By Anna Libertin, NACAC communications specialist
Change is always met with resistance. But the shift from fall to winter is more than just a transition: as winter progresses, grey skies, dropping temperatures, winter activities, and the holiday season pose unique and overwhelming obstacles for parents of children with special needs. If winters are hard for you and your family, you’re not alone. Understanding, creativity, and preparation can help you survive the season.
By understanding the impact this seasons has on children in your care, you can specifically address their changes in mood and behavior—or at least feel confident that in a few months the sun will come out again.
Because people with mood disorders, learning disabilities, and sensory processing issues are often highly sensitive to change and transitions, the decrease in daylight hours, colder weather, breaks in routine, and high emotions around the holidays can cause children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), sensory processing disorder, depression, anxiety, and other challenges to face additional symptoms and obstacles.
For examples, as the days get colder, they also get shorter. This change in duration and intensity of sunlight can cause shifts in our internal clocks and increase melatonin production, creating a number of additional symptoms for children with certain disabilities, including:
- Changes in circadian rhythm, resulting in struggles to fall asleep or wake up and feelings of lethargy throughout the day
- Feelings of unhappiness, irritability, depression, and anxiety
- Tendencies to withdraw from social events and activities
- Struggles with motivation and productivity
Children with ADHD, FASD, sensory processing disorder, and chronic pain also struggle with cold temperatures, as the child can result in chronic pain flare ups, dry and itchy skin, additional daily tasks to remember, and few opportunities to burn off energy. In addition, children who rely on routine might struggle to understand why wearing shorts in the winter poses a danger to their health or why they can’t stay outside as late.
By understanding how winter affects your child’s mind and body, you can work on addressing or preventing the specific challenges winter poses.
Tip: Engage the senses passively! Diffuse essential oils like lavender, orange, and cloves to relax children and give their mental health a boost.
- Engage in high sensory or high energy indoor activities. A lot of winter blues come from feeling stuck indoors and being unable to burn off energy. Despite the cold weather, you can still create opportunities for play, growth, and making connections such as:
- Having dance breaks throughout the day
- Creating scavenger hunts
- Building forts, setting up tents, and creating miniature cities inside
- Visiting indoor parks and gyms for swimming, trampolining, ice-skating, or other activities
- Doing winter chores together—for children who are able, work like shoveling snow or ice can help burn energy and calm down kids with ADHD or sensory processing issues
- Playing with snow in a sink or bath tub
- Planning a “beach day” where you wear summer gear indoors, play games, and make burgers and hot dogs
- Rearranging bedroom furniture or painting the walls
- Baking cookies
- Creating “Jello soap” with dish soap, water, and gelatin, or borax-free slime with clear fiber supplements, water, and food coloring
- Painting snowflakes on the windows by cutting sponges into snowflakes and using water-based paints or cutting snowflakes out with paper
Tip: For those who struggle with depression, engage in activities that can help them feel less isolated without expending too much energy. Hosting a movie marathon or reading side by side can get a child out of their room without overwhelming or exhausting them.
- Get creative with winter gear. For kids who struggle to remember instructions or are highly sensitive to clothing items, all the preparation necessary for winter weather poses a unique challenge. Address this challenge head on by:
- Labeling gloves, coats, hats, scarves, and any additional clothing so that your child will be less likely to lose them at school.
- Using visual cues. If your child struggles to remember to put things in the right place, create visual cues that signal the special spot where they can put these winter items. This might mean cutting out footprints and taping them to the floor where their boots should go, putting hooks on the wall, or creating a cubby shelf especially for them. Children can also struggle to remember or understand that their outfits need to match the weather. To help explain, hang a picture chart or a written list of outerwear they need according to temperature so they can keep track of what they need to put on before leaving the house.
- Revising typical winter gear or searching for gear that fits your child’s needs—zippers often break if a child is not careful, so finding coats that clasp with buttons or Velcro could work better. If your child is sensitive to tight-fitting clothing, try buying sweaters and sweatshirts with looser collars. Remember to remove tags! For children with sensory processing issues, tags in unexpected or easily overlooked places can become distracting and uncomfortable. Finally, wash the new winter clothes before your child wears them. A good wash with fabric softener can loosen up and soften stiff, scratchy new clothing so that children with sensory processing issues can feel comfortable right away.
- Letting them make it their own. Going shopping for new boots, spending a day bedazzling a jacket, or learning how to knit their own hat are all great ways of increasing a child’s sense of ownership over these things, making them more likely to treat the items with care. These activities also offer a chance for parents and children to connect.
- Buying spares. Many drug stores and thrift stores have cheap jackets, gloves, hats, and scarves that you can keep stowed away until needed.
- Dressing in layers. Bulky outerwear can slow down hyperactive kids or cause a child with sensory processing issues to feel uncomfortable. If weather permits, consider dressing your child in layers of t-shirts, long sleeves, sweatshirts, and sweaters so they have the option of removing the bulk if and when they are strained. If your winters are too cold to layer up, but your child still struggles with the weight and itch of winter clothing, combat meltdowns and distractions by dressing your child with a base layer. Long underwear, thermals, and long sleeve shirts made of soft or familiar fabric can lessen the chance that foreign or uncomfortable fabrics will rub against their skin.
- Soak up that sun! Take advantage of the sun whenever it’s out. Celebrate the sunny days even if they are cold. You can also talk to your child’s doctor about light therapy, which mimics the sunlight enjoyed in the spring and summer. If you decide that this route would be helpful for you or your child, start slow and follow directions: too much light could result in headaches or mania for people with bipolar disorder.
- Hydrate. Itchy, dry skin is common with colder temperatures—a struggle particularly for kids with sensory processing issues. Avoid the discomfort by using lotion and lip balm regularly and drinking water.
- Prepare your child for winter activities. Schools, groups, friends, and family often combat winter monotony by hosting special events like dances, parties, and dinners—this change in routine can be challenging for some children. Once you know what your calendar looks like, talk about these events with your child and offer visual reminders of when the routine-change will occur and what it will look like. If holiday celebrations, winter vacations, or special activities pop up without warning, bring parts of your daily routine to these events to help your child feel more comfortable. Let them wear their favorite outfit to the party, use their favorite plate at dinner, or bring their favorite stuffed animal on the long drive. You can also incorporate the routine by eating at the same time as usual, or engaging in the same habits, like taking your shoes off at the door. Keep as much of your routine as possible.
- Let yourself and your children slow down. Use the winter weather as a reason to do all the things you dream about doing when life is too busy: read the books you wanted to read and start the projects you wanted to start. By giving yourself permission to slow down, you might find more motivation to get back up again.
In addition to balancing a child’s low moods and special needs, parents and caregivers must maintain their own mental health during these tough months. Above all, remember that you cannot care for yourself. By setting aside time for self-care, seeking the help you need, and being gentle with your personal rules or expectations, you can model healthy mood regulating behaviors for children in your care and feel energized enough to properly and completely address your children’s needs.