How To Make Holiday Travel Less Stressful on Children with Special Needs

04/01/2016 20:34


How To Make Holiday Travel Less Stressful on Children with Special Needs


Traveling over the busy holiday season is stressful for everyone, but for children with special needs, the hustle and bustle of busy airports, crowded planes, and an upheaval in their typical routine can cause serious stress and anxiety. These tips will help you make holiday travel less stressful for children with special needs, as well as the rest of your family.


Plan Ahead with Travel Providers

When you’re traveling with a child with special needs, there’s more that goes into planning a trip than simply booking and confirming travel arrangements. Contact all travel providers in advance and discuss your child’s needs, such as medical and mobility equipment, medications, and dietary needs that will need to be accommodated while you travel.

Travel providers usually have ways to accommodate most special needs. Giving them plenty of advance notice means you won’t have to track down someone with the authority to help you while your flight is minutes from departure, and the staff and attendants can be prepared to meet your child’s needs before your arrival.


Make a List of Possibilities and How to Manage Potential Challenges

You know your child better than anyone, so make a list of th e difficulties you might encounter and think about how you’ll overcome these obstacles should they arise.

For example, accessibility, delays and long lines, and environmental stimuli that can lead to sensory overload (sights, sounds, smells, and a general sense of chaos) can all be over-stimulating for some children with special needs. Bring along items that soothe your child when she experiences anxiety and toys or other objects that can serve as a helpful distraction.

If your child uses a service dog, know your rights when it comes to traveling with the dog. If your family pet isn’t a service dog, make arrangements with a pet sitter or local kennel ahead of time so that your child will have the peace of mind of knowing that their four-legged buddy is safe while you’re out of town. Often, pets, even if they aren’t certified service animals, are quite soothing for children with special needs. So, if you predict your child will struggle with being away from their companion, take steps to prepare them for that absence ahead of time.


Prepare Your Child for What to Expect

It can be helpful to talk with some children about what to expect when your family travels over the holidays. Children who have difficulty with transitions, for instance, can benefit from practice runs and ongoing discussions to prepare for the change in routine and environment. A social story, such as this model developed by the Dublin Airport  can be a valuable tool in helping your child understand what to expect.

Preparing your child for the upcoming transition and talking about the fun aspects of the trip, such as seeing a favorite aunt or cousin, can help your child feel more relaxed when travel day arrives. Make note of what your child seems most excited about and bring up the activities that he is looking forward to when you’re on the road and it seems like stress is beginning to take a toll on your child. These reinforcements can help to refocus your child’s energy on the positive.


Plan Travel Times Wisely

When making your travel arrangements, choose the travel times that will work best for your child’s routine and other needs. For example, if your child typically becomes stressed and over-stimulated in big crowds, choosing flights during less-busy times can help to avoid exposure to stressful stimuli. If your child generally copes better in the morning after a good night’s rest but is more likely to become easily agitated in the afternoon and evening, traveling in the morning will be less stressful for everyone.


Choose Comfortable Clothing

While dressing your children in fancy, holiday-appropriate clothing may make for a great photo op, opt for comfort over style for travel days. Any child can get cranky wearing uncomfortable clothing for a several-hour flight or car ride, but for some children with special needs, this discomfort can escalate to more extreme emotions and general anxiety.

There will be plenty of time for photos and dress-up after you reach your destination. For traveling, always emphasize comfort and practicality first. That may mean pajama bottoms and slippers, but don’t fret over appearances if it means your child is comfortable and happy for the duration of your trip.


Parents of children with special needs all have their own unique strategies for navigating day-to-day circumstances. But if you don’t travel often, the stress of the holidays combined with crowded roads or airports can make even the most-organized parent stress about their child’s comfort and safety. Planning ahead, preparing your child for the transition if possible, and readying yourself with soothing activities and backup plans will help you create a pleasant, stress-free holiday travel experience that your whole family will enjoy.


Lindsay M writes for and, in her spare time, enjoys satisfying her other passions - like cooking, biking and photography. She is happily married to her high school sweetheart and the mother of twin girls.