Vacations can be wonderful makers of “core memories,” but they also involve lots of transitions, new foods, new places, less structure, lots of sensory stimulation, and overwhelming moments. These are all challenges that families navigating ADHD can feel very intensely. The goal is not to avoid these moments, but to prepare and plan in a way that reduces the impact. The intention is to limit triggering situations while also setting nervous systems up for success with lots of capacity to handle the hard moments.
This post is all about planning and preparing for success. I will have a follow up detailing how to manage the in-the moment vacation challenges soon. But for today let’s plan a trip!
Pick the Right Place and the Right Timing
Considering WHERE and WHEN is where I like to start when planning a vacation that will include a child with ADHD. I like to run all potential destinations through the following areas of consideration: sensory needs, triggers, duration and method of travel, and access to physical activities.
Sensory needs such as sensitivity to temperature and noise can be planned for at the outset with the choice of destination or even when you choose to visit. Destinations that can lead to sensory overwhelm like disney resorts can be more successful at slower times of year. Consider the sensations involved with noisy crowds, gritty sand, cold snow, and more.
Triggers are unique to each child. Children with ADHD can be triggered by stimulation of a sensory sensation, too many demands and expectations, anxiety around safety, overwhelm from too many instructions at once, vulnerability, and more. When planning a vacation try to consider past experience and ask yourself: “What environments does my child thrive in?” and “What environments are really tricky?”
The days that involve actual movement by train, plane, or automobile can be the most challenging. Consider breaking long travel days over two days and look at all of the itinerary options. Some children are more successful and prefer a longer car day over a shorter flight day. Sometimes that long flight day is worth it, but for children that are new travelers, I recommend starting with a few local vacations to build resilience.
Physical activity, especially cardiovascular and heavy work options can be an amazing regulating tool for children with ADHD. Consider how active your child is in their day to day and choose destinations that will allow for at least a similar amount of physical activity.
Involve your Child in the Choice/Planning of Activities
Involving children in the planning process of vacation activities can be a powerful tool in preparing them for the upcoming adventure. Children with ADHD often thrive when they know what to expect, and can visualize and mentally prepare for what’s to come. By providing a sense of control and ownership over their vacation experience, parents can help reduce anxiety and increase excitement in their child.
One effective way to involve children in the planning process is by previewing websites and videos of the destination, allowing them to see and learn about the activities available. Parents can also chat with friends or family members who have visited the location before, providing first-hand accounts and insider tips.
Creating a list of must-dos and pre-scheduling the big activities can also be beneficial.
This gives the child a clear idea of what to expect each day and allows them to mentally prepare for the more structured or exciting events. Parents can work with their child to prioritize the activities they want to do the most and plan accordingly.
In addition to the benefits for the child with ADHD, involving them in the planning process can also help to foster a sense of family togetherness and excitement for the upcoming vacation. It can be a fun activity for the whole family to plan and dream about the adventures to come.
Start the Expectations Conversation Early
Children with ADHD rely on structure and routine to feel safe and secure, and a new environment can be overwhelming and confusing without clear guidance. Since a vacation is naturally filled with new experiences, transitions, and an inability to do things the same way as home, talking through what to expect and what boundaries and behavioural expectations will be in place ASAP allows the time and space for a child to internalize and be ready.
For children with ADHD, context is everything. Do not assume that at home expectations will automatically transfer to a new location. I have worked with countless children who have gotten in trouble for the same behaviour, but in different locations. Frequently, upon reflection and conversation, the child truly did not realize that this behaviour was also not allowed in this new place.
For example, “no snowballs” as a rule at school is understood, but then when the context is changed to a field trip in a new location, without any instruction, a child with ADHD will often assume that this behaviour should be fine in this new setting.
If your vacation will include any safety hazards such as a body of water, conversation and expectation setting ahead of time and then on repeat while on vacation is essential. Safety is an area that I like to put a lot of pre-thought around, hazard reduction is so important for all family vacations, but especially when navigating the impulsivity of a child with ADHD.
Plan a Vacation Rhythm
Children with ADHD benefit from having a structured routine and predictable schedule or rhythm. On vacation that can be tricky as you spend time in new environments. I like to focus on creating a predictable, similar rhythm for how each day will flow and then try to integrate some key routines when possible.
One way to create a predictable vacation rhythm is to plan outdoor physical activities in the mornings, followed by lunch and downtime in the afternoons. This can help your child burn off energy and stay focused during the morning hours, while giving them a chance to rest and recharge in the afternoon.
It’s also important to find ways to integrate your child’s most crucial at-home routines into your vacation rhythm.
If your child has a bedtime routine that includes specific activities or rituals, be sure to bring those with you on your trip. This can help your child feel more comfortable and settled at bedtime, which can lead to better sleep and fewer behavioural issues.
In addition, it can be helpful to bring along any special items or tools that your child relies on at home, such as a sound machine or a beloved stuffed animal. These items can help your child feel more secure and reduce anxiety in unfamiliar surroundings.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Prep: Plan for Boredom
When it comes to traveling with children with ADHD, planning ahead for long travel days is a key part of the preparation process. Children with ADHD can have a hard time with boredom and may struggle with long periods of sitting still, so it’s important to be proactive and come up with a plan.
One effective strategy is to plan WITH your child for the travel days. This can help them feel more involved and invested in the trip, and can also give them a sense of control over the situation. I recommend starting by helping your child get an accurate sense of the duration of travel, this tends to help convey the importance of preparation. Comparing duration to a known activity is my favourite strategy for this. For example, you might say, “Our plane ride will be the length of your school day.”
Once your child has a sense of how long to prepare for, brainstorming activities and things to pack is a great second step. This might include books, games, puzzles, or other activities that your child enjoys. It can also be helpful to pack some novelty items, such as a new game or toy, but it’s important to let your child pick or test the item first to make sure it will hold their interest.
Finally, it’s a good idea to allow some time to practice packing, unpacking, and navigating their travel bag before the trip. This can help your child feel more comfortable and confident with the activities and tools you’ve chosen and their ability to access them. This process can reduce anxiety and increase their enjoyment of the trip.
Consider and Plan for Breaks
Children with ADHD tend to love action packed activities, but overstimulation and overwhelm lead to lack of enjoyment and stamina for a long action packed day. I recommend planning ahead for how and where your children (and you) will be able to have a bit of quiet alone time.
Some options could include scheduling a midday break or quiet time at the hotel or rental home, or finding a nearby park or quiet outdoor space where your child can decompress and recharge. Even renting or borrowing a stroller if your children are out of the typical stroller age range (think 4-7) to be able to put them in with some headphones when they are feeling overstimulated and tired of walking. I have heard this recommendation of strollers for older Elementary School aged kids several times for large amusement parks like Disneyland.
It’s also important to keep in mind that children with ADHD often have a hard time transitioning from one activity to another, so it’s important to build in some flexibility and allow for unexpected breaks as needed. This might mean leaving some extra time in your schedule for unexpected detours or delays, or being open to changing your plans if your child is feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated.
Create Visuals and then Post and Use Them
Creating visuals before traveling with children with ADHD can be an effective way to reduce anxiety and help your child feel more prepared and in control of the trip. Two of my favorite vacation visuals are a countdown calendar and an itinerary.
The countdown calendar is a simple and fun way to help your child visualize the time leading up to the trip. You can create a simple calendar that counts down the days until the trip, and add fun graphics or stickers to make it more engaging. This can help your child feel excited and motivated for the trip, and also give them a sense of how much time is left before the adventure begins.
The itinerary is another important visual that can help your child understand the plan for the trip. This can be as detailed or as general as you like, but it should include information about the dates, times, and locations of key activities and events. You might also include information about transportation, meals, and other important details. I also like to consider communicating any planning around your child’s sensory or anxiety needs here.
For example, letting your child know that bathrooms will be accessible at every point of the vacation can be a big stress reducer for a child that struggles with anxiety.
Once you’ve created the itinerary, it’s important to make sure your child can access it easily. You might consider printing out a copy and packing it in a place where your child can find it easily, or using a digital format that can be accessed on a phone or tablet.
Don’t let this lengthy list of things to consider sway you away from traveling with your family. Traveling with children can be HARD, I always say that family vacations are not really vacations, but trips. I personally have moved my family from Canada to Mexico for a year, travelled locally for weeks or weekends, and spent time in hotels, Air BnBs, and nature cabins. Every time it is exhausting, I spend some time questioning all of my life choices, and I end up feeling so grateful for the moments and the memories that I am left with.
It is work, no matter what, but what I have found is that when you are raising a child with the specific needs that come along with an ADHD diagnosis, taking the time to work through some of these suggestions helps lead to more ease and less strain.