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What Traveling With an Anxious Child Has Taught Me

By Ann Shields

Jan 6, 2020

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Design by Emily Blevins

A travel editor discovers that her daughter’s diagnosed anxiety means different kinds of journeys ahead.

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We’d secured timed tickets to the planetarium show at the California Academy of Sciences and were waiting in line to enter. It soon became clear my 10-year-old Olivia was uncomfortable—not chatting with the rest of us, not looking around. As the auditorium doors opened and the line started to inch forward, Olivia blurted out that she didn’t want to see the show; that she was scared. But she’d been to a similar show at our planetarium in New York, we said. No, she replied, starting to cry, she couldn’t do this. I relented. We stayed outside as her brother, Louie, and her father, Thom, filed into the theater, confused.

This is the first time I remember anxiety holding Olivia back. 

The writer and her daughter (left); Olivia and Louie at the beach (right).

She was a funny, opinionated little kid, full of jazzy energy, and mobbed by friends. One small thing that in retrospect seemed like a hint of things to come: She usually planned to return from sleepovers before bedtime so she could sleep in her own bed. I dismissed it then—it was how I’d felt, too, as a kid. Otherwise, her anxiety seemed to come out of nowhere, rising up as she approached adolescence.

I’m a travel writer and editor. The desire to explore new places is fundamental to my identity. I figured out that my husband was The One when I discovered on our first trip together how easy our shared travel style was. After we had kids, the only things that held us back from traveling more often were money, visits to grandparents, and school schedules. But I was certain things would change eventually: We’d be able to pick it up again, and the kids would be travelers like us. But it wasn’t that simple.

In the years following our California trip, anxiety began to control Olivia. She stayed home frequently. She’d go through the motions of getting ready for school before collapsing in tears at the front door, unable to make herself leave. At first, we tried to force her, picking her up and urging her on her way, but then she’d be unable to get on the subway, or worse, get on and then push her way off to throw up into a trash can. 

Olivia was not alone in her experience of teenage anxiety. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that fully 25 percent of kids between ages 13 and 19 have an anxiety disorder. Not all of these kids have the same kind of anxiety or the same degree of it. Not all anxieties affect family travel but many do. From conversations with other parents and desperate middle-of-the-night research for coping ideas, I know we’re not the only family struggling to find a healthy balance between what’s possible for our child and our own travel desires.

Olivia spent her junior year of high school on our living room sofa. (School refusal is an actual thing.) After a long series of therapists were unable to help, we lucked upon a tag-team duo of a psychiatrist and a therapist, both of whom advocate a combination of DBT (Dialectic Behavior Therapy) and medication in the treatment of anxiety and depression and other common mental diagnoses. Olivia was hospitalized briefly (and horribly), and then eventually, after months of hard work, she emerged from the darkest, scariest period our family has known, stronger, calmer, more communicative.

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But she still didn’t want to leave New York. Even though months of therapy and balanced medication allowed her to resume a more regular school routine and a life away from the sofa, Olivia remained squeamish about taking the show on the road. Leaving the protection of her routine meant going to a place with different foods, language, beds. When a new job offered us more opportunities to travel, Olivia was often unable to come along. I didn’t want to leave her behind, and she didn’t want to go. How to keep us both happy? 

A trip that touches on passions and curiosity can prove irresistible. 

Olivia’s love of books, theater, and nerd culture presented me with an idea for a first postdepression trip: London. There were many pluses. One of my sisters and her family lived there, so cousins provided an attractive lure. There was the shared language. There was Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Who, Agatha Christie, and Shakespeare. And, perhaps the most important: there was the Harry Potter Studio Tour. Olivia agreed when I assured her that she and I could go at her pace, take breaks, and stay back at the flat if she needed to decompress. 

The London experiment was a success. We visited the Tower of London and saw the massive ravens, the Beefeaters, and the dungeons. We ate curry and fish and chips. We shopped the market stalls for vintage clothes at Camden Town and Spitalfields. There was even some serendipitous magic: One cold, gray day we crossed the Thames to tour the reconstructed Globe Theater and discovered that Romeo and Juliet was being performed that afternoon for school groups. Not only were there still free tickets available, we were given seats in the royal box. As the groundlings watched the performance in the swirling snow, we sat on padded benches in the box above stage left, protected from the elements. And, kismet! The concession stand sold hot chocolate.

While Olivia and I were in London indulging our lit-nerd selves, Thom took Louie skiing in Jackson Hole. By taking separate vacations, we’d stumbled upon another way to cope with one kid’s travel anxiety and its effects on the rest of the family. Since then, Thom and I have taken turns traveling one on one with the kids, and those trips are unfailingly amazing—we get to know Olivia and Louie in whole new ways, and the in-jokes we share are enough to (deliciously) drive the rest of the family crazy.

The family whitewater rafting down the Snake River.

After London, Olivia’s reluctance to travel wasn’t magically cured, but things did improve. And with each trip, we learned a few more tricks that helped us navigate rough spots.

One tool was added to our survival kit during a family trip to Wyoming. Before a white-water rafting trip down the Snake River, our friend Steve, a former river guide, sensed Olivia’s anxiety. Instead of a “You can do this!” and “It’s not scary!” bluster, which would have shut her down, Steve enlisted her as a cohort, giving her a role in making the trip a success. There was lots of cheerful bluster, yes, but his focus was not on her reluctance or anxiety. It was on her helping to get everyone in the boat trained and ready for the rapids ahead. 

When we pulled the rafts up onto the bank for lunch, we’d just made it through the most dramatic white water we’d see that day. Olivia joined Steve, Thom, and Louie in a raft to check out the other side of the Snake. They jumped in the water and bounced down a milder section of rapids with life vests on, bobbing under the water and popping back up, laughing. Olivia scrambled up the bank and ran upstream to jump in and do it again over and over until lunch was ready. This was the same kid who’d sat ashen and silent in the backseat, trying to think of an acceptable excuse not to get on the raft. She’d focused on the task at hand and splashed past the problem.

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Again, this raft trip breakthrough signified baby steps, not a miracle cure. But we were all making progress. In a decision that seemed unfathomable not long before, we later opted to leave my suddenly too-freaked-out-to-go daughter at home with cousins when the rest of us traveled to Mexico City for a post-Christmas break. I rarely stopped thinking of her during the trip: how she would love the city and its joyous colors and the elegant buildings in Condesa and all the silly tiny dogs on leashes. And also, honestly, how she would be stressed out by the intensity of the crowds, worry about what to eat from the unfamiliar choices, and wish she were home and could sleep in her own bed. 

Olivia’s struggles exposed my own travel anxiety; feelings that I’ve been able to soldier past or suppress. As an adult, I can step outside the dread I feel before a trip when, with frantic regularity, every horrible possible outcome runs through my head, ranging from the inexplicable sudden death of a family member to a cat sitter that may forget to come by. I can get past the darkness by reminding myself that these swirling fears are illogical and that I’ve enjoyed rich travel experiences in spite of having entertained the same kind of grim thoughts before. Often, reminding myself of the novelty of a new destination is what helps me shake off the leaden mantle of fear and drown out the nervous voice in my head. 

It’s not just me and Olivia with issues, either. During the trip to Mexico City without Olivia, Louie discovered his own. One afternoon, he and I waded into a busy street market off the Zócalo. He was fine, bought a souvenir, ate some food, and suddenly, he wasn’t fine: He was wild-eyed, claustrophobic in the crowd, dying to get free. A massive open door revealed a quiet inner courtyard and we dipped in quickly (Gracias, Museo de la Ciudad) for a few minutes of deep breathing (Gracias, DBT family therapy) before forging back onto the street and returning to the open Zócalo. The experience, as stressful as it was, gave him some useful insight into Olivia’s situation. Back at the hotel, Louie described to Thom how desperate he’d felt in the crowded market and drew a parallel between Olivia’s anxiety and his own. The sympathetic connection he made felt like a little parental victory, an olive branch proffered in a often-contentious sibling relationship. 

Because I've muscled through travel anxiety, I want Olivia and Louie to experience mastery over fear and negativity, too. When I’m dealing with a stressed-out child (or husband, or self), I want to help them create that mental inner courtyard, far from the crowd, where they can remind themselves that there’s a way out.  That they’re not locked in and that we can find the way together. 

Olivia is 20 now, still smart and funny, but more independent and thriving. She encouraged me to write this for the same reason she talks openly about her condition: She knows that normalizing mental health issues like anxiety and depression and giving them a familiar face will help remove the stigma and shame. She is still not an avid traveler, but she plans to study abroad next year. In the meantime, we try to travel together and to find new ways to conquer or placate the anxiety monster, at home and abroad. Sometimes we succeed.

Note: The best and most thoughtful vacation planning won’t stand up to the ugly debilitating anxiety monster that can arise out of nowhere and flatten your kid. If you’re planning a trip, talk to your child’s therapist about it first. Explain the scope of the vacation you’re considering and ask for help in making it a success. The therapist may have ideas about how to present the idea in the least stressful way for your child and be able to suggest coping skills to practice away from the familiar home environment. 

Also, buy travel insurance with CFAR (Cancel for Any Reason) coverage or a policy that has an airtight Pre-Existing Medical clause. Read all the small print before you buy: Every insurance company is different and each offers several levels of coverage.

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