Traveling with an anxious child

To be honest, he comes by it naturally. 

Both Matt and I are fairly anxious people, who do a fair amount of work pushing back against fear.

So it comes as no surprise that our firstborn inherited some of those tendencies.

In spades.

And depending on the environment it pours out of him in different ways. It can look irritable and grumpy and discontent. A toddler looking to pick a fight. "I want a book. I want a book! A book. A book! A BOOK!!!" (I offer him a book) "NOOOOO!!! Not that book! A different book."

Sometimes it looks clingy and desperate and whiney. "Hode (hold) you? Hode you, Mommy. Mommmeeeeeee hode you. Pwease, mommeeeeee. Mommmmeee pwease?" Arms up, pulling at the hem of my shirt, pleading eyes. Insistant. Persistant.

And at night it can look like full on terror when he's being put to bed.

Matt and I have learned that all three of these versions can mean that our sweet boy is struggling with anxiety.

It creeps in at different times. When he's had a rough day with minding, and I've had a rough day with patience and he's feeling insecure. When his schedule starts changing and his fairly routine driven days start lacking structure. When he's around people, especially other children, who are loud or wild or unpredictable.

And especially when we travel. Change schedules. Change routines. Change houses, and beds, and time zones.

Matt and I are just at the begining of learning how to help our buddy cope with an unpredictable world.

But we had a moment of inspiration and victory with him while we were traveling over Christmas.


One thing we did was create an "Airplane Day" calendar for him. Every day we would put an x in an empty box and count the number of boxes left until we reached a box with a picture of an airplane. We realized that he needed a concreate and visual way to understand how long we would be gone. (16 days is eternity to a toddler)

We also learned that he felt much more secure when he understood the structure of his day. Bless his heart... he just needed to know what would happen and when it would go down. Not every detail. But a few certainties. I mean, how crazy would I be if I had no idea about what was in store for me in the day and no control over what would happen to me and with me in the next 24 hours. Because he's 2, we made a little schedule with pictures of 7 events that would happen every day.  (Breakfast. Quiet time in his room. Lunch. Rest. Special time with a parent. Dinner. Bed.) For the record... soooo many other things happened in his day outside of these 7 events. We went on walks. We went to see Santa. We spent time with family. He had a baby sitter. But these 7 things were guarenteed in his day. And you guys. Giving him this picture schedule was like swaddeling a newborn. Immediately soothing and calming.

Every morning and every evening we would go over each of these schedules with him. It took a total of about 2 minutes. And he LOVED it. My little Type A boy started asking to "talk about my day," before we even got around to mentioning it.


We also learned that while we want to be flexible as a family, there are some things we just can't bend on right now. And by that, I mean, lunch is at straight up noon. And naptime is at 1:00pm. And bedtime is at 7:45pm. Always and forever. Without exception.

The best way to help our buddy cope is to keep him fed and keep him rested.

A hungry, tired boy just can't hang.

And neither can his mom.

Positive Reinforcement

We are big believers in positive reinforcement at our home. We deal in stickers and praise, and if the occasion calls for it, an M&M or two. At home we can get fairly lax and inattentive and forget to make much of Oliver's good behavior, but while we are traveling, we really up our game. Our goal was to hand out 5-6 stickers per day for even the tiniest bit of good behavior he displayed. 

You came when I called? Here's a sticker!

You went to the bathroom happily? Here's a sticker!

You set your cup down gently? Here's a sticker!

His grandparents will be finding stickers all over their house until next Christmas.

But you guys, it worked. The more praise and stickers and positive attention he got, the more he tried to earn more. The more we celebrated his good behavior, the happier he felt and the less likely he was to lose his mind.

However... when he did...

Consistent Consequences

Goodness gracious we tried to be consistent with consequences. And by that I mean we are very tired. And distracted. And sometimes the couch is just so comfortable and the conversation just so engaging... but we certainly did our best when it came to addressing his challenging behavior. 

For O-- as much as he needs us to be consistent with consequences at home, he is desperate for it while we are gone. Knowing that the rules are the same, even while everything else is different, is surprisingly comforting and reassuring to him. The less structure and boundaries he senses, the more chaotic and out of control he feels.

Thus, the bottom step of the stairs at Gma and Gpa's house and the little chair facing the wall in Nana's playroom became familiar haunts of our little boy.

Because time out.

Gentler Bedtime

And this. So much this.

At home, it's a quick prayer, song and kiss. 

And then it's a little much needed "ME time."

But all the fears and insecurities came springing to life at bedtime, when the lights were down, and the tired was starting to show, and the floodgates of emotion were unleashed.

It took us a while to figure this one out... but slowing bedtime down, lingering in his room, letting him settle in our presence made all the difference. Each night one of us would lay on the floor beside his bed for an extra 10 minutes or so. This took him from crazy, unmanageable meltdowns to peaceful surrender immediately. Mostly we were just quiet beside him in the room, listening to his rambling train of thought as he self-talked his way to sleep. Every now and then he pulled us in to the sweetest conversations that made me want to keep up the lingering once we got home.

"Daddy. You're a man. Ah'ver's a guy. You're a man and Ah'ver's a guy. Ah'ver's a good guy. And you're a good man, Daddy."

I mean. You guys. I cannot even.

Before he fell asleep, we'd slip out of his room. Reminding him he was safe and that one of us would come check on him in a bit.

We'd do a quick check-in about 10 minutes later... and find him still rambling to himself contentedly. We'd tell him we loved him. 

And that was that.

So basically, we will be spending the rest of our lives learning our guys. But for this guy. During this season. These 5 things are gold. 

We are still growing our toolbox of tips and tricks for our anxious guy. And I'm thinking a few miles down the road and imagining how we will help him at 5 years, and 7 years, and 15 years, grow into a man of courage and faith. 

Cheers to all you mommas and daddies who are helping your little ones, and medium ones, and nearly grown ones find their footing in an unpredictable world. We are standing with you, praying for our boys to know and trust and find themselves safe in their Father's arms.

Sara DearComment