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5 Simple Steps for Regulation: The Holiday Party Edition

We at STEAMer Trunks are delighted to welcome back Sarah Hernandez, a licensed and registered occupational therapist. Sarah is a consultant who is working with us to add even more value to our products. Read below for Sarah’s tips on assisting children with regulating their emotions during a holiday party. Note: Some of the suggestions below are particular to Christmas traditions. Please feel free to adapt for your own traditions, and if you have suggestions for others, leave a comment!

The holidays are filled with cherished traditions, twinkling lights, merry music, and extended families crowding together to enjoy love, laughter, and connectedness. While these experiences certainly create memories for years to come, they also can be challenging for people both little and big. Holiday parties provide extra sensory stimuli at every corner. Our brains work hard to process this demanding, sometimes hectic information – it’s exhausting! Here’s some tips and tricks to help you survive and, dare I say, enjoy the holiday party season:

#1 Bear-y Christmas

Some people love to offer and receive hugs – and some don’t! While some people crave the warmth and closeness of an embrace, for others it can be a difficult sensory experience: the smells and sounds of another body, or the sensation of someone touching your skin or their itchy sweater on your face can be very dysregulating. No one should be forced to hug, but sometimes not hugging is perceived as disrespectful. What’s the solution? Bear-y Christmas!

bearInstructions: Offer your child a soft bear to hold during holiday events. When it’s time to greet family and friends, your child can give the teddy bear a cheery holiday squeeze, then pass it to Aunt Sue, exclaiming “Bear-y Christmas!” Encourage Aunt Sue to give the bear a hug before handing it back to your child. For additional sensory input, check out DIY tutorials, like this one, for adding weight and calming scents to a stuffed animal. Some suggestions include poly pellets for weighting and lavender essential oil for calming.

#2 Santa’s Workshop

Open-ended art experiences are an engaging way to encourage fine motor skills, handwriting, creativity, sequencing, and motor planning. They can also be very centering and calming. Where’s the most creative place on the planet? Santa’s Workshop!

cardboard-box-161578Instructions: Go to a local store and ask for any medium to large boxes. With the help of your children, create a multi-room Santa’s Workshop. In one large box, provide crayons and ask the children to write or draw their Christmas wishes on the wall. In another box, place a small sensory bin filled with a winter wonderland of experiences (check out the Northern Lights STEAMer Trunk!). In the last box, place Christmas toy catalogues, plastic safety scissors, and glue sticks and ask the children to paste up a production schedule for Santa on the walls of the boxes. Santa’s Workshop will keep your children happily engaged for a long time!


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#3 Silent Night

A holiday party can be loud, hectic, and disorienting! Create a quiet retreat for children to escape the bustle and noise. This will give them a chance to regulate and reset before entering back into the family fun.

bed-1846251_640Instructions: String soft white LED lights in a quiet corner of the house. Add a fuzzy blanket and
oversized pillow, holiday books, and a pre-loaded CD player or portable music player with headphones. Before the event, encourage children to use the space if they are starting to feel frustrated or uncomfortable. During the party, check in with your children – and encourage them to check in with themselves. If you notice them starting to become dysregulated, invite them to join you in the Silent Night space for a quick cuddle.

#4 Snowy Mountain

hill-575621_1280Deep, controlled breathing is an easy way to provide calming input during a holiday party. Snowy Mountain is a simple exercise to help children focus on their breath in a playful manner!

Instructions: Grab a large mixing bowl, a couple of straws, and some dish soap.
Pour a small amount of dish soap in the bowl, then fill halfway with water. Give your child a straw and tell them to blow a big bubbly mountain of snow! Encourage them to watch as the mountain gets higher and higher, then tell your child to use their finger to ski down the mountain – which will pop the bubbles! Keep a towel close by so they can wipe off their hands.

#5 The Reason for the Season

hands-718559_1920R. Knost once said, “When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.” We start the holiday season with hope, love, and expectations. However, holiday parties can quickly turn to tears and tantrums. Remember: they are disappointed, too. As a society, we place tremendous value on the perfect presentation of happy, grateful children and kind-hearted, joyful adults. The overstimulation of a holiday party, despite the best of intentions and carefully crafted plans, can be frustrating and overwhelming at a sensory level. Truthfully, their reactions are based in the way our brains are wired: when we’re stressed out, we need space. How do children create space? Crying, whining, yelling, stomping off, melting down – the list goes on and on.

stream-1106336_1920Validate their feelings. Even though it’s the most wonderful time of the year, it can feel difficult and unpleasant at times. And you know what? It’s not just okay – it’s a reasonable emotional response to a very overwhelming event.

Instructions: Place your hand on your heart and invite your child to join you. Eyes feet-1022020_1920may remain open or closed. Using a soft voice, whisper the name of someone or something you love. Pay attention to your heart beat. Find your breath. Stay with your heart beat. Breathe as long as is necessary to feel present and calm. By engaging in soothing mindfulness activities with your child, you are not only modeling appropriate coping skills, but giving yourself space for a calm and centering experience as well.


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We hope these simple activities help you this holiday season.

gearrow2Happy Sensing!


Sarah HernandezSarah Hernandez MOT, OTR/L, an occupational therapist and consultant to STEAMer Trunks, has worked with children for over two decades in various settings. She specializes in sensory integration and pediatric mental health, and now works as an assistant professor at Bay Path University. Her professional accomplishments include presenting research on progressive muscle relaxation at the national American Occupational Therapy Association conference. At home, Sarah enjoys nerd stuff, her three children, her collection of animals (currently up to one cat, one dog, and one guinea pig), and her ever-patient husband.

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