The Sensory-Defensive Child Goes on Vacation: Lessons from Our Trip to Mexico

Summer. It’s the time of year when we loosen the strings a little, let go of our regular routines, relax, and take a vacation. But, let’s face it, summer “vacations” with young children are not really vacations. I refer to them as “being in a different place with my children.”

When you throw a sensory-defensive child into the mix, your already slim chance of having a relaxing vacation takes an even deeper nosedive, as did our recent “vacation” to visit my in-laws in the glorious city of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. (If you’ve never heard of this magical place, be sure to Google it!).

H did surprisingly well during the long travel day, but things started to unravel the evening we arrived. The combination of not enough sleep, a loud plane ride, not enough prop, too much screen time, too many transitions, a long shuttle ride, too many snacks, and San Miguel’s high altitude (not great for a kid with low-tone, whose body is already at a disadvantage when it comes to feeling energized) resulted in some seriously dysregulated behavior.

To give you a small taste…. After H’s umpteenth outburst at the dinner table, I snapped. I forcefully grabbed him, carried him inside, got down on his level and, in what I’d like to say was a slightly elevated voice, but was more like a borderline yell, exclaimed, “H! I know it’s been a long day, but your behavior is ruining our trip!”

Yep. That’s what came out of my mouth. We hadn’t even been there a full day and I was already telling my severely sensory overloaded child that he was ruining our trip. Not my best parenting moment. Sigh.

Of course the intensity of my reaction only ramped up his already on fire nervous system and he became even more dysregulated. Bigger sigh.

The good news is I pivoted pretty quickly and was able to bring my energy down to help him co-regulate. I took a few deep breaths, pulled him close to give him a tight bear hug and whispered, “H, honey, I’m sorry I said that, you’re not ruining our trip, Mommy was feeling frustrated when I said that. I know you’re having a hard time controlling your body, and I’m here to help you.”

I’d love to say that this nipped his explosive behavior in the bud and the rest of the trip was smooth as butter, but it didn’t and it wasn’t.

That first night was a nice, hefty dose of reality- this was not going to be the relaxing, enjoyable “vacation” I was expecting (keyword here is “expecting”). H was going to need lots of help, and I was going to need lots of patience, empathy, and acceptance.

The rest of the “vacation” was challenging. Extremely challenging. Like, shake your fists at the heavens and wonder why you ever had kids in the first place challenging. Out of every challenge, comes a lesson (or two, or in this case, three!) that we need to learn. Here’s what I learned:

1. When embarking on a summer “vacation” with my sensory-defensive child, I must let go of any and all expectations.

Years ago, a dear friend shared a quote with me that has stuck with me ever since- “Expectations ruin experiences.” This truth was temporarily lost on me at the beginning of our vacation. Even after my reality-check, it still took a few days for me to let go of my expectations, embrace what was happening, and tune in to H’s needs.

Getting caught up in our expectations- this was supposed to be a relaxing vacation...H has been doing so well, I thought for sure he’d do great on this trip...H is six for god sakes, he should be able to sit through a meal without constantly disrupting everyone/ not have a meltdown every time he doesn’t get his way/ go for more than three minutes without tormenting his brother- exacerbates the problem, creates more suffering, and prevents us from being able to effectively problem-solve.

This brings me to the 5 Minute Rule for Negativity. Whenever you experience something out of your control that makes you feel angry/stressed/indignant/frustrated, you have five minutes to let it rip (scream, yell, curse, vent, punch a pillow, feel sorry for yourself etc) and then, you let it go. Simple. Though not easy. For a helpful way to release negative thoughts, click here.

My mantra for our next “vacation?” I am void of expectation. I am open to and accepting of whatever this experience is going to be.

2. Sensory defensive kids do better when they know “the plan” (what are we doing, where are we going) and what’s expected of them.

Letting go of our personal expectations does not mean letting go of our behavioral expectations of our child. It has become second nature to fill H in on “the plan” for our day so there are no surprises. Our vacation taught me the importance of coupling “the plan” with my behavioral expectations and making sure these are both clearly communicated to him throughout the day.

This lesson also took several days for me to learn. On the fourth night of our six night trip, we had plans to go out to dinner. Prior to leaving, I took H aside, got down to his level, gently, but firmly, put my hands around his upper arms and said, “H, we’re going out to a restaurant tonight. I expect you to sit at the dinner table, keep your hands to yourself, and use a regular voice if you need help. If you have trouble controlling your body, I’m going to pick you up, remove you from the table and help your body calm down. We’ll go sit in the car so we don’t disturb anyone at the restaurant.”

Cut to dinner. H did great! I had fully prepared myself for some car time (if you can’t totally let go of expectations, lowering them is also helpful!) and was thrilled to be able to enjoy the meal, the stunning ambience, and the wonderful company of my family.

Note to self: Our kids, especially sensory-defensive kids, aren’t mind readers. They need us to clearly and consistently let them know what’s coming next and what’s expected of them.

  1. A little structure goes a long way.

If you’re the parent of a sensory-defensive child, you’re well aware of the roles structure and routine play in reducing your little one’s anxiety. Here’s a simple equation: Structure + routine = predictability = a feeling of safety = a calm and happy amygdala (the fight or flight center of the brain).

In hindsight, I wish I’d been more thoughtful about creating a routine for H while we were in Mexico. Having a thought out daily “plan” for the week which was discussed with my husband, H, and my in-laws prior to the trip would have been helpful for all of us.

Nothing too specific, just a basic framework to follow: 1. Wake up, play, eat breakfast 2. Brush teeth and get dressed 3. Park time 4. Walk to the town square, buy some rocket balloons, giggle uncontrollably (my boys’ favorite part of the trip!) 5. Head home for lunch 6. Naptime/play time at the house 7. Dinner 8. Shower and get ready for bed 9. Read books 10. Bedtime

Establishing and communicating our daily routine beforehand would have given H a better idea of what to expect and following the routine while we were there would have helped contain his anxiety.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a fine line between accommodating your child’s needs and being too accommodating. It’s important for H’s growth that he feels and tolerates the discomfort of being off his normal schedule but it’s also important not to stretch him to the extent that he’s in a constant state of overwhelm. Navigating this fine line is one of the hardest aspects of parenting.

I love this quote from psychologist and author, Dr. Shefali...

Our children may be small and powerless in terms of living independent lives but they are mighty in their potential to be our life’s greatest awakeners.”

I’m continuously amazed by the things H awakens in me. In Mexico, he awakened an awareness of how tightly I’m still holding on to unrealistic expectations of him. He awakened the temporarily forgotten knowledge that, while he’s certainly come a long way, he still has extra needs that require extra attention. And, he awakened the part of me that still feels sad about his atypical development and worried about his future. A part of me that, just like H, needed to be seen, heard, and tended to. And I thought we were just taking a “relaxing vacation” to Mexico!

If you have a sensory-defensive child, or a child who is behaviorally challenging, what have you learned from your summer vacations? What, if anything, has your child awakened in you? If your vacation didn’t go smoothly, what would you do differently next time? Leave a comment below. The Sensory Mom readers and I would love to hear from you.


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