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Ways to smooth summer travel with your ADHD child

For many families, summer means it is time for a family vacation. Millions of families take to the roads and skies to escape their everyday routine and visit beautiful destinations or reunite with family and friends. Most parents travel to create quality family time and make special memories for everyone to cherish.    

Traveling by car or plane is more complicated when you have a child with ADHD but it’s not impossible. You can take steps to minimize the arguments, avoid the tantrums, and stop the endless nagging to create the ideal atmosphere for smoother travels. This takes planning and anticipating every detail in order to keep your little ones content and happy. Try these seven ideas and make your summer travels less stressful.

  1. Set clear expectations. Regardless of your mode of transportation begin by setting clear expectations because your child with ADHD performs better when they know what to expect. A day before your travels hold a family meeting and discuss your schedule, he destination, how long traveling will take, and how frequently you’ll be stopping. Lay down the ground rules.
  2. Create your mindset.  In general, traveling is stressful and your child with ADHD can add to the stress.  Before traveling put yourself in the mindset of going with the flow.  Make a conscious decision to not let little things bother you.  Maintaining a positive mindset will help you and your family.   
  3. Minimize down time. If your child with ADHD does not have enough to entertain himself, he will create his own fun.  Fill your goodie bag with activities that are familiar but new. Perhaps purchase a new DVD of a favorite TV series, the new Angry Birds ® App, or a new Dsi game.  Add new music to her iPod.
  4. Create opportunities to move. If you are driving try to take travel breaks where your ADHD child can run in the grass at a rest area, zip down a Play Place slide, or wiggle through a maze. If you have the book, The Next Exit, you will know what’s ahead and can plan your stop accordingly.  When my family traveled by air, we selected our seats with two of us in front and two in back. I sat in the front and my son sat behind me.  That way when he needed to move or when his shoes kicked against the seat, it only bothered me.
  5. Exercise their mind. Occasionally play mental math games such as, “If we drive for two hours, rest for one hour, and then drive four more hours, how many hours total did we drive?”  Allow your child to create mental math problems for you to solve. Teach him age appropriate map skills.  Allow your child to follow your travels with a print map or map app.  Consider bringing a lap desk and let your child complete a page of a bridge workbook; the workbook that bridges the academic skills from one grade to the next.    
  6. Keep the classics. Play time tested car games such as travel bingo, the license plate or billboard alphabet game, magnetic checkers, and I-spy.  When I was a youngster traveling in the car with my family, my mother bought bags of sugar free hard candy and fed them to my sister and me. It kept me quiet and gave my mouths something productive to do other than argue about her things on my side of the back seat.
  7. Use a ticket system. Create three tickets for your child or each of your children. At the family meeting explain that when you start traveling you’ll give each child three tickets. Let them know that when you arrive at your destination they must have at least one ticket in order to earn a privilege without a time delay (such as swimming in the hotel’s pool, going to the game room, or watching their favorite TV show). Let your children know how they will lose tickets (excessive arguing, hitting, name calling, etc.) or earn them back (acts of kindness, a certain length of positive behavior, etc.). Once you start traveling and your child calls his brother a stinky-butt and whacks him, calmly take one ticket.  Tell him he only has two tickets remaining to earn the reward. Repeat the process as needed.  If your child gets down to zero tickets then clearly discuss how he can earn one back.  If you arrive and she does not have any tickets then enforce the 10 minute time delay in the room while others head to the pool.  Allow your child to participate after their time is completed. Restart the ticket system the next day you travel.      

These seven strategies will help you manage your ADHD child and create the enjoyable and memorable family vacation that you’ve dreamed about.  Choose the ideas that work for you and share them with your spouse or adult traveling companion so that everyone’s working together. This could be your best summer trip yet.

Jim Forgan, Ph.D. is a parent of a teenage son with ADHD, a licensed school psychologist, and co-author of the book, Raising Boys with ADHD: Secrets for Parenting Healthy, Happy Sons published by Prufrock Press. He is available for consultations at www.JimForgan.com.