Parent Talk: Oh No! The Holidays

By Theresa Drum

Have you noticed that the number of days between Halloween and New Year’s Eve are exactly the same as years gone by? There are still 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week. The clock does not move any faster.  Yet, I feel a sense of urgency in the air. “I’m late. I’m late. For a very important date!” keeps running through my head.  Then, the knot in my stomach tightens, my shoulders rise into stress position and the fright, flight, fight response is ready for action.  I hear similar stories from other moms of children with special needs.

Fortunately, I have learned some stress management strategies over the years.  For me, several deep breathes with closed eyes helps to stop the runaway train of thoughts. Picturing my quiet place looks more like a slide show in my mind. I rotate through the pictures of mountains, fields, oceans etc. as I continue to breathe until I find the one that does the trick.

I have also found that “knowing your enemy” is important.  As a mom of a child with sensory processing disorder (SPD) I’ve had a few.  Parties, shopping, dressy clothes, getting in and out of the car and the demand of that pesky oven timer to be on its own schedule and not the dynamic schedule I was living. I can’t tell you how many Thanksgiving dinner rolls were a little extra toasty!

What is SPD? We all “process” information through our senses, which are sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. There are also proprioception, vestibular and tactile senses. Those senses tell us about our body position and gravity, help with movement and balance and give us information received through the skin. For most of us it goes pretty smoothly.  We take in, sort out, and connect information from the world around us.

Sensory Processing becomes a disorder when the sensory system is not running smoothly.  For example, when a person’s relationships and behavior are affected because they stand too close for comfort or need to move all the time. They may have trouble with activities of daily living like brushing their teeth, eating or become anxious because they know a pair of jeans is going to bug them all day long just like a pebble in your shoe would bother you.  Learning becomes especially challenging because so much information is being sorted out in their brains that it all gets in the way of memory, organization and writing.

First step to knowing your enemy is to try to look at the world through your child’s eyes. Can you imagine how your life would be affected if the gentle touch of a feather on your skin made you shudder; the smell of apple pie was more like rotten eggs and the feeling of noodles made you gag?  How would you feel if you heard EVERYTHING at the same time – the person speaking, the fan, people in the hallway? You have that feeling you get when you hear nails on a chalkboard ALL THE TIME.

When we think about the holidays there is an increase of sensory stimuli. More people, foods, sounds, sights, travel and hugs.  Anyone of these and more could be your enemy. There can be meltdowns and shutdowns.  Extended family members and people in the community may not understand that the behavior is because of their disability and not a discipline problem. Families often feel pressure and appreciation at the same time when well-intentioned family members ask why the family member is not coming over.  There may be sibling upsets when the child with SPD is allowed to wear sports pants because they are soft and they have to wear a button up shirt and tie.

What to do? Here are some suggestions.

  • Stop and think about all the activities that make your holiday time seem shorter and are causing those tight muscles and shallow breathing. Are there some events that you and your family could do without?  What activities are really important?  There may be some big challenges and you will need to create a plan and set everyone up for potential success.
  • Plan extra time and give your child a heads up that a change is coming.  “We are leaving in five minutes to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for dinner.” Don’t unnecessarily plan to participate in too many events at a time. Don’t rush from one place to another.
  • Be an observer, a detective. Grab a journal or notebook. Notice what happens (what you saw, heard or even felt) before a challenge or behavior happens.  What happened?  What worked? What didn’t?  Jot it all down with date and time.  Make notes for next year.

Processing our senses occurs on an unconscious level. We don’t choose to smell rotten eggs or gag on noodles.  A child with sensory processing disorder doesn’t choose to have a meltdown when it’s time to leave a favorite place or to enter an environment that is overwhelming.  Sluggishness is not a choice for a child whose brain needs waking up.

Remember, every brain is different, every child is different, and every family is different.

Take heart, the world really is not spinning any faster and we still have the exact same amount of time we have always had for our holidays.  We may have to change how we do things.  We may have to plan more and do less.

I wish you the happiest of holidays!  Enjoy them, celebrate with your enemy, take your deep breathes, picture your quiet place and for heaven’s sakes buy an extra package of rolls in case some get burned. Don’t tell!  You will never hear the end of it.