Traveling, even for super fun summer trips, can be really stressful and anxiety-inducing for kids. Doing some quick exercises with your anxious child ahead of time can make what would have turned into an anxiety attack, a much calmer, happier child, family, trip.
1. Talk about the trip and potential anxiety ahead of time. Brainstorm solutions together and come up with a plan of action.
What makes your child anxious? Can the two of you prepare for that? Are they scared of flying? Would a cuddle buddy or distractions help with that?
Have a conversation with your child about what causes their anxiety. This can be a difficult conversation, so I love the idea of using what Daniel Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, call “The Remote of Your Mind” in their book The Whole-Brain Child. To use this strategy, slowly have your child talk through what happens when you travel. “We pack our bags at home. We get in the car and drive to the airport. In the car to the airport, we sing songs…” When they start to get nervous, they can “fast forward” through the scary part and then finish the story, “Then we get to Disney World and we check into the hotel. We put our stuff away and go to the park to go on the rides!” Once they’ve reached the happy conclusion, “rewind” and help them talk through the scary part and what makes it so hard. This helps them realize that it’s not quite as scary as they thought.
Then, get your child involved in the planning and create a plan of action: When I get anxious, I will ___________________. Fill in that blank together with some ideas.
2. Practice a few breathing techniques ahead of time. A good place to start is some exercises from Sitting Still Like a Frog.
Breathing calms your brain and your anxiety down so you can think logically.
When you notice your child getting anxious at other times before you leave on your trip, ask them to take some deep breaths and think about where they feel that anxiety. Ask them to keep breathing deep breaths until that anxious feeling they feel has subsided.
3. Name feelings.
When we name our feelings, they lose some of their power. So practice naming feelings ahead of time, so that when that anxiety pops up during travel, you can “name it to tame it” as Daniel Siegel says.
4. Practice releasing emotions.
Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg suggests reducing anxiety by releasing emotions and “blanking it out”. Blanking it out means dancing it out, writing it out, singing it out, and so on. Talk with your child about how they want to “blank it out” and use it as part of your plan in #1.
5. Pack some cognitive distractions.
When we are anxious, we get caught up in negative thought cycles. Break those thought cycles with a cognitive distraction. When your brain is working on solving a problem or is using it’s language centers to read, it’s harder for it to use those parts of the brain to think about how anxious it is. Some good cognitive distractions include: reading, Sudoku, MadLibs, and trivia.
With a little preparation, we can work to really reduce that travel anxiety and make summer trips that much more fun!