Spring Break is my family’s favorite time to travel. Because we live in chilly Idaho and our grandmas both live in sunny southern California, we usually schedule a trip that includes some combination of theme parks, beaches, and family visits. For most families, juggling such an ambitious schedule is a challenge, but in my family, we have always had to plan for an extra complication: my second son’s mental illness.
None of us will ever forget the Epic Sea World Meltdown of 2011. Eric was 11 years old and had an “official” diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder with Sensory Processing Disorder, after a long history of diagnosis roulette that began when he was five and had included ADHD and autism spectrum disorder. After a long day at the park, Eric was tired, grumpy, and overstimulated. His younger brother pushed one too many buttons, and Eric exploded.
I had to act fast. Eric would often run when he was angry, and as he took off, his older brother discreetly shadowed him while I directed my younger two children to a bench. Eric’s yells were enough to cause a scene at that point, and I thought for a few panicked minutes that someone would call security—or that I would have to. But then I remembered how much my son loved snuggle animals. I asked if a stuffed animal would help him to feel better. Gradually, he calmed down and collapsed in my arms, sobbing and nodding.
Later that day, when Eric had calmed down and shown that he could regulate his emotions, we stopped in a conveniently located gift shop where Eric immediately chose a manatee, “Manee,” because it was “big and fluffy.”
Any parent who thinks I resorted to bribery has not raised a child who has mental illness.
I should note that my family was incredibly fortunate to be able to take Spring Break vacations in the first place. For many families, the cost of their child’s care, the intensity of treatment, or both mean that even a short vacation is out of the question. For others, the anxiety of traveling with a child who has mental illness can be too great. I get that.
But my experience with my child has shown me that parents can plan for a successful adventure despite the challenges of mental illness. Here are a few things I have learned:
1. Start with the safety plan.
Every family of a child with mental illness should have a safety plan in place. When we travel, we need to make modifications to the plan. My son and I do this together, going over the itinerary and agreeing to a crisis plan. Here’s one template from PACER that contains good information, including triggers, actions to calm the child’s behaviors, strategies to avoid problem behaviors, and specific actions that helpers can take.
2. Take proactive measures to manage triggers including sensory issues.
I’ve learned that instead of staying with family, much as we love them, it’s better to have a place of our own where Eric has his own quiet space when he needs it. Rentals through vacation home sites are often less expensive than hotels and provide the privacy and space our family needs. I also rent a minivan for longer car trips so that the children have their own seats.
3. Don’t overdo it.
I definitely know how tempting it is to try to get your money’s worth from an expensive theme park. But I try to plan our day to include frequent breaks, regular meal and bedtimes, and activities away from the crowds. Most theme parks have quieter areas—at Disneyland, for example, you can find shade on Tom Sawyer’s Island or at the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail in California Adventure.
4. Be prepared with water, snacks, and if appropriate, medication.
Before a big trip, I usually schedule a checkup with Eric’s psychiatrist to go over our plan and make sure that his medications are working well and do not need to be adjusted. He also has a PRN medication for crisis situations. And I always carry plenty of water.
5. Plan ahead, avoid surprises, and communicate the plan to your child.
Spring Break trips are a collaborative effort in our family. I always ask for my child’s input, communicate a clear plan, and avoid surprises or last minute changes as much as possible.
After the Epic Sea World Meltdown, I learned to be more proactive about planning my family’s vacation adventures. Because I knew that Eric’s younger brother could be a trigger and that snuggle animals could help Eric to calm down, I had a plan in place to manage the behavior. We’ve since enjoyed many Spring Break family adventures and are looking forward to this year’s return to Sea World, with Manee the manatee in tow.