As the school term comes to an end, many families are preparing to go away and have a holiday to enjoy a much needed ‘oasis of relaxation’ in their hectic lives. Holiday preparations can become a bit stressful, making sure clothes are washed and packed, passports and tickets accounted for and enough time is estimated for the journey. Travelling can present some discomforts and challenges but once the holiday destination is reached then it can all seem worthwhile.
Going away with a traumatised child means extra planning and different expectations
For the foster carers I work with, there are similar hopes and expectations for their holidays with the child or children they caring for. Unfortunately, sometimes the level of trauma within the children may mean that additional needs and adjustments have to be factored in, and handled along the way. Trauma doesn’t go away just because its holiday time!
Sadly, for a highly anxious child, going somewhere ‘lovely,’ possibly with a pool, great activities and food and plenty of opportunities for ‘fun’, can feel overwhelming, both on an emotional and on a sensory level. Standing in queues, being in close proximity to strangers, different sounds, smells, tastes, touches and visual input can feel exhausting and put them on hyper, hyper alert thus ramping up their already heightened sense of potential danger and threat.
Here are some of the things I suggest when taking a child with a history of developmental trauma away on holiday:
- Keep pre-holiday preparations to a minimum – the build-up may feel like ‘too much’
- Try not to buy too many new ‘holiday’ clothes and things, also hold back on holiday treats – it can cause overwhelm as they may feel they don’t deserve them, or worry about losing them, or getting them taken away
- Make sure they get plenty of pictures of where they are going – include the train, plane, car, coach, accommodation, airport/port
- Find out where the toilets are for any part of the journey
- Write down and agree the snacks and drinks you will take – find photographic evidence of where others can be bought
- Ensure they know that mealtimes will be the same also how, and where, YOU can always get more food if needed
- Have a written and photographic plan for the journey there and back
- Be aware that their senses may be heightened so the textures of seats may be very uncomfortable so long, loose trousers are good
- Know that planes, trains and coaches can be cold or too hot so have layers of clothing
- Have simple soothing things to do for the journey, colouring in and doodling can be soothing, items they like to fiddle with to self-soothe, sensory materials they like to hold or stroke, paper and pens, books, card games
- Don’t invest too heavily in believing they will like/love the beach, pool, sun, change, food, different routine – some they may, some they may not, without a clear history of previous holidays you are always guessing
- Keep it all VERY simple with a schedule the child helps to create which allows for small variations but keeps food and sleep like home
- Discuss and create a ‘safe space’ they can go to where you will find them if things get too much or they can’t find you for any reason – role play several times how to get to it
- Have a single word you will all use if any of you is getting too tired, stressed or needs time away together to re-connect
- Keep something with you that needs to be taken back home to keep that connection – a pet’s toy, a small possession from an important person, an object that will be needed back home
- Arrange for photos or Skype or FaceTime with pets if the children are attached to them
- Take something that smells of home – maybe a T-shirt they last wore there
- Give them a photocopy of all your tickets there and to return home and a calendar they can see the days on to cross off
- If there’s more than one of you, take some time out for yourselves as you need to re-charge
Holiday may have a different meaning for a ‘looked-after’ child
Children who have experienced loss and have complex attachment needs may think that holiday is a euphemism for them being taken and left somewhere without you. When I worked in domestic violence refuges sometimes parents told children that they were there on holiday. Children are often adept at filling in the missing pieces and may come up with a scenario you could not have imagined which relates to being abandoned or hurt. Working with them to find ways they can physically have proof you are, and will be, there for them will be helpful.
The other thing to do is to respectfully suggest and hold their feelings around any of this, “I have been wondering if being away from home might make you feel…….?” “Maybe holidays before were not always a happy time?” Answers are not necessary when speculating, it’s about showing that you want to get that this could be really hard and may bring up big feelings and possibly fears, which is fine.
Go forward with optimism, you are doing something you all need but be realistic too!