Managing Sensory Issues in Children with ADHD During the Holidays

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

Crowds, glittery displays, parties, gifts, holiday music. Sensory experiences abound during the holiday season. For those with sensory processing disorder (SPD), this time of the year is overwhelming and can result in frequent meltdowns and challenging behaviors. SPDs are more common in children with ADHD than in those without ADHD.

We constantly receive information through our senses. This information is used to develop the appropriate response to the stimulus. When you have SPD, the "sensory signals don't get organized into appropriate responses"which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure and other impacts may result if the disorder is not treated effectively" [About SPD, SPD Foundation] It is estimated that 1 in 20 people have sensory processing difficulties.

Overstimulation from parties, shopping and changes in routine can cause chaos. As the excitement of the holidays build, your child's sensory issues can become overwhelming. The following tips can help:

When visiting friends or family, bring along some of your child's favorite foods. The stress of being in a new place and a change in schedule are hard enough, going hungry because there isn't any foods your child likes only makes the situation more difficult. Having some foods your child likes will help make sure he or she eats. If preferable, eat at home first and attend the party for a little while after dinner.

Prepare friends or relatives if your child is adverse toward hugs, kisses or touching. Some children with SPD find this not only uncomfortable but painful. If your child backs away from hugs or refuses to give a relative a kiss, feelings can get hurt. Instead, let people know in advance your child would prefer not to be hugged. Prepare your child by providing him with ways to greet relatives, such as saying, "Happy Holidays" or shaking their hand.

When visiting other families, look for a quiet place your child can retreat to when overwhelmed. Talk with your host about using an extra bedroom or a study as a safe place for your child to spend some time when a respite from the noise and holiday festivities. Have a favorite toy, a tablet where your child can watch a movie or a book to read. These activities can help your child relax until he is ready to rejoin the party.

Choose the events you and your family want to attend. You might feel you need to attend every school event, every party, every holiday activity in your community. You don't. Choose which events will work for the whole family and which can be skipped. If there are events you want to attend but feel it will be too much for your child, consider hiring a sitter or attending for an hour or so and then leaving.

Have earplugs, noise cancelling headphones and sunglasses on hand to help filter some of the noise and bright lights. The holidays are often noisy and bright, with holiday lights on trees and as decorations. These can cause your child discomfort. Instead, be prepared with ways to lower the volume or brightness.

Understand your child's sensory triggers. Pay attention to what your child says when overwhelmed. Does he complain about noise? Lights? Feeling confined by coats? Being too hot or too cold? Clothes that are itchy? This will give you an idea of your child's sensitivities. You can then work to find alternatives, such as buying soft clothing, using sweatshirts instead of heavy coats or using earplugs to block the noise.

Prepare your child for changes to your daily routine. Children with SPD often have a hard time adapting to changes. Let your child know ahead of time where you are going and what to expect. Keep a family calendar so everyone knows the plans for each day. Use pictures for children that do not yet read. Go over the day's activities each morning.

Keep shopping trips short. Have a specific purpose when heading to the mall. Write a list of who you are shopping for and what stores you want to go into. If shopping takes longer than expected, take breaks to give your child time to get away from the hustle and bustle. Try shopping at off times, such as evenings, instead of heading to the mall on busy weekends.

Keep sensory needs in mind in your own home. If lights bother your child, consider decorating your tree with ribbons instead. Keep breakable items out of reach. Limit the number of gifts so your child isn't overwhelmed.

Watch your child's behaviors throughout the holiday season. Using these tips might help reduce the meltdowns from overstimulation but your child can still feel overwhelmed. Paying attention to your child's cues and head off the meltdown when possible.

For more information:

Sensory Sensitivities in Teens

A Sensory Integration Approach to Helping Hyperactive Kids

What is Sensory Processing?

Examples of Sensory Processing Disorder


"About SPD," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, SPD Foundation

"Sensory Processing Problems in Children with ADHD, a Systematic Review," 2010, Nov, 20., Ahmad Ghanizadeh, Psychiatry Investigation, doi: 10.4306/pi.2011.8.2.89

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.