Enjoying Travel In Spite of Challenging Behaviors: Tips to Minimize Stress and Maximize the Moment
As the weather begins to warm and busy schedules hint at long weekends and holidays, you may find yourself thinking about summer vacation. Summer can be a time for fun and frolic, but you may also experience concern or some anxiety when planning a getaway with the family. Your child or other family member may struggle with new experiences, challenging behaviors, or a slew of other stressors that may make getting away difficult. I beg you – please don’t let this hold you back! Travel can be a wonderful way to destress, re-energize, broaden your mind, and create memories with the people you love.
Whether you are able to plan a three week trip to another country or a day trip out of town, the benefits that both you and your family will reap are numerous. Travel is known to expand your experience and broaden horizons. Travel is also valuable to a person’s development as it can enhance your tolerance for uncertainty, boost confidence as obstacles are overcome, and improve social and communication skills. For children (or grown-ups) who may struggle to do this on a daily basis, a few planning tricks and preparations can soothe the stress and help everyone involved enjoy the experience together.
Summer destinations and attractions are often known for crowds. If this is something a person in your family struggles with try, to arrive as early as you can or plan a trip sometime during the summer when crowds have thinned a bit. I personally like to visit a campground in PA the week prior to Labor Day. Schools in the area are back in session, and amusements are less densely packed during weekday hours. By being purposeful when planning how to maximize time spent at a place while reducing known stressors as much as possible, the family can enjoy more of what a location has to offer and you, as a caregiver, can relax a bit more.
Forethought and Familiarity
Aka: more planning and prep. If you can access maps of a destination, take some time planning your best options for things you know you will need such as specific parking options, restroom locations, or quiet space with air conditioning. Knowing where you can go when needing a break to prevent a meltdown is worth the time you put into the research. Also, call ahead to your destination to inquire if they offer special accommodations for children or adults with special needs. Some amusement parks offer ride accommodations to reduce wait times or special “sensory sensitive” attractions if loud noise or many moving parts are a concern. You may need to provide proof of your loved one’s special need, and it never hurts to ask how people may be able help you enjoy your experience at their establishment.
If traveling by plane, some airports may offer special security check points (call to confirm) or take the opportunity to visit the airport before your trip to allow your child to familiarize themselves with the process. At home, have some fun and practice security procedures, take off, etc. Books or art activities may help your child familiarize themselves with new situations before they are experienced as well. Read to your child about the ocean or about a plane or long car ride. Draw pictures with them of what this experience may be like and create your own stories. Children learn through play, and playing with them to introduce new experiences will reduce their anxiety when the time for departure is upon you.
Once you’ve scouted out locations and made decisions about how to tackle some difficult situations, plan to bring some snacks or special toys you know calm your child down (or help you remain calm in heated times). No one likes to be hungry or tired when they want to be having fun. A backpack stash of healthy snacks, water, and a favorite stuffy or soother may give a frantic family a few more minutes to make it to the next rest spot before a tantrum erupts.
Enjoy the moment
In spite of all the careful planning and practicing you may complete, nothing will stop life from happening or situations arising that are out of your control. In these times remember to breathe (lengthen the exhale if you can) and try to soften whatever body part you may scrunch up in times of stress. There will be melt downs; something will go “wrong.” It is in these times that we remember that we are human beings experiencing life. Enjoy the moment as much as possible, know that it will pass, and the love and patience that you show your child (or other family member) in these moments are going to go further than the uncomfortable feelings you may be momentarily experiencing.
Lauren Verbilla, LPC, has served as the Director of Family Based Services at Penn Foundation for two years. She has been a family therapist since 2008. Helping families connect, grow, and create positive experiences is one of the most rewarding experiences that her work has to offer.