Any time we're lucky enough to go on vacation for a few days, I tend to forget all of the anxiety my daughter carries with her.
I get so lost in thinking about what a fantastic time we're going to have. I spend my time looking at Pinterest to discover the wonderful possibilities our family vacation could hold. And I forget to talk with my daughter about the things she's worried about during the vacation.
If your child is a worrier, especially if they have the smarts to concoct tons of troubling scenarios in their head, but lacks the communication skills to actually share those scenarios, then you know what a challenge this can become!
Anxiety can show up in mild forms of worry, to all out panic for some, where the individual can display very different reactions than are typical for her or him. This may manifest as defiance, which is generally the case in our household.
Family vacations should be relaxing for everyone. Parents can help their little worriers enjoy the trip by keeping in mind a few tips I've learned over the years from various books, therapists, and experience.
Parents can preview the vacation with their children in the weeks leading up to the trip. This type of preview should include a general schedule of the vacation, like dates and times of travel, as well as any big destinations or events.
When we took a trip to Denver a few years ago, we shared with my daughter pictures of the airport, videos of airplanes landing and taking off (be careful with these videos as they are quickly linked on YouTube to videos of airplanes crashing) and photos of the hotel where we'd be staying.
Sharing visuals to preview what and where your vacation will look like is an easy way to ease any fears that may creep into their minds. This can also be a starting point for a discussion about their concerns. Even if they're unable to vocalize the fears they have, they can point to the pictures or videos you're showing them.
At its heart, social stories are tools that help kids navigate situations that could become overwhelming, work on changing a behavior, or teach a new skill.
Research shows that social stories have been successful for individuals with autism, but they have also been extremely successful for kids who are anxious, struggle with navigating social situations, or are prone to meltdowns.
Creating a social story for a child’s vacation is like writing the itinerary in a story format. At its most basic level, it lists what someone can expect during a specific event or time. Reading the story over a few times before and during the vacation will help the anxious child mentally prepare for what to expect.
Instead of using open-ended questions, which usually result in one-word answers, ask your child specific questions about the vacation. Asking what your child is most looking forward to or what she thinks will be boring will give you much more information than simply asking if the kid is excited for vacation.
Questions that will give parents more insight into a child’s worries for vacation include:
What are you going to pack for vacation? Take note of any odd items they include, as this may lead to additional insight into any fears or worries. Ask follow-up questions like, "Why do you think you need to bring a flashlight?" This may lead to an interesting conversation about the fear of a possible power outage or bad weather.
What activity are you looking forward to the most? The least? My daughter refused to swim in Lake Michigan on our last trip because of a fear of alligators. So we studied the habitats of alligators and were relieved to learn alligators do not live in Lake Michigan. When an innocent beach-goer brought a life-sized alligator float to the beach, my daughter did freak out for a moment. She recovered nicely, though, because of our prep work. If we hadn’t studied the habitats, though, and she didn’t share her festering worry, she would have most likely melted down and refused to go near the water.
What do you want to do on our vacation? What do you want to skip? This gives your child another opening to share their own feelings of excitement and worry with you. Sometimes children can get so overwhelmed with feelings, they don’t share their extensive plans clearly. Giving them multiple paths to chat is another great way to prepare for a vacation.
Have any of your friends gone on vacation to (insert vacation location)? Questions like this get any preconceived notions out into the open. If a friend has been to the location before and had a great time, chances are your child’s expectations have increased or they are looking forward to the trip. If the friend did not have a fun time, this could exacerbate your child’s worries about the trip.
Be aware of how you respond as your child shares their concerns or even comments on the vacation. My daughter was always very frightened of her great-grandparents. This was odd to my husband and me because they are the sweetest people. Anytime we would ask our daughter why she acted so scared, her response was the same, “They have white hair.”
What does a parent say to that? We would often squash her feelings down by saying, "That’s not a reason to be scared."
One day my daughter was feeling particularly open about her worries and shared with me that what she meant was that the great-grandparents in question were old, very old in fact. So old that what my daughter meant by saying they have white hair, is that she was worried they would die while she was in the room. Each time we told her to not worry about their white hair, we were basically telling her that she shouldn’t worry if an old person would die right in front of her.
Now when we go to a party with the great-grandparents in attendance, I try to relieve my daughter’s worries by saying that, “Grandma and Grandpa must feel pretty good today. If they felt like coming to a party, they probably don’t feel like they will die today.”
Change is hard, but especially for kids who struggle with transitions. Ease the level of anxiety in your child by giving him lots of time to prepare for the change. Instead of suddenly leaving a fun park, let him know when he has 10 minutes left. Then give him a five-minute warning. As it is nearing time to leave, ask your kids what they'd like to do as their last activity before leaving the park.
The more you can prepare your child for a change, the less likely they'll feel overwhelmed. This will lead to fewer meltdowns and a more memorable vacation for everyone.