In my opinion, anxiety can be difficult to react to with compassion because it is often illogical. The natural first reaction is to blow off concerns that are invalid with statements like, “That’s not going to happen”, “Don’t worry”, “That doesn’t even make sense”, or “You’re overreacting.” These are not comforting statements to the person with anxiety. Anxiety does not originate from a place of logic. Anxiety is an emotional response to a given situation, and while the anxious person may be able to recognize the illogical nature of his or her concern, the anxiety is still there and it is very real.
At home we live a very structured life. We have chore charts and schedules posted because my child with anxiety functions a million times better in a predictable environment. This level of predictability is not possible on vacation – at least not on the type of vacations we take. For this reason, it is critical to the success of our vacations that we respect the needs of our anxious child. Following are a few of the concessions we have made in order to provide a fun vacation for everyone.
HAVE A BASIC DAILY SCHEDULE
We may not know exactly where we will be at noon, but we do know that we are going to have to stop for lunch. We may not know exactly what time we will be done at an activity, but we do know the basic order of events for the day. We talk over our basic schedule with our entire family and then add statements such as, “This is a flexible schedule, so it doesn’t matter what time we get to these activities.” This does two things for our anxious child. First, it provides a framework for the day that helps alleviate the anxiety that comes from just winging it. Second, by announcing the flexibility of the schedule, and the fact that it doesn’t matter what time we start any of our activities, we have set the expectation that we expect to have to be flexible, and that being late is not possible.
RESPECT THE SPECIFIC ANXIETIES OF YOUR FAMILY MEMBER
Once you’ve lived with an anxious person, you come to know that there are a few things which always trigger an anxious response. In the case of our anxious child, he is obsessed with running out of gas. When we take a road trip, or rent a car to get around a city, he is constantly checking the fuel gauge. We make certain to never drop below a quarter tank of gas. It doesn’t matter to my husband or I if we fill the entire tank with gas, or just three quarters of it, but it make a huge difference to our son.
Our anxious child hates being late. He would rather miss an activity altogether than be even a minute or two late. Accommodating this anxiety can be more difficult than just filling the gas tank early. Because he is an extremely literal thinker, we have to be careful how we phrase statements regarding arrival times. If we are going to a museum or any other activity in which arrival time is noncritical, we say something along the lines of, “We would like to arrive around one, but it doesn’t really matter when we get there.” If we are heading to a movie or another activity with a specific start time we say, “The movie starts at 1:00, so we need to be there by 12:45.” When he was younger, we would also include the time we needed to leave the house and the time at which he should start getting ready. I know. This seems excessive, but it alleviated his anxiety and allowed all of us to have a good experience.
EXPLAIN AT WHATEVER LEVEL IS NECESSARY TO ALLEVIATE THE ANXIETY
As with outlining the times surrounding an activity, those with anxiety may require a greater level of detail surrounding a decision in order to feel comfortable. For example, our anxious child is also a very picky eater. He is constantly concerned that we will not be able to find food he likes. Inasmuch as he loves burgers, chicken and french fries, this isn’t really a valid concern. We can walk into nearly any diner in North America and order food he will be entirely happy with.
That being said, he still worries. When we try out a new restaurant on a road trip we almost inevitably have some version of the following conversation:
“What if they don’t have anything I like?”
“Well, then we will let everyone else finish their meals and then we will run into a grocery store and pick up something that you know you like.”
“What if we can’t find a grocery store?”
“Then we’ll pop into the gas station and get a big bag of chips or pretzels and drink and whatever else you need to fill up.”
“What if you don’t know what I want?”
“You can pick it yourself. No worries. I’ll make sure you don’t go hungry.”
I’ve tried skipping to the end of this conversation when he first expresses concern about the restaurant. It doesn’t work. My child needs the level of detail provided in the conversation to be certain that I have a plan that will ensure he not go hungry. In exchange for the thirty seconds it takes to lay it all out for him, we have a child who can relax and be happy.
SLOW DOWN, RELAX, ENJOY YOURSELF
People with Anxiety Disorders are highly adept at picking up on anxiety in others. If you are stressed out, I guarantee you that your anxious child is stressed out right along with you. I have learned not to over schedule a day and to leave plenty of time for things like finding parking or navigating public transportation. These may seem like the little things, but it makes a huge difference. The moment I start to stress out about being late, or being lost, or any one of a million little things, my son’s anxiety skyrockets.
Hitting the road with anxiety means dealing with a lot of new situations and uncertainty. As parents, there are several things we can do to help our anxious child relax and have fun. It does require more attention to detail than a lot of us like to give on our vacations, but it’s worth it! Not only does it minimize emotional meltdowns, but by modeling ways to control anxiety, we are teaching our kids how to handle new situations on their own. When it comes right down to it, teaching our kids how to be successful on their own is what it’s all about.
So go out, explore new places and have a wonderful summer with your anxious child!