This article was originally written for The PDA Space Blog, June 2023, which can be found here: Looking at Holidays Through a Sensory Lens, Considering Everybody’s Energy Beans (thepdaspace.com). Special offers to join The PDA Space Portal on the website here.
Family holidays and days out are a great way to spend time together and can create lasting memories. However, our expectations of how we think holidays ‘should be’ and what we think we ‘should do’ as parents/carers can be high and cause anxiety. The reality of any day out or holiday can be quite a stressful experience of juggling work, childcare and the sensory differences within your family, especially if you are all neurodivergent. This is where it may be helpful to consider some flexible, low-demand parenting ideas and spend some time before the holidays to consider the sensory dynamics of your own family so your time together can be as successful as possible for everyone. Energy Beans
In their webinar in The PDA Space Portal Nicola and Karen discuss the idea of energy beans which is a similar concept to the Spoon Theory by Christine Miserandino (2003). Both ideas are a way of thinking about energy capacity and the impact of social and sensory demands can have on individuals. Gaining a better understanding of energy and how different sensory experiences may affect people can help manage life more effectively without it leading to severe or frequent shutdowns or meltdowns (periods of internal and external overload).
When planning your holidays or days out, you may want to consider the amount of ‘energy beans’ each person has and how the type of event/trip you have planned could affect their energy levels (number of energy beans). Everyone’s sensory needs are different, and everyone will use different amounts of their energy bean supply depending on how the sights, sounds, smells, crowds, food, and everything else affects them at that moment in the environment. As parents/carers, we can’t control everything, but we can try and conserve some of our energy beans by planning flexibly and reducing demands for the whole family. This will make it easier for everyone to manage and have the best time possible in ways that work for them.
Planning can be tricky for those with a PDA profile as planning itself is a demand. However, brainstorming and casually discussing a few ideas in the days or weeks before an event is a way to plan together more successfully (as opposed to trying to have a big family planning meeting, which is stressful in itself!).
It may be a good idea to start some low-key preparation before the holidays to give time for everyone to process what is coming up and give time to answer all the questions and negotiations that may be needed. There are probably some ‘non-negotiable’ dates and days in the diary due to work/appointments/childcare; it will help to discuss these so everyone understands and can prepare for them in advance around the more flexible fun days.
You may have found from previous experience that adjusting to a holiday ‘mode’ for your family takes time. Whether planning a day out or a more extended holiday away from home, creating breathing space around the event may be beneficial. This could look like low-demand pyjama type of days on either side of your main event to allow everyone time to store up their energy beans before the event. It is also worth considering how long it will take everyone to restore their energy beans before anything else is planned that may use up more beans again.
It is not easy juggling everyone’s different needs; having a ‘plan b’ and a flexible approach may help things go more smoothly. If your children can contribute to planning days out, it will likely help to reduce anxiety and allow you to discuss the ‘what ifs’ and alternative plans so they feel more secure and reduce uncertainty. Working together as a family is essential, and a collaborative approach where everyone feels involved will help ensure that everybody feels they are being listened to and better understood. Holidays are rarely perfect for everyone at every moment as life is not like that, but collaborating will help reach a balance so that everyone can enjoy something and feel autonomy over some aspects of the holiday experience.
Collaboration If you have other friends/family joining you could try tag teaming to make things easier and share plans beforehand to discuss the potential trigger moments such as visiting gift shops, negotiating spending allowance and any potential sensory difficulties you envisage ahead of time. This may include things like bringing extra spare clothes in case they get wet, visiting the gift shop before going around the attraction so you know what is there and can consider any potential small gift throughout the day rather than the overwhelm of trying to manage all of that stress when everyone is tired. Tag teaming will enable one person to stay with one child if they are struggling and need to go home or have a sudden change of plans due to sensory or social overload. Another person can stay with the rest of your group, providing more flexibility. Your holiday may look a bit different to perhaps your own experience of holidays, or this could be something that you are already familiar with as you’ve found that it is the only way to manage sometimes so everyone’s needs are met.
A day out or a holiday can still be a success even if you need to go home earlier than anticipated or plans suddenly change. A short happy moment is far more valuable than a long stressful experience. Having an open mind, a flexible approach and a plan b will help make things a bit easier in the moment and long term, you’ll have a few more energy beans! Sensory Needs Sensory needs are fluid; they change and are constantly in flux depending on the person and the sensory input. You won’t be able to plan for everything, but if your child finds loud, noisy, busy places challenging to manage, it will make sense to go somewhere quieter. If you have two or more children with very different needs or feel your needs clash with your child’s needs, this can make days out and holidays harder, so planning and collaboration are even more vital so you can prepare and achieve a balance. It can be tricky juggling and balancing the needs of the whole family and even more difficult if you have more than one child and they are both struggling in different ways, especially if you are tired yourself. It helps to validate the feelings of everyone and have some scripts you could say and backup plans ready in advance. For younger children playing games, having something small in your bag, like balloons or their favourite toy, may help; for older children, you may need to negotiate something else for when they get home. Taking a small bag of sensory supports such as ear defenders and fidget toys and providing consistency with their favourite food in the picnic so not everything is ‘new and different’ may help a lot. In the webinar Nicola discusses how she alleviated her family’s stress by singing and being silly with her children; small, low-key, fun ideas to help manoeuvre and lighten the situation can go a long way if the timing and moment is right. It helps to take a deep breath and remember that you only need to get to the next moment.
Holidays can be a wonderful opportunity to develop and strengthen family connections, but it is also important to recognise your self-care needs as a parent/carer and plan some time for yourself. Holidays shouldn’t and needn’t feel like a game of survival of the fittest. Planning, thinking of everyone’s sensory needs ahead of time, and collaborating will hopefully help make things a bit easier so everyone can have their best time and enjoy the moments.