Traveling with a child with special needs takes preparation and planning to help ensure that the trip is safe and enjoyable for not only the child, but also the parents. It is important to remember that part of that planning is not only making sure that your child has everything that they will need, but also that you as a parent are taken care of as well. Finding resources and strategies to remain calm, can not only make the travel experience more enjoyable for you, but also your child.
#1 Identify Your Own Stress Triggers
You already know that learning more about your child’s behaviors and expectations is key to building positive skills and reducing potential problems. By proactively planning for foreseeable situations that may increase the likelihood of a problematic behavior, you have the opportunity to prevent challenges for your child. But, it is just as important to take the same approach with your own stress triggers. By identifying situations that may increase your own anxiety, you can plan for how to prevent these situations from occurring in the first place, and develop strategies for how to manage the situations if they do occur.
#2 Plan Ahead: Your Sanity Depends on It
Planning ahead is one of the best ways to succeed in less stressful travel. It is likely that your child’s regular schedule will be disrupted, which can be especially difficult for children with special needs, and particularly stressful for parents leading up to, and during your trip. Book a flight at the right time, and with the right seating arrangement (e.g., window or aisle) that works for your family, rather than trying to work your family around a flight. For example, if your child is used to having a snack or a nap at a certain time, try to plan your travel around these key events. It is much easier to have a snack while sitting in an airport or on the plane, than while trying to run with your family between gates or to the rental car.
Also, make sure you plan with YOU and your kids in mind. You always remember to pack snacks for your children, but it is just as important to pack a little extra for yourself. There is nothing worse than trying to keep everyone else calm when you cannot hear your family over the grumbling of your own stomach.
#3 Pack Only What you Really Need:
With most airlines charging a hefty checked baggage fee in addition to the price of your ticket, it is understandable to want to carry-on as much as you can. However, there is nothing more stressful than lugging around and keeping track of a ton of bags while trying to make sure that your children are safe, calm and entertained. Keep the necessities with you (e.g., phone/tablet/game devise charger cords, snacks, clothes, diapers, favorite toys, etc.), but check everything else.
Also, always remember to expect travel delays. Between winter weather, increased holiday travel, and frankly anything and everything, flight delays are inevitable. By expecting a delay, you will be more prepared if one occurs. If, somehow, you are not delayed, then your travel plans just became that much better.
#4 Technology is your Friend (as long as it’s charged):
Let your smart phone be smart. You have enough to think about. Keep as many details about your travel plans as possible in one section of your cell phone. You can even use your cell phone’s camera to keep useful information such as where you parked at the airport, or what all your baggage looks like should something go missing. This will not only keep you more organized, but will save you the stress of having to rifle through all your travel documents and paperwork, all with one on eye your kids. If you are traveling with another adult, make sure they have the information on their phone as well. There is power in numbers, so you can divide and conquer responsibilities to distribute the stress.
#5 Inform Key Personnel If/When/How to Help
Though, not all airport personnel are trained in assisting families with special needs, it may be helpful to let flight attendants or hotel staff know how/when/if they might be able to provide support. For example, if your child engages in any noticeable stereotypic or aggressive behaviors, consider letting the flight attendants know about what they might expect to see, and how they might help ahead of time. That way, you will be calm and able to thoroughly discuss options prior to an incident, and avoid a confrontation while in the middle of trying to help your child meet their needs.
And, Always Remember: Keep Calm and Travel On
No matter how well you plan, no travel experience is perfect. Even the best trips have moments of frustration and worry. Though it may not feel like it at the time, the stressful parts of travel will pass. Just knowing that you made the effort to prepare your family during your trip can relieve the stress and inevitable guilt, even during the rough spots. And, focus on those fun and memorable moments with family and friends to help you to recognize that the trip was all worthwhile in the bigger picture.
Dr. Darren Sush, Psy.D., BCBA-D, specializes in therapy for parents of children with autism and special needs. His office is located in Los Angeles, CA. For more information, visit www.drdarrensush.com
Learn more about Dr. Sush: drdarrensush.com