. Add some bubbles, turn down the lights and play soothing holiday music on a speaker. Enjoying a candy cane while in the tub is optional.
Blow bubbles into the snow. Yes, you can still do this if you live in Miami…just minus the snowflakes. Blowing bubbles reduces stress and anxiety because it involves taking slow deep breaths, which are proven to reduce anxiety and blood pressure.
Get some containers of bubble fluid and head outside. Using bubble wands of different shapes is fun, especially if it’s cold enough and the bubbles begin to freeze. Many children like blowing bubbles into the snowflakes and watching them swirl in the air together.
Turn bubble blowing into a guided imagery technique by asking your child to picture each of their cares and worries floating away on a bubble. Watch the worry as it drifts away on the wind or the watch the bubble pop.
Another way to use guided imagery with bubble blowing is to have your child picture himself as a bubble…free and floating into space.
Read Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and then bundle up go on an owl hunt of your own. Spending time outdoors relaxes children and the cool night air will help them sleep better.
According to Angela Hanscom, MOT, OTR/L, a pediatric occupational therapist, and the founder of TimberNook, “Getting children outside, immersed in nature is therapeutic. Nature is healing. The colors and sounds of nature offer naturally calming stimuli.”
When your child needs a break from the sounds and lights of the season, head outside and notice how nature soothes, calms and grounds your child.
Make a simple holiday craft. Sometimes anxious children need to keep their hands busy. Craft stores have many easy kits, or you can cut ornament shapes out of Foamies foam sheets or use Foamie Christmas Trees. Have your child decorate ornaments or trees with other Foamies shapes, stickers or markers. (Foamies are very good for children with special needs.)
Create a comfort kit that can be taken in the car, to holiday gatherings, doctor’s appointments…any place where your child might become stressed or need a sensory break.
Children with special needs and anxiety often feel out of control. By helping you assemble items in a comfort kit, they take control of their emotions and see that they have a way to cope. It’s empowering them to self regulate, and that builds their self-esteem.
Some ideas for your Comfort Kit:
noise cancelling headphones
soft scented dough
weighted lap pad
photo album of loved ones or soothing images
Read a book by the fire while sipping hot cocoa or peppermint tea, or your child’s favorite beverage. Some holiday favorites at CAC include A Wish to Be a Christmas Tree and Little Whistle’s Christmas.
Color with your child in a holiday or coloring book of their choice. According to pediatric occupational therapist Brenda Richards at The Center for Lifeskills in Solon, Ohio, “Repetitive motions, like coloring, can soothe anxiety and elicit a relaxation response. The reaction lowers heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension. Repeating fine motor movements (like coloring) can allow the brain to focus on returning to that movement rather than focusing on anxious thoughts.”
Begin a meditation practice with your child & make it a routine in the new year.
Start by finding a quiet uncluttered space.
To introduce meditation read a short story about meditation the first few times.
Invite your child to invite you to sit quietly focused on their breathing. You can play soothing music or meditate in silence.
Let them know that when they feel their thoughts moving away from breath, as they will, to gently bring their focus back to breathing.
Meditation can be challenging for adults, so making the practice as accepting as possible will ensure success for kids and adults. A good rule of thumb is to start with one minute of meditation for each year of your child.
Like anything else, meditation gets easier with practice. Over time children as well as adults report more feelings of peace and less anxiety when they regularly meditate.
Have a pajama party. Get into cozy pajamas and spend the night doing things your child finds relaxing…watching cartoons, playing a favorite game, making a craft.
The key is for you to participate in the pajama party with your children…not sit them in front of a video while you frantically wrap gifts or address holiday cards.
Being present with them is your present to them…despite the millions of things that need your attention.
(Some children with autism spectrum disorders do not like changes in clothing or routines…so remember: you know your child best.)
Rock…not around the Christmas tree…but in a rocking chair. According to Brenda Richards, “Rhythmic movements like rocking or swinging send calming messages to the brain.” Hold a child on your lap or encourage them to rock alone to self-soothe and rock away anxiety and stress.
If you don’t have a swing in your home, visit a park or playground…the repetitive back and forth motion of swinging will calm your child.
Build an indoor fort. Read a classic holiday book like Bear Stays Up for Christmas by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman. Then help your child build a special cave, just like Bear’s where your child can go to relax and calm down. Use pillows, blankets or tents (available from sensory or autism product companies.)
Keep the fort up through the holidays and beyond as a calm down space your child can retreat to when things seem overwhelming.
Please share any ideas you have in the comments section below and we will add them to the list.
Blessings and Peace for a joyous holiday season, Jan