My middle schooler and I recently traveled through Alaska with a school group. This was the first time I brought my child on a trip I hadn’t planned myself, and it was a bit of a shock. Even as a child and family therapist who specializes in ADHD, I somehow neglected to think about the challenges that long hours of scheduled activities and daily packing/unpacking would bring. It’s second nature to me to incorporate frequent breaks, build in time buffers that allow us to run late, and alternate between my child’s preferred and nonpreferred activities. I forgot that it isn’t this way for everyone. This brings me to Tip #1: Remember that your child has ADHD. Once you’ve done that, try the tips below to ensure that ADHD is a treasured travel companion rather than a stumbling block on the trail.
When you control the itinerary, try stacking the deck in favor of fun. Here’s how.
- Double down on downtime.
This means build in downtime for both you and your child. In addition to having time for rest, every day should have blocks of time in which your child does what feels best to him. This might mean splashing in the surf, turning cartwheels, or even shrieking at top volume. Be sure to spend real time (not just a 5 minute break) in places that allow these behaviors to occur, and let your child direct his own fun. For yourself, take turns taking the kids to the pool or managing the bedtime routine so each of you gets a break.
- Minimize the decision making.
Plan your activities before you leave to prevent arguments about where to eat or what to do next. Engage your child’s input at the planning stage rather than in the moment. Having a discussion about what to do engages your child in thinking about her preferred activity. When the group decides to do something else your child will have to shift his focus, which isn’t easy. Avoid this trap by always having a game plan or making the decisions among the adults. Include the kids by building in a time for each child to choose (not for all of them to decide together).
- Stay flexible.
Have a plan. But when you’ve planned a hike and your child is jumping for joy at the idea of flying a kite, be willing to head for the kite shop. It’s important to leave gaps in the schedule or have a few activities you’re willing to skip to accommodate these spontaneous moments.
- Build in a sensory diet.
Your know your child. Does he get sleepy and bored on tours? Too touchy in museums? Build in activities that are calming, organizing, or activating to bring out the best in him.
- Make the most of the best times.
Have your child pick out clothes for the next day, tidy up her things, or do other challenging tasks during her best time of day. Children with ADHD are often not alert or able to organize first thing in the morning. These tasks may need to be done after a midday break or at the end of the day (if not exhausted) to maximize success.
Whether or not you control the itinerary, these strategies can maximize your travel success:
- Do what works.
If she’s happiest listening to a certain playlist on her headphones in the museum or sleeping through the pricy helicopter ride, let it happen. As long as your child is participating in some of what the trip has to offer, she is benefitting. It’s ok to let her retreat to her comfort zone sometimes.
- Prepare and prime.
Let your child know at the beginning of each day/activity what will happen and ask for the behavior you want to see. If rewards are important motivators for your child, create a vacation reward system. For example, he may get a few dollars to spend on the trip, with an additional $1 per day that he puts his clothes away.
- Sneak in movement breaks.
Let your child scramble up an embankment (safely) at the photo stop, turn cartwheels on the benches along the trail, or otherwise get a burst of exercise between sedentary activities.
- Bring your creature comforts.
Worry less about packing light and more about bringing your child’s go-to activities. Include fidgets, a body sock, or other materials that help your child do his best.
- Help with organization.
If your child has trouble keeping track of her belongings, be there to help with this part. Have her make a plan to stay organized, and ask how you can support her plan. Ask if she’d like some additional support when she seems to be struggling. (If the answer is no, respect her choice.)
- Engage allies.
Let the adults around you know what’s helpful for your child. This enables them to jump in and assist you, or to understand behaviors that might be seen as off task. For example, after my son and I skipped the group photo op to climb a pile of rocks (see pic above), our guide said to me “squeezing in some movement, huh?” We avoided being seen as rude by explaining ourselves up front. Don’t hesitate to ask for a table near the door so your child can get up and move regularly, or board the plane last to minimize your time in a seat. With a little explanation, most adults will understand.