Navigating Vacation & Holiday Meltdowns

Thank you to Heather Benbrook, the author of this web page. Heather is a school counselor and also an LPC-Associate completing her supervision hours under the supervision of Bonnie Mondragon, MS, LPC-S, RPTS.

Navigating Vacation & Holiday Meltdowns

Vacations and holidays are supposed to be fun, right?

In theory, yes. They can actually be fun and relaxing too sometimes. However, at other times, these hiatuses from our norm can be stress provoking as well. There are many factors to consider here on why these “fun” vacations tend to become more stressful in the end for everyone.

First of all, it causes a disruption in your normal routine. A change in scenery can be fun and much needed, but this disruption of routine, schedule and environment throws us off and puts us out of our comfort zone that we create while at home.

Depending on where you are staying and who you are vacationing with can also be an important factor. The family vacation with matching shirts where grandpa, grandma, aunts and uncles and “everyone in between” is coming can definitely be stress provoking. Staying with extended family and the expectations and dynamics that every family unit within the extended family has can create a confusing environment. Are we there yet?? You know the question is coming if you have children at any age (even adults wonder it, too).

Mode of transportation is a stressful event whether you are driving, flying, taking a bus, etc. There are many factors to consider and none of them are stress-free.

Lastly is the expectations that we create of what a vacation should look like. Vacations are more realistically like the Griswalds instead of what we see on the Disney commercials. Truth be told, a Griswald experience is actually normal. We try to get our money’s worth or seize the day, but we also have to build in some down time and quality family time within it as well. Otherwise, if we try to cram so much into this vacation time that it becomes overscheduled and exhausting.

Now, Let’s Add in Duchenne

With Duchenne, we know that there are many other considerations to think about when it comes to vacationing and holidays. There are medical, mobility and transportation and social considerations to list a few.

With medical considerations, knowing where the nearest pharmacy, doctor and hospitals are in unknown territory can be stress-inducing. There is the lingering need to know just in case someone gets sick or gets hurt while out of town.

Then, there are the mobility considerations depending on the mode of transportation to and from the vacation/holiday spot. If you are driving, the road trip can be long and tedious sometimes. Restroom and stretch break stops are more important with Duchenne. Airplane trips can be stressful with the packing and seat arrangements on the planes as well. If there are needs for a wheelchair as well, air trips can be cumbersome and stressful for the individual with Duchenne and the family. The wheelchair accessible seats are also limited on the planes, so finding the airfare can also be challenging.

Using a wheelchair when enjoying your vacation time can be another area of stress. Knowing where all of the ramps are, making sure that the path and sidewalks are clear – especially in crowded areas – can be difficult. Unfortunately, navigating through places with a powerchair may not be a consideration that extended family and friends think about.

Lastly, there are the social considerations to look at when traveling with Duchenne. If there are family functions, making sure that the cousins and other family members understand that it might be a different experience for the child with Duchenne. Creating and fostering an understanding can be important when thinking about this situation.

For example, running around and playing on playgrounds or going to an amusement park is not the same for a child with Duchenne. There could be physical and social limitations that other children might not understand. This can create stress on the child with Duchenne and prompt an emotional reaction about not being able to participate. Many times this will cause sadness or anxious feelings which can lead to isolation or feelings of being different as well. Trying to incorporate things that everyone will be able to do and participate in can be very difficult on vacations and holidays.

Signs of Children Becoming Overwhelmed

The best sign of someone being overwhelmed is a change in behavior.

If a child is normally quiet and introverted and all of a sudden becomes active and social, or vice versa, this would be considered a change in behavior. Agitation and extra fidgeting is another sign to look for. Withdrawing and isolation is another area of concern. Crying or throwing a tantrum could be a behavior that is releasing or an outlet for relieving stress for children as well.

Many times, we look at these behaviors as acting out or a lack of discipline. However, they have to release stress just as adults do. However, they do not always have the tools and coping skills needed to use in the moment of stress. 

Navigating Those Emotions

Navigating the intense feelings of children being overwhelmed and stressed can be difficult, especially in the moment of these releasing behaviors. These moments can be intense and often come in the middle of crowds of strangers or family – with many staring, judgemental eyes. However, there are a few things that we can do as parents.

First of all, as difficult as it is, remain calm. The child will feed off of your energy.

When we have a dysregulated brain and we meet a child with a dysregulated brain, chaos and irrational approaches ensue. The stress response is ignited in our brains in the amygdala. We either go into fight, flight, freeze or fawn mode at this point. Neither the child’s brain or our brain is rational and capable of reaching the prefrontal cortex to rationalize through our emotions. I like to call this our Caveman and Thinking Brain. When we are cavemen and cavewomen, we cannot communicate, just like our ancestors many years ago.

However, there are some ways to get back to our regulated, thinking brain. My favorite strategy is the Looking Up and Grounding Strategy. Our eye position is directly correlated to the part of the brain that we are engaging. For example, when we look down, our amygdala and emotional brain is engaged. When we look straight, our brain is connected to our auditory processing within our brain. However, when we look up, our prefrontal cortex is engaged and active which allows us to engage our rational thoughts and process through our emotions.

When you use the Grounding Strategy in addition to Looking Up, you engage your 5 senses and go further away from the amygdala and emotional stress. The grounding strategy is as follows: name 5 things you see, name 4 things you feel/touch, name 3 things you hear, name 2 things you smell or like to smell, and name 1 thing you taste or like to taste.

Taking deep breaths in between the senses can also be helpful. A couple of my favorite breathing strategies is the five-finger/starfish breathing and the 5-6-7(4-5-6) breathing strategy. You can use one hand and trace your fingers with the other hand. When you move up the finger you breathe in, hold the breathe at the top of the finger and breathe out while you trace down the finger. Complete this for all 5 fingers. For the 5-6-7 (or 4-5-6) breathing, you breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 6 seconds and 7 seconds to breathe out.

The reasoning behind this hold and longer exhalation is that it allows the oxygen to flow to all extremities and to the brain appropriately to create a calming effect. If 5-6-7 is too long, you can adjust to a 4-5-6 breath as well. 

Getting Back to Routines

When coming down off the most fun and relaxing vacation and holiday you have ever had, now it is time to unwind. Know that it takes time. If you have ever gone from this amazing vacation and then straight into the work or school week, you most likely felt tired and needing a vacation from the vacation.

The most important approach to transition back to normalcy is to give yourself some time to adjust. In a way, we grieve the relaxing and fun times that we just experienced, but also know that we have to get back to our normal routines.

You might find that some children naturally transition back to these structures and routines because they thrive on it. However, some might want to test the waters a little during this time. Getting back to normal bedtimes and hygiene routines is a great way to ease the family back into daily home life.

Planning some fun game times, movie times and nap times in the days transitioning back at home can be helpful too, so it doesn’t feel like vacation mode is just cut off cold turkey. 

Final Thoughts

The most important thing to remember during holidays and vacations is to be mindful and in the moment as much as possible.

When we focus on the past, it can prompt feelings of guilt and sadness of what might not have happened the way we wanted it to. Focusing on the future and what is to come often prompts anxiety. We may even fixate on trying to fit everything in or on the thought of having to go back to reality. However, when we focus on and live in the moment, we find greater joy and peace in the moments we spend with our family.

Yes, you will have stressful moments. However, when you prepare ahead of time and have the coping skills to get through those stressful moments, it will be easier for everyone to enjoy the time you have together.