Welcome to Overstimulation Station!
Each December, I want my kids to experience all the magic the holiday season has to offer. And every year we hop on the figurative ‘Polar Express’ to experience a few weeks filled with magic. It’s always a great ride at the beginning; it’s exciting and filled with anticipation. But as the trip goes on and we experience one fun stop after another, without fail, we find our train stuck at Overstimulation Station!
It’s a safe assumption that most of us struggle with an overwhelmed system now and then. I know that even as an adult, I tend to struggle with the excitement and keeping up with the season. When I think about the hustle and bustle, the social gatherings, and all the typical December pressures, my eyeball begins to twitch.
Overstimulation can happen any time of year, but why does it seem children meltdown more than ever in December? The time of year when everything is JUST for them? Why can’t they just enjoy the ride? Well, simply stated, their little bodies just aren’t developed to handle all the stimuli we as adults ‘can’ handle — especially highly sensitive children.
Let’s put on our Sensory Glasses to see how all this holiday joy takes our kids on an unwelcome trip to Overstimulation Station. Tickets, Please! During this season, kids experience new foods, new smells, new decorations, changes in routine, shopping, noisy & crowded areas. ANTICIPATION! Santa anxiety — meet with Santa, talk to Santa, take a picture with Santa, Have you been good? Will Santa come to visit me?? Why doesn’t Santa come to visit us? Holiday parties, holiday hustle, holiday music, holiday lights. Winter clothes, scratchy dressy clothes, collars, TIGHTS, hats, puffy coats. LOTS of sugar, social pressures (take a picture with Aunt so-and-so, hug Uncle so-and-so to say thank you), late nights, extended time in the car traveling, ‘pass the baby’ game so everyone gets to hold the baby...did I miss anything? I’m sure I missed something! Children thrive on routine and all things expected. December is far from that.
So, what’s going on here? Kids chug along on this train ride just fine until the track suddenly switches rails and you detour to Overstimulation Station. Let’s drop some science here — The amygdala (uh-mig-duh-luh) is a small part of your brain with the purpose to quickly process and express emotions. It is located in your lower ‘reptile brain’, the part that manages reflexes like fight or flight. You can imagine the amygdala like a switch on the train tracks. If your brain processes stimuli comfortably, your train continues chugging along the track, no problem! However, if the stimuli are misinterpreted or an influx of info comes too rapidly, the reaction triggers the amygdala which quickly switches the tracks sending your brain into survival mode — insert major meltdown here. The brain is now doing whatever it can to protect itself from the unsettling stimuli. This is when you find yourself at Overstimulation Station.
Once the amygdala switches the tracks, there is no quick detour out of Overstimulation Station. When our children are in this state, their brains are unable to rationalize what is happening. They typically do not have the words to express their fear or discomfort, and they do not possess the emotional regulation necessary to calm themselves down easily. One solution is to connect with your child to have them feel safe and help ease them back to a calmer state.
Here are some things to consider as you’re chugging along:
We want to do all the things, have all the fun and make all the memories during the holiday season, and it’s hard to slow down the train once it starts revving up. Sometimes it feels like your train visits this station way too often around the holidays AND even during the rest of the year. In my family, once we started seeing some patterns and identifying triggers, we made some important decisions while planning events. The choices weren’t always easy, but we trusted our guts to put our child’s needs first which always made such an impact on the quality of our time together. We were finally able to enjoy holidays and events with much less stress involved.
Eventually, you and your child will learn how to relax that switch. As you identify the triggers, you will be able to adjust your surroundings and help your child learn some coping strategies. Sure, you will still experience unexpected detours once in a while, but for the most part, you and your child will just enjoy the ride.
Project: Embracing Winter!
I am an ‘All Things Summer’ kinda gal. I love the beach, endless sunshine, and all sorts of summer shenanigans. For me, there’s nothing a pair of flip flops and a salt-rimmed margarita can’t solve.
So, when those summer mornings start to get chilly and the sun starts setting earlier, I start to mourn the end of my favorite season. My heart is always very heavy on August 32nd. I have a hard time enjoying autumn’s beauty because all I see is an impending Polar Vortex looming around the corner. WINTER IS COMING!!! I’m fairly confident this will be the winter Jon Snow was warning us about!
A dear friend of mine, one with ‘All Things Winter’ as part of her genetic makeup, sent me a podcast discussing the hygee lifestyle. If you haven’t heard of this, hygge is a Danish word that doesn’t have an exact translation into the English language but is more of a feeling of coziness and togetherness. It’s probably better described as a feeling of gratitude, appreciation, and enjoyment of the moments. And here’s where I experienced my AH-HA moment! As a parent coach, it is my job to guide my clients to have a more positive outlook. I help families on a journey to transformational change one small step at a time. Are you seeing the irony here?? My focus has been all wrong and I have been sabotaging myself—okay, winter doesn’t have to be my favorite season, but by all means, I can certainly embrace it and find the good it has to offer. It’s time to take on my personal “Project: Embracing Winter!”
The thing about change is, well, it’s just hard. We’ve all experienced breaking old habits and creating new ones, and it’s downright tough! In order for the change to happen, there has to be a level of awareness, an intentional goal, and motivation to get the ball rolling. And, while we want the change to happen instantly, it’s important to understand that change is more likely to stick with practice, consistency, and a positive outlook. I decided it’s time to take my own advice and learn to change my perspective on winter.
When I envision how I’d like the next few months to look, all I see is hygge. Allowing myself to slow down and savor the moments—especially the cozy ones! Rather than sulk on the numerous dreary winter days New Jersey seems to offer, I’d like to celebrate the bright, crisp days we do encounter. I’d like to look forward to feeling comfortable while spending time outside in the cold. Ideally, I’d like my family to try new activities outside together…without feeling miserable…and with minimal complaining! In a nutshell, I want to feel like I’m living it up through winter rather than just getting through it.
After some soul searching, Pinterest surfing, and lots of getting myself mentally psyched, I’m ready to take on “Project: Embracing Winter.”
1. Reframe is the name of the game! If I’m constantly expecting the worst, the worst is what I will find. Reframing negative thoughts will help me shift my perspective to focus on the good, what’s currently working and the small moments I’m appreciating. BOOM! Automatic gratification!
2. Inventory the outwear. Time to assess all our winter pieces and order whatever we’re lacking (like super warm socks!) so we can tolerate some extended time in the cold. I’m tossing the idea of dressing to look fashionable, not sure if I ever achieved that anyway! I’m confident we’ll all enjoy the elements more if we are dressed appropriately. There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing, am I right?
3. ‘Creating cozy’ inside and outside my home. According to Pinterest, you can reinvent any space by adding some blankets (I’m thinking of the heated sort!), pillows, candles, and strands of lights! And, by the way, I’m fairly confident nobody will be in my house for the next few months, so I’m in no rush to take down pretty Christmas lights!
4. Let’s make a date! My kids always make a summer bucket list, so why not a winter bucket list? We can put an activity on the calendar each week that will include something everyone enjoys (that’s my ‘reduce the complaining’ plan!!). An ideal outing for us could be bundling up, enjoying an easy hike, and sharing some hot cocoa with marshmallows upon our destination.
5. Let’s get cooking! Finding new recipes that are hearty and comforting that can be enjoyed outside may be a big win this season. Maybe even getting the whole family involved with making dinners like fondue or sushi could be a lot of fun. For outside entertaining, how great would it be to make a s’mores charcuterie board and a hot cocoa station for outside guests!? Yes, please!!
6. Enjoy old favorites in a new way. There are so many activities we enjoy during the summer that could be new winter fun with a twist. I plan to check out some outdoor locations we normally visit during the warmer months like the beach, boardwalk, maybe even an arboretum. With evenings happening earlier in the winter, occasional sunset walks before dinner could be enjoyable. If it’s mild enough, an outdoor movie night would be a great way to spend an evening with family or friends.
When challenged to make a change, you can resist it and fight every step of the way, or you can embrace the change and make the most of it. While I may not have control over this situation, I do have control over my attitude, perception, and actions (says my inner control freak). It’s certainly not easy to keep your focus on finding the good, but I’m flipping my perspective and taking small steps to make the most of this winter! And, if those tips don’t make me a convert, at least they will help occupy my time as I countdown the days to the first day of summer.
Rebecca Murphy, Certified PCI® Parent Coach.