When Your Child’s Meltdowns are Ruining Vacation

Van with summer vacation written on it

The screams are unexpected, always profoundly embarrassing.  This time the waiter trigger it, by announcing that chicken nuggets were no longer available despite being listed on the menu.   Or perhaps sand stealthily slid into his shoe.  How unexpected when walking on a beach?  And then again when leaving the hotel, it was a simple request to bring along a jacket.  Of course the “right” jacket hung in the closet at home and NONE of the three options packed in her bag proved suitable. 

Why do our spirited kids make us cry on vacation?

How can they be so ungrateful?  After all, this excursion was supposed to be something special for the kids!  Months of planning have gone into it, as well as a small fortune!  Vacations are supposed to be fun, restful, time to sleep-in, relax, play games, enjoy one another’s company and build life-long family memories.  But right now there is one family member you strongly wish had been left home. 

Traveling with spirited children is an art. 

Their curiosity, enthusiasm and energy can make roving the world an awesome adventure – but it requires planning for success.  Constructing that plan begins by getting into the “head” of your spirited child.

While conducting workshops Lynn and I like to utilize an exercise in which we tell participants that they have won an opportunity to go on a trip with us.  “How many of you are willing to go?”  We ask.  A few hands rise into the air.  No questions asked they are “in.”  The majority of the group however, hesitates.  “What do you need to be willing to come with us?”  We ask.  Like firecrackers, questions pop around the room.  “When are we leaving?”  “How long will be gone?”  “Who is paying?  “Where are we staying?” “Are we flying or driving?”  “Will it be hot or cold?”  You get the idea.  Few are willing to jump in without a plan.  The same is true for our spirited children.

Think about it.  For a spirited child going on vacation means that one day his parents direct him to get in the car.  Sure, they may have told him he’s going to Disney, but if you are four-years-old what does that mean?

Where is Florida, California or Paris? He “feels” mom and dad’s tension.  There is excitement, but they are also arguing over who has the tickets, or if they are going the right way.  Buildings and trees are whizzing by. The sun is in his eyes. He’s strapped into his car seat.  If we stopped to consider, we would realize that he is probably thinking…

Wait a minute, they just passed the exit to my school.   Where are we going?  How long will I be in my car seat?  I’m hungry.  They’re stopping at a restaurant.  Are they kidding?  You want me to sit?  I’ve been sitting for hours.  Let’s get real.  I’m tired.   What’s this place?  A hotel?  What’s a hotel?  It stinks.  Can’t you smell it?  That’s not my bed.  Feel the pilling on these sheets.  There has to be someone under those sheets scratching me with long jagged nails.  You can’t possibly expect me to sleep here. 

Beach time tomorrow?  I know beaches.  I like beaches, but I do not like sand.  Sand gets between my toes and cuts my soles.  I’m not walking on that beach.  The wind is pummeling me.  People are laughing and screaming.  I’m hot! 

Every spirited child is different.  But what is common for all spirited children is that when they move into the red zone of over arousal sensations become even more intense and harder to manage. 

Plan for success!

  1. Before you go:
    • In the comfort and privacy of your home think about this excursion from your child’s point of view.  Like the individuals in our workshops, what information or preparation will he need to feel comfortable?  What are potential “trouble spots?”  Will eating in restaurants be an issue?  What will he need to sleep in a new bed and place?  Are the planned events new or familiar to him?  Will his routine be disrupted?  Look at the agenda.  Is down time planned between events, or will new experiences, places and people be whirling at him faster than he can cope? 
    • As you consider each potential issue begin to lay out a blueprint of what you will do.  In the heat of the moment it is much easier to keep your cool with a strategy in hand.  Remember, your spirited child tunes into your intensity level. The calmer you are, the calmer he will be. 
  2. Things to do a week ahead:
    • A week before departure, or earlier if your child requires more adjustment time begin talking about vacation.  Create a countdown chain with your child so she knows how many days until you leave.
    • If you’ll be flying view videos of airplanes, and airport security.  Make “airport” the creative play theme for the week. 
    • Together put together a visual plan of the places and people you will be visiting.  Review it together and talk about the things she’ll be seeing, emotions she may experience, and the smells and foods that will be part of her day.   Role play with her how to say, “I need a break,” or “May we please leave?”  Knowing what to say or do as intensity levels rise can prevent those public meltdowns!
    • Talk about who will be going and where your pet will be boarding.  Sensitive spirited children care about these things! 
    • Take several days to pack her suitcase, so you have time to consider what things need to be included such as lovies or a pillow case with the “right smell” for sleeping and familiar foods.  If you are driving put together an activity box to occupy little ones in the car. 
  3. While on vacation
    • Begin every day with a picture plan.  Review it together.  Include down time after every major event.  True it is exciting to go to the mall, then the beach, but before you do, stop and ask yourself, “Would I bet Mary and Lynn $100.00 that my child will be successful if we do this?”  If you won’t lay $100.00 down on it – don’t do it!  Even with a plan surprises may occur.  Stop and address them.  “This is a surprise.  We did not expect this.  This is disappointing!  But we are problem solvers.  How can we make it better?”  Taking a few minutes to “be sad” makes surprises more manageable. 
    • Driving, stop for frequent breaks.  Choose rest stops and picnics where children and adults can run and relax in the fresh air. 
    • Maintain eating and sleeping schedules.  Do NOT skip naps. 
    • When going to the beach predict that putting on sunscreen, walking in the sand, the noise of the crowd, wind and sun will be absorbed at a microscopic level by your spirited child.  Get the sunscreen on in the privacy of your hotel.  Plan to carry the little one with sensitive feet, or give him the words to say, “I need a towel, please.”  Or, “I need to empty my shoe.  Please help me.” 
    • Be organized to leave immediately after hearing the first “whine” or rule forgotten.  This is the “yellow zone.”  Leave then and you’ll exit peacefully.  Wait for things to escalate and odds are you will be carrying out a screaming, flailing, flooded little one. 
    • Maintain a vacation “chain.” Without it, little ones have no idea you are leaving tomorrow.  Disappointment floods.
  4. When you get home:
    • Transitioning home after vacation can be tough.  If possible allow yourself a day or two of “home vacation” before returning to your regular schedule.  Expect that everyone is going to need a little more snuggle and cuddle. 

Spirited children can be wonderful travelers and a true joy on vacation.  Take time to think about what this experience will be like for him.  What might he feel?  What information and preparation will help him be successful? Involve him in the plans. 

Build those family memories.  Have a blast!

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