Traveling with an anxious child
This little boy doesn’t like closed spaces, especially tight, crowded ones. He cries when we take jeepneys. He panics in elevators. No matter how happy and carefree he is seconds earlier, the moment he realizes he’s in a cramped space, he starts to flap his hands in distress. He then clings tightly to me with his arms and his legs and, crying, asks to be let out.
I don’t know why he’s afraid, but the one thing I do know about fear is that it has to be faced.
So we take him on short jeepney trips when we can, prepping him beforehand and talking him through the entire trip. He likes counting so we assign a number for each of the steps we go through during an elevator ride — #1 is us getting in, #2 is the doors closing, #3 is the elevator going up (or down), etc. We hug him and tell him it’s okay. We praise him for his bravery. He hasn’t totally forgotten his fears and he still cries, but we’ve seen a bit of improvement.
This weekend was the biggest step yet. I knew from the start that taking him on a 4-hour flight would be a challenge — for him, for us, and for the other passengers on board. (It’s ironic — I used to be one of those people who think parents who can’t get their kids to stop crying in the plane have no business flying or, for that matter, being parents. The universe has a fine sense of humor.) To prepare, we took him through what to expect. We let him watch clips of Mickey Mouse and his friends on a space ship. We showed him airline safety videos that featured kids or were animated. We built up his excitement for the trip.
You might ask: why take him on that trip in the first place? Why not wait until he was bigger, more rational?
All I know is that I wanted to take him to the zoo. I wanted him to see lions and elephants and giraffes and tigers. I wanted him to see penguins and parrots and pelicans and plants — flowers and baobabs and fruit-laden trees. All I know is that I wasn’t going to let fear interfere with his childhood.
I have to admit, though, I had a bottle of diphenhydramine ready more than a month before the trip. It’s not that I was worried about people judging me — like I said, the universe has a sense of humor, so they can judge all they want while they still can — and I was mentally and physically prepared to do whatever it takes to calm the little guy down or, worst case scenario, at least hold his little hand while he cried his little heart out. No: the reason I resolved to sedate him was because I was afraid the experience would be too traumatic for him and keep him from enjoying the rest of the trip.
But in the end, I didn’t do it. I knew it would most likely be an ordeal, but instinct told me to let him try.
And he did. He cried nearly two hours out of the four. He refused milk and crackers and slapped the iPad away. He wouldn’t close his eyes to sleep. He kept pointing to the rear doors — we were purposely seated on the last row — and kept saying “Gawas” (go out) until his voice became hoarse. What broke my heart was he also kept apologizing. “Sorry,” he said. “Gawas,” he said. “Please,” he said. “Please, nanay.” But eventually he calmed down. Eventually he sat on his seat, accepted a cracker from my mum, and started watching Peppa Pig on the iPad. Eventually, he started to smile.
And I’m glad, in the end, I gave him the chance to try to be brave.
He had many breakthroughs during our trip. Because we were staying in a 13th floor apartment, he got used to elevator rides. Though he still flapped his arms and whirled around in occasional distress, he no longer cried or clung tightly to me. He got over his initial fear of trains, thanks in large part to a friend’s kids who showed him there was nothing to be afraid of. Eventually he started proclaiming “choo choo train” rides to be “so nice” and “so fun!” And when we boarded the plane for the flight back home, he accepted our assertion that planes are just like choo choo trains and fell asleep before takeoff.
Kids are amazing creatures. No two kids are alike; some are better than most at one thing, others better than most at other things, and different kids face different challenges. But the one thing they all have in common, I think, is the ability to learn and to adapt. If we give them a little patience, if we give them a chance, we might be surprised at how eager they are to prove that we were right to believe in them.
This kid totally did.