On a scale of how many times a person visits Yosemite in a given year, I’d say our life is Moderately Amazing (ratings which peaked in 2019 and will likely plummet since we live on the East Coast now). It makes for a pretty good Christmas card when the holidays come around. What you may not know, though, is that we also have a kid who deals with severe anxiety, who has a hard time, a lot of the time. Yes, we go on epic adventures. We also do it in the midst of our particular set of challenges, not in some sort of perfect-scenario vacuum of happiness and balance, and, I’d venture to guess, you don’t, either.
In the past six years, I can’t tell you how many people have said to me something like, “We could travel more if my kid was more flexible / less rigid / less anxious / less problematic / didn’t nap / napped more / acted more like a tiny perfect grownup with zero malfunctions.” But here’s the thing: it’s not like my kids were born with gold-standard temperaments for adventure and travel. While we’ve trained them to be good at some of that stuff, there are still plenty of things that don’t come easily. These last few years, we’ve been carrying a little suitcase full of anxieties, inflexibility, and OCD along on all our adventures. And everyone’s got a carry-on like that (some are oversized, some are more like personal items, or, if you’re really well-adjusted, just a scarf).
Having a Highly Sensitive Kid hasn’t stopped our adventuring, but we have had to make some adjustments to make travel positive, peaceful, and even possible. My husband and I are both spontaneous, and neither of us are anxiety-prone. I’m a novelty seeker who likes making fast game-time decisions and pushing limits while on the move. So, we are continually learning to empathize and adapt as we live with kids who have different sets of needs, particularly Sam, who prefers things quiet, controlled, and by-the-book, and who is prone to lose it in unfamiliar or unexpected scenarios. As we’re learning more about how Sam’s perceptive and sensitive brain works, it’s changed how we travel and adventure as a family. On one hand, we want to see Sam grow in flexibility and stretch his boundaries. On the other hand, we’re finding ways to plan travel in a way that helps him stay calm about it—which makes it better for everyone. Here are two of our life-saving secret weapons for helping Sam conquer his anxieties about big adventures:
The Travel Itinerary. Though it makes me feel like an underpaid executive assistant, I’ve started making adventure itineraries for every trip we take. I’ve done this for the last six months, and the change in Sam’s attitude about traveling is astounding. Sam is highly visual and he negotiates like a lawyer, so I put things in writing. I don’t tell him about the trip until it it’s all planned; then I just plop the packet in front of him…fine print included.
The itinerary includes:
- Travel dates and times
- Details and pictures of places we’re staying – photos from Airbnb listings or hotel websites
- Pictures of friends or family we’re planning to see
- Google images of the areas we’re exploring, fun facts, and a few of the fun things we’re planning to do (provided we are definitely planning to do them. If the plan is at all uncertain, I don’t include it, or I spell out the uncertainty: “If weather permits, we’ll watch sunrise!”).
- A broad-stroke schedule for each day (“Morning – breakfast and beach. Afternoon – lunch and explore.”) I keep it vague to allow myself plenty of flexibility and spontaneity.
- A reminder of what bedtime will be like. While on the road, keeping a basic evening routine (complete with our usual sound machine and blackout curtains) helps a lot. “You’ll have a cozy bedtime and share a room with Annie.” If I can get one, I include a photo of the bedroom.
- Positive affirmations about our trip, especially addressing specific trigger points. For example, evenings can be stressful when everyone’s tired, so I might write something like “We’ll have a happy peaceful evening in the Airbnb!” Then when we get there, he’s like, “Let’s have a happy peaceful evening!” Sure, Sam, I’d love to!
- A big “Welcome Home” on the last page with a picture of our house. Sam loves knowing when we’re planning to arrive home—it’s even reassuring to me! Yes, that’s my house. It’s there waiting for me, phew!
It’s worth every one of the 90 or so minutes it takes me to make these little booklets. I print out the pages and stick them in pocket protectors and a little folder (or just staple them), and we start reading them a week or two before leaving. I even make Sam itineraries for trips I take alone—it’s a magic cure for separation anxiety when I’m going away, since he can visualize where I’ll be, plus he has concrete evidence that I’ll come back. And it lets him engage in the adventure even when he’s not the one traveling. (We joke that Sam enjoyed the Iceland Ring Road more from the comfort of his own home, following along in his itinerary book as Jordan and I traveled and texted him pictures, than if he had gone himself…he even learned some Icelandic!). The best part is that he can keep the books and flip through them later, which reminds him that travel is actually fun, and look at all these trips he’s survived!
The Travel Diagram. As Sam starts to communicate better and as I understand his anxieties more, I can try to pinpoint particular sources of anxiety. Sam has flown fifty-something times, but, like most normal people, he still gets anxious about navigating airport elevators and trains and shuttles and Ubers. So we’ll draw simple diagrams (arrows, stick figures, embarrassingly awful sketches of airplanes and cars) and talk it all through several times, especially the night before. Once or twice he’s even carried the diagram with him.
Every time we travel, every one of us stretches in some way, whether it’s trying new things, moving outside comfort zones, maintaining patience, discovering new tools for managing anxiety and staying calm, or just getting more efficient at packing the darn car. Travel gives Sam opportunities to conquer his anxieties, and better pre-planning helps me to relax more while we’re exploring. That’s not to say it’s easier every time. Some adventures feel like a trip to the dentist, and some are miraculously smooth; I’m learning to expect the challenges and enjoy the wins. These two tactics above have upped our odds of success, which is about as close to a guarantee as you’ll get in this game.
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