Traveling with an Anxious Child

We all know that social media can be deceiving.  It shows polished photos and smiling faces, and not the 104 out-takes that consisted of tears, hair pulling, and blinking eyes to get that shot.  Or maybe that’s just us.  I didn’t create this space solely to encourage people to travel but to also make the most of what you’ve got in your current season.  For us, that’s a mix of days in our backyard and days spent in new places both near and far.

Somewhere along the line, people have started to assume that because we’re on the go a lot that it is easy for us to be on the go.  And yes, I think because we do it a lot there are parts of it that are easier for us than for a family who doesn’t travel much.  And yes, I believe I have very flexible kids because they’ve had to adapt to a lot of time zones, places, and people.  But what you probably don’t know is that my Chase is a very anxious toddler and going somewhere new is actually very difficult for him and, in turn, for all of us.

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Because I have twins it’s easy to constantly compare them.  When one started walking, I assumed the other should too.  I’ve had to remind myself that they are two different individuals with completely different likes, skillsets, and personalities.  But sometimes, it can be helpful for me to identify when something isn’t right.  I think it’s been in the last 6 months that we’ve realized Chase’s ‘quirks’ are not typical toddler behaviors.  Toddlers are hard to parent. But anxious toddlers are even more difficult to parent because they don’t have the ability to communicate exactly what they are feeling.  They are more sensitive, more picker, and more overwhelmed.  And all of these emotions are wrapped up in a little person with no language or self-control (Yikes).  Add in a slew of new places, sleeping arrangements, food types, and experiences– it’s no wonder traveling can be stressful to someone with anxiety (and those traveling with him!).

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For a while, I struggled with the notion of traveling at all.  If traveling causes more stress in Chase’s life, why do it? Why not eliminate it? Here’s where I landed, Chase may grow out of some of his anxiety but no one outgrows stress.  So why not help him develop coping mechanisms that will allow him to get the most out of his days instead of living life paralyzed on the sidelines.  Instead of limiting Chase, my hope is that I can give him the tools to handle any situation or giant he may face.  What he will gain from traveling far outweighs the challenges it brings.  You can read our full list of the reasons we value travel here.

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It’s important to realize that people have different needs, comfort zones, and likes.  Everyone’s travel doesn’t have to look the same, in fact, it shouldn’t.  Adapt your adventures to what fits your family so that everyone can get the most out of the experience.  Here are 7 things we  do, or at least try our best to do, to help Chase when we adventure:

We move at our own pace If you had a drone that could see our outings here’s what you’d likely see:  Jimmy leading the way with Cam and Addi James, while Chase and I bring up the rear.  Unfamiliar sounds, new places, and uneven terrain typically overwhelm Chase; so, for instance, when we hike in the woods he needs a little bit of a slower pace to adjust and take it all in.  The point isn’t that he finishes first, it’s that he finishes.  We might have dinner at 4:30 to avoid a crowded restaurant or take a long drive in the afternoon to let Chase rest between activities.

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We remove him. Sometimes a situation proves to be too much.  Just like I need a minute when I get upset, so does he.  We went to a pool party at a new friend’s house a few weeks ago.  Sunshine, laughter, splashing- sounds like a good time right?  Not for Chase, it was loud, it was new, and he just couldn’t stop crying.  I ended up sitting him away from the pool.  I gave him snacks and some space to just watch and process from a distance.  After about 45 minutes, he ventured over to us on his own.

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We enforce expectations.  My own mother has renamed me Mary Hitler Poppins.  What can I say, I want you to have fun, but you better stay in line while you are doing it!  I don’t tolerate temper tantrums or disobedience.  But with Chase, I’ve learned, that a meltdown isn’t always the same as a tantrum.  A tantrum says I want to do it my way, a meltdown says I don’t know what to do.  So while it might be ok to cry, it wouldn’t be ok to hit during a meltdown.  There’s no better time to teach that you can’t control whats going on around you but you can learn to control yourself.

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We preview what to expect.  I’m the narrator of our days.  The worst thing you could do for Chase is to throw him into a situation he wasn’t expecting.  Even if that situation is fun.  At his birthday this year every time someone came up to him and said, “Happy birthday,” or offered him a treat, or showed him presents he declined and yelled back, “No happy!!”   Even though he loves treats and presents the unexpected excitement overwhelmed him.  So when I can, I tell him what to expect.  I talk about where we are going, what we will do there, what it will look like, sound like, feel like, etc.

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We make him do things.  I know mean mom here again (Mary Hitler Poppins remember?), but hear me out.  When you constantly cater to your child’s fears they never learn how to defeat them.  And I believe this would be detrimental to adulthood.  I want Chase, and all my kids, to know they can do hard things.  Here’s a silly example, but hopefully you get the point.  On a recent trip to Hocking Hills State Park, we had a bit of rain which made some of the trails very muddy at points.  Chase doesn’t like the mud, and by “doesn’t like”, I mean panics: cries and stands frozen without being able to move. Sometimes I pick him up and carry him through the mud and sometimes I make him walk through it for the simple reason, he needs to know he can. 

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We talk.  Or at least why try to.  This one is a work in progress.  Anyone who has tried to have a rational conversation with a crying two-year-old, knows it’s a shot in the dark.  I want him to learn how to communicate with me and with others.  I want him to learn how to use words to explain how he is feeling.  We talk to each other, but more importantly, we talk to God.   I know he can’t understand much yet but my hope is that he comes to understand that there is only One who can conquer every fear and feeling.  There is only One who has already overcome and will give us the strength, courage, and whatever else we might need to do so also.

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We keep going.  I think the most important thing is that we keep going.  I wouldn’t say each trip gets easier, but there are aspects that get easier.  He calms quicker, I know what to expect, and we can be more prepared.  Plus the more we travel the more capable he becomes.  He’s getting braver and bolder with each adventure.  Hey, I understand this all sounds like a lot of work, and I’ll be the first to tell you, it is!  I had a friend tell me once they measure their activities in a hassle to fun ratio.  Is the level of fun worth the level of hassle?  But I guess I’m trying to be big pictured.  Sometimes the immediate “fun” isn’t worth the level of hassle.  But knowing that I’m equipping Chase with the confidence and tools to be able to go anywhere and do anything, well, that’s worth the hassle every time.

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If you have someone in your family that struggles with anxiety it doesn’t mean you can’t go anywhere as a family, it just means your outing might look a little different.  Start small, take baby steps, empower, teach, equip, be compassionate, be flexible, adapt, make changes but go, there’s so much to see in a world like ours.

XOXO,Holly

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