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3 Ways to Prevent Holiday Meltdowns

I’m convinced my mother is solely responsible for keeping the Hallmark Channel in business.

As soon as halloween passes and canned recordings of sleigh bells hit the airwaves, she’s watching the latest Christmas movie.

The holidays can be a wonderful opportunity to see friends and family from far away, to connect with our spiritual traditions, and to eat delicious food.

But they can also be stressful. Like, really stressful.

For those of us who thrive on routine, having strange people in our living space throws everything off balance.

Add in extra noise from constant conversations (or yelling at the tv during football games, if you’re in my family), and sensory overload can happen quickly.

If your kid doesn’t cope especially well with all the difficulties that come with the holidays,


using music can help with transitions, deal with overstimulation, and create a calm environment for both your child and yourself.


1. Simplify Transitions

I have some pretty legendary stories of testing out the limits of my stubbornness at incredibly inopportune times at family functions.

With hindsight, some of my more notorious meltdowns were probably due to being overstimulated and not having my needs met in the moment. (We don’t talk about the 20-person family photo fiasco of 1996.)

When transitions from one activity to the next don’t happen smoothly, using a familiar musical stimuli can make things easier.

For example, if your kid is having a hard time getting out the door to get in the car, you could sing “The Ants Go Marching,” and practice walking to the beat, reaching your destination in rhythm.

Or, you could sing instructions to a familiar melody like “The Farmer in the Dell,” to provide a little extra motivation and keep everyone feeling less frustrated- if my nephew doesn’t want to clear his seat from lunch, we can sing “We’re picking up our trash, we’re picking up our trash, before we get the chance to play we’re picking up our trash.”

If your kid has a favorite song that you use frequently during low-stress situations,


that familiar stimuli may be comforting when they’re feeling a bit overwhelmed.


2. Deal with Overstimulation

Sometimes, try though we may to prevent it, sensory overload still occurs.

Creating a designated quiet area during family time is a good idea that anyone can take advantage of, from the teenage cousin who needs a break from answering questions about college, to the grandparent who needs a rest around mid-day, to the toddler who can’t regulate with all the noise around her.

Bring preferred music (CD’s, ipod, or maybe a Spotify playlist) for the kids to listen to, catering the selections towards slow and steady songs which create a calming influence (the sway of ¾ time can encourage movement which soothes the body and provides vestibular and proprioceptive input).

If you have instruments in the home,


redirecting “meltdown” impulses towards a musical task can provide a constructive outlet.


For example, shaking a shaker in rhythm to the beat, or strumming a ukulele while singing a favorite song.

Tapping on the shoulders, arms, or knees can also provide grounded tactile input, and help transition to a calmer state more easily than simply eliminating all stimulation.

If your child responds to deep pressure, you could squeeze up and down their arms to the rhythm of a song, or roll a cabasa along their arms as you sing.

3. Create a Calm Environment

With the ubiquity of smart speakers and bluetooth devices, it’s fairly easy to play DJ at family functions. If you’re able to get the music started before guests arrive, you can use your playlist to keep the environment calm.

Environmental music has been shown to affect how loudly we speak, our mood, and even how much alcohol we consume.

So what should you look for when you’re choosing music?

Opt for instrumental versions. Lyrics tend to distract us, and increase auditory stimuli that needs to be processed. The aim of the music is to be unnoticeable.

Look for softer, slower instrumentation. If you want to keep it festive, maybe opt for Vince Guaraldi, instead of Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Don’t feel obligated to stick to holiday music! There are suitable instrumental arrangements in all genres, from bluegrass, to jazz, to electronic music. Maybe a tech-savvy teen in your family can help curate the playlist.


At my family gatherings, live music usually occurs at some point, both as a way to soothe the little ones to sleep when they get tuckered out, and to give us overstimulated adult musicians a bit of a break, ourselves.

We all have much warmer memories of singing around the fire than ending up in tears from not taking care of ourselves, so I highly recommend utilizing your family’s natural musical strengths to keep things running smoothly.

After long flights and heavy traffic, arriving to a holiday celebration shouldn’t be even more stress.

Regardless of whether you’re staying home or traveling to visit family and friends, you can use music to make things easier on your child and you.

May your days be merry and bright!



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