Vacation and the poorly regulated child

Don't look at the title and panic... things are going fine. Fine is a relative word, though, and fine for us is always hovering just on the edge of not really good at all. It's our normal and we're used to it. We are always taking proactive steps to do what we can to keep the needle pointing to fine instead of moving into something worse. This is particularly true when we are on vacation.

It is easy to let down your guard when on vacation. That's what vacation is all about, isn't it? Relaxing and not having to deal with the normal stresses of life. I think that is why vacations can become so much more stressful than they should... because we have unrealistic expectations of them. The trouble is, it is the rare person who can completely jettison who they are on command. If you are a worrier, then you will worry on vacation; if you are a glass half empty type, then you will still see the disappointing side of things; if you are prone to anxiety and disregulation, you will be anxious and disregulated. If your children are any of these things, they will still be these things on vacation and perhaps even more so.

For many years, I labored under the impression that I deserved a break from the crazy when on vacation and I was always disappointed. I have since learned that this kind of thinking was not serving any of us well and have adjusted my expectations accordingly. In fact, to be really realistic, I have come to expect that vacations can be more stressful than everyday life and expect behavior that is in correlation to that stress. Travelling with children and enjoying it is an art form, and travelling with children from hard places is even more so. I don't have it completely figured out, but thought I would share what has helped us significantly. These tips are helpful for the child from hard places, but they are also true for travelling with young children or children are less flexible.

1. Keep your expectations realistic. If you have a child who is difficult at home, they will be difficult on vacation. There is no 'vacation switch' which makes everything OK and everyone well behaved. If you expect that there will be tears and stubbornness and unpleasantness, then when it happens you won't also have the added layer of disappointment to deal with on top of the behavior. Be grateful for the times when things are going well, but don't expect this to be the norm.

2. Give enough information. For one of my children, not knowing what is going to happen when is a huge issue. If we share our plans (as much as possible), if helps to alleviate some anxiety. Of course there are times when we just don't know, but we are open about that and give ways to deal with the uncertainty.

3. Rest and food. Hunger and fatigue can be huge triggers around here, so we travel with large amounts of snacks and try to ensure that people have enough rest. We also try to provide enough large muscle exercise when travelling. The worst times we have ever experienced when travelling have happened when a certain child became too tired and too hungry. There are times you just have no control over this happening, but believe me when I say this issue is nearly constantly at the forefront of my mind.

4. Keep providing connection. When travelling it is easy to get caught up in logistics and what the next item on the things to do list is, and forget to connect with your child. Be sure you are talking with them, hugging and loving them, expressing affection. Even if we are good at doing this during our regular routine at home, it is very easy to let this slide in the very different environment of a vacation.

5. Find a good balance of resting and doing things. Neither extreme... always sight-seeing and doing something or sitting around and relaxing... is good. If you are staying in one place for a few days, try to develop a schedule which alternates relaxing with doing (and let you child know what this schedule is). Predictability is your friend. Open-ended free time is difficult for a child of trauma to navigate and too much activity leads towards fatigue (see #3). Not having a predictable schedule is possibly the single most difficult thing about vacation, so try to create one when you can, even if it is for just a few days.

6. Have a plan for worst case scenarios. Despite our best intentions and efforts, sometimes our children just lose it. At home this is unpleasant, but usually manageable because we have a plan in place and each person knows what to do. When you are away from home, it can be horrible. Do a little mental preparation just a case. Who will stay with the child? Who will take the other children to a safe place? Where will those places be? Sometimes there are no good options and you must do what you have to do to keep everyone safe, but spend a little time thinking about it. And if you can't ever show your face in a certain hotel in Beijing ever again, then that is just how it is.

7. Have fun. We can so easily become consumed with making sure everyone is as regulated as possible that we forget that we are supposed to be enjoying ourselves. Our children from hard places are excellent readers of parental moods (even if they could never identify the emotions... they pick up on the negative feelings), and an anxious parent will create an anxious child. If things are going fine at the moment, give yourself permission to relax and enjoy the moment. Sure, every could go off the rails in an hour, but if you have had a pleasant time up to that point, then you will be in a much better place to manage it. One of the biggest gifts I have received from learning to be a therapeutic parent is to enjoy the moment. (Or at least do my best to do so.) None of us knows what is going to happen from minute to minute, so enjoy the good moments when they come and be thankful for them.

For those in the Midwest, I won't torment you by a weather report. Trust me when I say I'm taking my own advice and appreciating the weather. This afternoon we'll be heading to the botanic gardens where there is an exhibit of Chihuly glass.


Carla said…
This reminds me of the wise advice I received before heading out on vacation with my 2 year old son. Another mom said, "I don't call them vacations, because I will still have to work just as hard or harder. I call them a trip."

Just the terminology helped me to have the right attitude and I was able to enjoy the downtime moments much more.

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