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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.

achievement_fear_02Kids 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.

“Conquering Fear: Traveling With An Anxious Child” was created by LSS for travel site Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved.




24 Responses

  1. Aw, what a sweet little babe he is. I can picture the poor thing flapping his arms & whirling around, it makes sense to me why small spaces are scary and it must be so hard for young kids to understand but like you said kids can learn & adapt. It’s kind of inspiring actually, makes me want to try and think differently about the way I approach(or hide from) some of my fears.
    You sound like a bright & patient Mom, endlessly loving & I wish I heard more stories like this one.

      1. I don’t blame you one bit! It can be scary. Does that extend to being up in an airplane? Or just in tall buildings and mountains and stuff?

        Me, I’m not as much afraid of heights as I’m aware of how clumsy I am and will fall off the edge if given the opportunity 😀 so I tend to avoid heights too 😀 SPIDERS on the other hand… *shiver*

      2. Airplanes are okay, I usually look forward to flying. Mountains are okay but not if I’m on the ledge or overlooking a cliff, I get scared.
        Tall buildings-eek! It’s embarrassing to admit and I try to my hardest to conceal it but when I’m up high my legs will involuntarily shake. Sometimes I feel physically ill, I try to downplay it and force myself to do things regardless of the “heights” but it’s usually uncomfortable. Ah, well.

        I could thing a thing or two from your boy!

        Just spiders or creepy crawlies in general? I try to be a “spiders don’t bother me” person but sometimes I get freaked out, when it’s furry and fast I can’t help but be scared!

      3. Well, even though you’re afraid, you don’t let it stop you from going up those buildings so that’s cool.

        I don’t like anything that could potentially crawl on me! And it’s definitely worse when they’re furry and fast. And if they have really long legs! My dad says spiders are probably more scared of me than I am of them, but then when they’re scared, they tend to crawl fast and what if they unintentionally crawl towards me?? 😀 But then I don’t like killing them because of course it’s not their fault that they’re spiders and scary, so… 😀 My mum is worse, she downright refuses to look at pictures of snakes. 😀

  2. He is a cutie; this I know; my parents taught me a lot, but it was my kids that made me a better person! I try hard, everyday, to be the person I would like them to be after all kids learn from their parents, so we have a full circle and your mom must be very proud of you.

    1. You’re right!! That’s so true — our kids inspire us to be better persons. I don’t think I’ll ever be as selfless as my mum but I would do nearly anything for my son. 🙂 I think our parents are half proud and half-smirking, thinking “Hah! Now you know what it’s like!” 😀 😀

  3. What a courageous little guy he is. Good for him! And what a wonderful and loving mom you are, for helping him overcome his fears. I can just imagine you holding his little hand while tears streamed down his face. We all have fears, but it’s the way in which we face them that has a lasting impression on our lives. What a beautiful lesson you are teaching your little one – Even if he may not quite understand it yet. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you so much. 🙂 You’re right — I think it’s our struggles that strengthen us. And it’s something kids will have to learn, that life won’t always be easy, but they will always find within themselves the strength to overcome each challenge.

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