Traveling opens the world, allowing families to stay connected, opportunities to explore new places, and chances to learn about different cultures. For many families, this is an exciting and memorable journey. However, for families with an anxious child, traveling can be more of a nightmare than a happy memory. If you have a child struggling with anxiety, do not give up hope, traveling with special needs is possible with the right preparation and mindset.
As I always mention, anxiety affects every child and family differently. For us, my daughter suffers from severe anxiety and OCD but no additional medical conditions, meaning I am able to focus on only the anxiety when planning a trip. Families with children who have additional illnesses or diagnosis may have many other factors to consider, yet I hope these ideas offer some help in creating ways to enjoy travel.
SET REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS FOR THE TRIP
Seldom does a vacation turn out to be as perfectly magical as advertised in the brochure or as relaxing and enjoyable as the image created in your head. The key to a memorable vacation is setting realistic expectations. This is even more applicable when you are traveling with a special needs child. Knowing your child’s temperament and personality allows you to plan a realistic vacation for your family. Plan to explore at times that your child is most agreeable while planning downtime when you know your child needs to rest. Do not expect your anxious child to suddenly become anxiety free simply because you are on vacation. (I wish this were the case…I would be traveling all of the time!) By being honest with yourself during the planning process, you will be able to enjoy the “perfect” vacation for your family at this moment in your life.
BE OPEN ABOUT YOUR CHILD’S SPECIAL NEEDS DUE TO ANXIETY
Early on I learned to openly discuss my daughter’s anxiety. This makes traveling so much more successful. More times than not, when I explain our specific request due to my daughter’s anxiety, a discussion begins about their experience with anxiety. It is amazing how many wonderful people you can meet with a simple, honest request! Whenever we go to a restaurant with assigned seating, I explain my daughter’s anxiety and request a booth out of the way, letting the staff member know we are willing to wait longer if needed. Without fail, they are always willing to accommodate. On planes, when explaining our daughter’s anxiety, we are often offered an open seat that was not filled, allowing us more space. I learned during our last trip to Disney World that anxiety is a health issue, allowing us to utilize the Guests With Disabilities Services. Never be afraid to ask for help or make requests that help your family enjoy special moments.
By nature, I am an “over-planner”. I struggle with spontaneity, which for traveling with an anxious child isn’t a bad thing. It is necessary to know where your family will be sleeping, dining, exploring, and your mode of transportation. For example, When traveling to warm weather destinations, I always choose small hotels or condo associations because their shared pool is often less crowded.
Planning ahead allows you to gather all the necessary information on the location, which you can then share with your child, as you build excitement for the trip. By knowing the specifics of your travel destination, you help eliminate the need for constant flexibility and changing plans.
Show your child pictures of the vacation spot, allowing him or her to help come up with things to do during your stay. Ask your child to express some concerns they may have about the upcoming trip, then work through these together well before the date arrives.
BRING TOO MUCH “STUFF” (WHENEVER POSSIBLE)
I say this because my daughter is so sensitive to anything off or different that it works best if I try to foresee as many incidents as possible. I often feel like I bring my entire medicine cabinet with me so I can be prepared for every ache, pain, bump, or bruise. It saves us from having to find a store at bedtime because she just “cannot sleep” due to the water in her ear, a bug bite, or a scrape on her knee.
I also bring plenty of snacks and drinks so there are options that my children are accustomed to eating. This helps avoid complaining about new foods or being hungry. I bring more than enough clothes so that something comfortable is always available. If a bathing suit is still wet, it can make it impossible to get to the pool. By bringing an extra suit, we avoid the meltdown of the uncomfortable, wet bathing suit.
I do this as a “pick your battles” type moment. If we were at home, I would not give in to every whim or complaint but since we are on vacation and there is so much change and uncertainty, I try to compensate by making sure these needs can be met easily.
My daughter is comfortable staying in hotel rooms since our proximity is close at bedtime, but condos and homes pose a challenge because of the sleeping arrangements. When choosing a place to stay during the vacation, I always look for or ask about the floor plan/layout, finding one that I know will help make my daughter feel comfortable. I bring as many items from home as possible…always a small fan, soft blanket, technology device for the Calm App sleep stories, and essential oils. We do our best to stick to the typical bedtime routine.
Part of our vacations always includes dining out, as we often plan the restaurants before the activities! My daughter enjoys eating out but is easily overwhelmed with noisy, crowded restaurants. To help ease this anxiety, we have learned to plan our dinners out for 4:00. This gives us the opportunity to enjoy the dinner menus offered at our favorite restaurants without the typical dinner crowd. Requesting a seat out the way also helps us enjoy our meal with less anxiety. An additional bonus here is that many restaurants offer an early bird special at that time, lowering the cost of our bill.
EXPLORING AND ACTIVITIES
This is the area where I find the most difficulty when traveling with an anxious child. Given the high cost of traveling, I always want to make sure that we do EVERYTHING while we are there. I hate missing out of a fun adventure or experience but I have learned that trying it fit in everything never works out well. I have accepted that there will be missed opportunities because of my daughter’s anxiety. Additionally, packing in too much in one day ALWAYS leads to a meltdown which can ruin the experience. For this reason, you must have a realistic vision of your vacation. Plan activities that your family will enjoy and that your anxious child can manage. You may miss out of some experiences but be happy knowing that you had enjoyable experiences that worked for your whole family, which is the ultimate goal!
PLAN FOR DOWN TIME
I know for us, we must have some downtime in the afternoon. We typically plan a morning event followed by quiet time at the hotel or vacation home. Later, we enjoy dinner and another experience in the early evening. We tend to continue going to bed at the same time in order to ensure enough sleep. Without enough sleep, the anxiety is worse the following day. On nights where something special is taking place, we make sure our schedule that day is more laid back.
SUGGESTIONS FOR TRAVELING BY PLANE
We prefer to travel by car whenever possible. I like the ability to bring more items with us and the flexibility and control it gives us. However, there will be times when you must travel by plane. From my experience, I have learned to sit in the far back of the place. There tends to be more open space in the back on flights that are not sold out. It gives a small bit of space for standing and stretching near the bathrooms. I always book aisle seats. This allows us a bit more space to handle the movement that my daughter needs when nervous.
As I mentioned, being open and honest about your child’s anxiety often leads to more support from the staff. We always board the plane when they announce boarding for those with young children or who may need extra time. It allows us to get on the place and find our seats with less of a crowd. It also provides more time for getting settled. Of course, bring as many fidgets, activities, and snacks as possible to help the time fly by (pun intended).
I hope every one of you is able to enjoy vacation moments, no matter how big or small, in spite of anxiety. Through well thought out preparations and the kindness of strangers, you can create memories all around the world. Please share any ideas you have successfully implemented while traveling with an anxious child.