I began writing this on the home stretch of a three week road trip with six of our kids. Two of them have anxiety disorders. While I’m certainly not a professional in this area, over the years, we’ve done a fair amount of traveling and have discovered some thing that are helpful.
Hopefully some of these suggestions will help your next trip go more smoothly for your entire family!
Tips for traveling with a child with anxiety:
When traveling, it is impossible to hold to the same routine that you have at home. There are aspects of the routine that you can try to keep as close to normal as possible. While you may not be able to keep mealtimes on the same timeline as at home, you can ensure that you have a snack on you at all times and set an alarm on your watch or phone so that each day at snack time, they get a little something to eat. You can do this whether you are on an airplane, in a car, on a bus, at an activity, or in a hotel room at that time of day.
Bedtimes will likely be at erratic times even if you try for them not to be. You may not have as much control over the time of this, but you can still control some of the routine that happens. If you usually have story time at home before bed, take this habit with you on the road.
On this trip, I brought a read-aloud and read one chapter a day to the kids. We also stuck to our usual bedtime routine when tucking the kids in. We asked them about their day and prayed with them before tucking them in.
Morning routines are a bit easier to stick to while on vacation. Have your child do things just as they would at home…eat breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed, make bed.
Keeping as much routine as you can will help lower anxiety and keep some sense of normalcy while your child is away from their usual environment.
Bring comfort items.
Be sure to bring a few things from home that your child considers comfort items. These are most often items such as a blanket or a special stuffed animal.
I also bring some items from our daughter’s anti-anxiety kit such as her relaxation prompts and sound therapy machine. I keep things like fidget toys handy at all times. We keep several of our homemade sensory balls in the vehicle for road trips.
The more prepared a child is for a situation, the more in control they will feel most of the time. It is often the unknown that contributes to higher levels of anxiety. Just as you would give warning at home before a change in activity to prepare them, it is wise to do this while traveling.
I suggest starting as far in advance of the trip as you can. While not all of our trip was mapped out before we left, I took all the places I knew we would be going to for sure and wrote them onto calendars for my kids. We then researched those places. I showed them pictures of each of the attractions we would be going to and gave them the chance to ask any questions they had.
An example would be that in San Francisco, we were planning to visit Alcatraz. I showed them pictures of Alcatraz on the computer, showed them pictures of their dad and I in Alcatraz in a scrapbook (this made it seem much safer to them). I explained that in order to get to it, we would have to take a short ferry ride. I answered their questions about all aspects of that activity.
A common question that our youngest daughter had about many of the activities I prepared her for was if we might lose her there in the crowd. I gave her an answer specific to that location. An example is that at Disneyland, the staff always asks how many people there are in your party so that they can get you on the ride at the same time and you don’t get separated. We also chose a meeting place for every location that we visited.
I tried to do a check-in each day on our trip of how the kids were feeling. The days that we got in too late for that to happen, we usually paid for it the next day, so I would say that communication is key.
We prepared them for what the day following would hold and then debriefed about the day we had just finished and shared any worries they had for the following day.
No matter how much you try to prepare and communicate, there will still likely be meltdowns and fight or flight moments when taking a child who suffers from anxiety into a different environment and out of their routine.
Watch their cues. You more than likely will have some idea that a meltdown is coming before it occurs and you may be able to head it off at the pass. Try these suggestions:
- avoid triggers
- feed regularly
- plenty of sleep
- if they feel a lack of control=give choices
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