Avoid Sensory Overload this Thanksgiving

  Ever dread the Thanksgiving holiday for fear your child will have an epic meltdown in front of the whole family?


Hyperactivity, silliness, tantrums, defiance, emotional meltdowns, teen attitudes - all can look like willful behavior or disobedience. Add these troubling behaviors to a visit from stern Aunt Betty who expects kids to be seen/not heard and you've got a Thanksgiving recipe for disaster.

child with head in hands
child with head in hands

All of these behaviors can be a result of sensory overload for kids who have experienced early harm or neglect. The overwhelming smells from the Thanksgiving meal, the relatives touching in unexpected or unwanted ways, the auditory overload from multiple overlapping conversations can be too much for our kiddos to process. And it can throw them into survival strategies of fight, flight, or freeze. In a teen, "freeze" can look like shutdown or major attitude!

teen attitude
teen attitude

Many behaviors are simply an expression from your child that this environment is more than his underdeveloped sensory system can handle. Some kids are so sensitive to this type of scene that it is actually advisable to keep things small with your immediate family and respectfully explain to the extended family that until you get your child's sensory system healthier, your family will protect him from this type of sensory overload. That is a tough sacrifice, but not as tough as a huge meltdown or all-day-meltdowns that end your day with everyone in the family in tears.

For children who have milder sensory deficits there are several things you can do proactively to give them the best chance to manage themselves even among the cheek pinchers, loud football games, and weird smells from the kitchen. I recommend brainstorming together - when your child is in a calm state - about things this Thanksgiving that might be problematic. For example, if your child is sensitive to auditory stimulation, provide her a hand signal to use if it is getting too loud for her. Then you can excuse her or guide her to a quieter room. Practice this through role play before the Thanksgiving celebration.

Until we understood sensory processing we thought when our child acted up at the dinner table it was just because he wanted attention on himself. We later realized that the overlapping, competing conversations around the table were more than he could understand with his auditory processing issues. His defense mechanism was to act silly and out-of-control. If we responded with typical redirection, it triggered shame and caused more escalating behaviors. If a boundary-popping relative corrected him, it was even worse. Once we understood sensory processing disorder, it was easier to change his environment by taking a brief walk or offering some deep pressure activities that were calming.

When all the kids are playing and the play turns to more of a crashing, bumping, banging toys type of play your child is signaling that he needs more deep pressure input. Rather than taking away the toys which will be perceived as punishment, change to an activity that provides the type of sensory input his system is seeking. Assure your child that he can return to the toys when he is feeling calmer and more regulated. Perhaps it's time to jump on the trampoline or shoot some baskets outside. If the weather is cold, try a break from the toys to pretend to be various animals crawling and jumping down the hall. A good old fashioned game of crab walk or wheel barrel races can be fun and provides the kind of sensory input that is calming to the central nervous system. Be sure a safe and playful adult is nearby for both connection and to help monitor the sensory play, being cautious to not provide too much.

Check out this post for some additional tips. How to Reduce Sensory Overload

As you're planning your favorite meals and looking forward to enjoying time with family and friends, take the time to plan in advance for potential overload situations and have some calming activities in your parenting tool box. Remember behavior means need, so look for the sensory needs beneath the behavior. Some may be sensory-seeking behaviors and some may be sensory-avoidant behaviors, but none mean your child is intentionally being bad or disrespectful. The more we understand their needs, the more we can help them through a challenging day like all the grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles under one roof!

As I reflect on my thankfuls this year, all of you are high on my list. I'm so thankful to be a sojourner among parents who are making the world a safer place for kids from rough beginnings.

May God bless you and yours this Thanksgiving!

How do you stay thankful as you are meeting so many needs?


P.S. Don't forget the fidgets.