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Keeping everyone happy (and in costume) on Puri

Top tips from child development experts

Purim is an exciting time of year that can also be overwhelming for sensory-sensitive kids. What with the frequent shaking of the gragger, banging when Haman’s name is called, multitudes of people at shul, massive quantities of food, and candy everywhere, it’s almost a miracle if your child doesn’t go into sensory overload.

Adding to the problem, what’s supposed to be a fun tradition—dressing up in costume—can sometimes turn frustrating if you’re a parent with young kids. Whether your child has sensory issues, is demanding a costume that you know won’t work, or decides—the day of his or her Purim carnival—that their hand-sewn costume is too itchy/ugly/nerdy, here’s how to plan in advance for these common scenarios.

We talked to Shira Goldfischer, an occupational therapist at Seeach Sod, the Leading Center for Special Education in Israel. Used to working with hundreds of students with varying degrees of disability, she’s the perfect person to share some sensory friendly Purim-costume tips for all our kids.

Tip 1: Remember to avoid certain materials and fabrics when choosing a costume. Costumes and masks will provoke new sensations against the skin and body that a child with sensory-sensitivity may find extremely uncomfortable and invasive, says Ms. Goldfischer, OT. Consider basic materials made of pieces of soft cotton, such as a T-shirt or sweatshirt. Then add soft-feeling elements and props that your child can hold or wear comfortably. If you’d prefer using a store-bought costume, avoid polyester, which is totally unbreathable, or the synthetic, shiny fabric that many cheap costumes are made of.

Tip 2: Start looking for a costume early.  It's a good idea to start looking for a costume early, when selection is best.  That way, once you have the costume ready, have your child practice wearing it several times.  This will allow you to get rid of itchy tags or scratchy fabric ahead of time and prevent sensory meltdowns. 

Tip 3: Bring a backup outfit.  If you know you’ll be out on Purim day (or night) for a really long time, bring along an appropriate Purim outfit that your child can have the option of changing into at a later point, when he or she has had enough of the costume. This will prevent you from having to go back home with your child to change into a more comfortable outfit if/when they start whining!

Tip 4: Be firm if you don’t approve of an outfit they chose.  If your child is insisting on an inappropriate costume they saw in the store (such as a Santa Claus costume, or a provocative costume), be clear and firm in telling your child that this costume won’t work. With younger children, Ms. Goldfischer advises giving a brief answer such as: "I'm sorry.  We don't wear such costumes. We wear costumes that are tznius.” Then, a new offer should quickly be made to the child, like: "Wow! Do you like this costume?"  An older child may be given a lengthier explanation of why you feel how you do, though it should be clear to the child that you are the one making the decision.

Tip 5: If your child is attached to an old, now-too-small costume, broach the idea of a new costume early on. If you know your child will have difficulty accepting the idea of a new costume, it is advisable to casually mention it several times before you go out to choose or create a new one. This will allow the child to slowly process the idea, making it easy for her to accept as the time comes closer.  You can then initially try on the costume with him or her, see how it feels, look in the mirror together, and explain where and why it is no longer appropriate to wear.  When you feel that your child is a bit more on board to accept this, you can either bring her with you to the store to choose, or bring a new costume home for her. Often, when the child actually sees the new costume as opposed to only hearing about throwing out the old one, she is excited and more ready to do so. 

Tip 6: Prepare them in advance for costume carnivals and/or Purim. Prepare your child for his or her big debut by taking a picture of him in his costume, hanging it near his bed or on the fridge, where he’ll look at it for some time before the big day. Talk about how nice he looks, how excited he is for the big day, and what exactly to expect.  When children are prepared properly for new and different circumstances, such as Purim, they have a much better chance of being regulated and comfortable on the actual day. 

Tip 7: Don’t force them to wear anything they don’t want to.  There are no strict rules that a child needs to dress up.  Your particular child, his level of understanding, and sensory needs should be taken into account.  And if a hat comes along with the costume but your child refuses to wear it, don’t force him to take it! A child who feels uncomfortable in a mask or is scared of one also does not need to be wearing one.  Remember that we're dressing up our children so that Purim can be special and enjoyable to them, and we want to do whatever we can to allow for that.  

In conclusion, dressing up can be a very positive experience for any child, and certainly for a child with sensory issues or special needs.  Firstly, your child's self-esteem can be greatly enhanced: only he is dressed up like this — how special! Friends and family may notice and compliment him on his wonderful costume.  Your child's costume can also be related to something the child is learning in school or something associated with his likes and favorites.  (For example, if he is learning about colors in school, he can dress up as the "colorful clown," with one arm blue, one leg orange, etc.) This can really internalize his learning and bring it to life. But remember to keep in mind that you want to make Purim a fun and enjoyable, rather than exhausting, Purim experience. To that end, finding a sensory-friendly costume that is comfortable for your child to wear is a great place to start.

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