Music, lights, crowds, chatter, food, and presents – all the things that make the holiday season exciting for so many families, and all the things that set off highly sensitive kids.

About 15 to 20 percent of kids may be highly sensitive, which means they have a “nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything” (See Dr. Elaine Aron’s book).  These kids pick up on everything – emotions, smells, lighting, sounds, textures, etc. – and feel it more intensely than others.  Throw in the holiday disruption of schedules, build-up of expectations, and enhanced emotions designed to increase excitement for the majority of kids, and you’ve got a recipe for dynamite that might just explode your family’s holiday.  But it doesn’t have to be that way. As parents, we can help our highly sensitive kids thrive, not just survive, the season.

  1. Breakdown the build-up.
    As a society, we often like to build-up anticipation and excitement.  We talk about things for weeks, we have countdowns, we ask leading questions to encourage engagement.
    For highly sensitive kids, just take it down a notch. Don’t bring it up every day. Where you can alleviate pressure, do so. Things – emotions, events, anxieties – are already BIG for these kids, they don’t need anything made bigger.
  2. Create a schedule, share it each day, and maintain it as much as possible.
    Fear often comes from anxiety, and anxiety often comes from the unknown.  With parties and school vacations, there can be a lot of unknowns with schedules during this time.  Go over the schedule for the day every morning so kids know the plan.  Revisit it at lunch and at dinner as a reminder or in case things have changed.  If plans have changed, focus on what will stay the same first when communicating with the kids and then share what will be different. This gives kids a sense of knowing what’s next and alleviates some of the anxiety.
  3. Keep noise-cancelling headphones or ear covers nearby.
    Have you ever noticed yourself getting really irritated but you’re not sure why, and then you realize it’s a song on the radio or commercial on tv?  This is the effect of music and crowds and chatter on your highly sensitive child – multiplied by a thousand!  If you go somewhere that has a bit higher noise level or even just a variance of sounds, ask/suggest your child put on their noise-cancelling ear gear.  It’s best to do this before the noise level affects their mood, but it’s never too late!
  4. Have a code word to take a break.
    Your child may not know how to separate themselves from the activity or not want to feel punished for getting anxious, so create a code word or key phrase for you to share when they need a break.  They can come to you when they feel overwhelmed or you can go to them when you notice fight or flight kicking in, share the word/phrase, and you both know it’s time to take a walk, go to another room, or just step back from the crowd for a few minutes and take a few deep breaths.
  5. Encourage enjoyment; don’t force it.
    Let your child enjoy the holiday in a way that works for them.  While we love to try the new pumpkin pie, eating new foods with unusual textures may freak out your kid. While the cousins enjoy playing hide & seek, your child may prefer to sit with the uncles and grill the steaks.  Allow your child to enjoy the day as much as every one else, in their own way.
  6. Normalize.
    Highly sensitive kids know they’re different.  They see other kids running around, screaming at the top of their lungs, having fun, not at all burdened by the buzz of the overhead light, the tag in their shirt, or the incessant drone of the background music.  They may feel embarrassed, guilty, and frustrated, which only adds to the big emotions and big worries they already deal with. As a parent, you can help them understand that they may be different from some kids, but many other people feel the way they do. You can teach them to be aware of their own bodies so they can tell when they are growing anxious in response to stimulus and adjust accordingly. You can guide them through coping techniques so they prevent or manage their reactions appropriately.  You can make them feel that, while they may be different, they belong.