Traveling with Trauma: A Survival Guide

Guest Author Post

–by Emerging Mama Monica Reynolds [originally published on the author’s blog, November 21, 2017]

Another holiday season upon us! A season that for many is filled with joy, excitement, and celebrations, very often presents trauma families with additional stress and confusion. When we just want to chill and enjoy the celebrations like normal (whatever that is) families are doing, we are instead switched into extra-scaffolding mode, knowing that lax schedules, extra food and treats, gifts, and new and different people coming and going will throw off our child’s regulation and sense of security. Which, of course, leads to the opposite of joy, excitement, and celebration.

While longing for a sense of normalcy ourselves, and wanting to at least remember, if not participate, in enjoying the holidays for everything they are, we often find ourselves asking hard questions, if not aloud then definitely internally or behind closed doors.

Why does my son or daughter seem to sabotage all days that are supposed to be celebratory? Why can’t we just have a normal, or even normally stressful, visit to grandma’s house? Why does it seem as if my child wants to undermine everything celebratory or festive? Why does my child engage in these constant attention seeking behaviors–especially when there’s new eyes to entertain? Can’t the adults see the manipulation? Everything is not about him or her and, Uncle Eddy or Aunt Velma, I would really appreciate you not feeding into this destructive behavior. And, why, why, WHY does all travel seem to end with unraveling and regression? Is trying to celebrate even worth it anymore? 

If you have ever asked yourself these questions, and many more, you are in good company. Trauma families can often be left feeling alone, isolated, zapped of energy and joy, and even resentful during this time of year.

Oh, and if you are crazy   egg-nogged   destined for punishment
BRAVE enough to travel this season, extra planning and precautions will no doubt be necessary. For your sanity and everyone else’s too. After six to seven years of opting out of all unnecessary travel, we have decided to take the circus on the road. A literal road that is also one of the busiest, most traveled, and highly congested in our entire country, just for extra fun. 

In mentally and physically preparing for our trip, and the aftermath, here are some planning measures I am taking. What would you add? What does travel look like in your world? 

  • Keep expectations low. And then lower them some more. And then…even more. I have no expectation that anything-at all-will work as planned, that our drive will be seamless, that our children remembered to pack their toothbrushes, that everyone will get along, that no one will attempt to manipulate new adults, or that fun will be had. In keeping my expectations this low, and even lower, I will be pleasantly surprised during those moments of actual peace and spottings of true joy. They actually do happen! Being with extended many can still be a joy! I will focus my mental and emotional energy on capturing those peaceful moments and joy spottings, as fleeting as they may be. Everything else…is lumpy, dumpy gravy.
  • Communicate daily and hourly plans. Often. Our children need routine and predictability to feel safe, even when their behaviors may suggest otherwise. While eating breakfast, my child needs to know what time snack will be, what’s for lunch, who’s coming to dinner, and what each and all of the day’s activities will, or even may, be. Menu and schedule litanies often feel absurd to verbalize, especially knowing that our children will likely continue to ask the same questions, regardless of the fact that we just answered them. And yet, these constant reminders help my child stay regulated. When traveling, I will state approximate times for bathroom breaks, snacks, movies, meals, and arrival. Remembering to schedule downtime and rest into each day is important to. Everyone will need it.
  • Establish decision-making channels with other adults. Our children often triangulate and manipulate situations and people to their own desires. They do this over and over and over again. Until, that is, all caring and trusted adults are on the same page. Our children’s survival instincts and attachments challenges often mean that our parental rules and guidelines do not mean or represent what we-parents-think they do. This makes me cry actual tears. We know it’s in the best interest of our children to, say, NOT eat five brownies even if it is vacation, and rather TO stick to a routine bedtime. We know that with children who have experienced trauma, the reason for our rules and guidelines is multifaceted. We don’t have the time or energy to explain our reasoning to every single adult we encounter when traveling. That is not necessary anyhow. For adults interested in knowing the whys or hows, we can simply point out that hundreds of thousands of children in the foster care system are waiting for safe and loving homes. By all means, put that curiosity to good use! For now, all that needs to be communicated is that mom, dad, or primary caregiver are the only ones able to make final decisions regarding what our children do, what they eat, when they sleep, etc. unless something has been coordinated in advance. When our children ask other adults questions regarding what they can and cannot do, as mundane as the request may be, we ask that all other adults simply point our children back to us for the answer. We are thankful and grateful for the adults in our lives willing to accept and embrace this. It makes traveling possible. Clear communication channels have been so, SO important. And finally…
  • Plan for recovery. I already know that traveling, lax schedules, and interactions with people we don’t see every day will cause regression on the flip side. I know this because it happens 100% of the time. Therefore, I cannot be surprised when it happens again this time. As such, I will plan to do nothing the following day after returning. Not only will I do nothing, I will talk to no one and interact, only as absolutely necessary for survival, with the rest of the world. If that means my children will be watching Christmas movies all day long or PlayStationing themselves into a screen-induced coma, so be it. Mamas and Papas and all primary caregivers need, need, NEED time to recoup. Take the time, otherwise the time will take you.

May we also remember that saying, “No, no thanks, or not this year” are also completely viable options for the holidays. We opted out of travel and unnecessary events for many, many years. And while saying “no” felt sad at first, what we were actually saying “yes” to was our family’s health and sanity; two things that were, at some points, just hanging on.

So, wish us luck fellow trauma travelers and we will do the same for you. May we all keep our expectations low, our hearts filled with grace for one another, our sanity breaks frequent, and our cups filled with beverages of choice.

Cheers, Grace, and Handful of Peace Be With You,
Another Trauma Mama in the Trenches



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