Over the River and Through the Woods: Traveling with ADHD

 ADHD Weekly December 6, 2018

Are you traveling for a family celebration this holiday season? Last December, a record 107.3 million people traveled during the holiday season, and this year will be just as busy on the roads and in the sky.

Planning ahead can make the journey smoother and more enjoyable. Janette Patterson, MSW, calls it “organizing your toolbox,” and says you should think of it as a two-part project: the trip there and the visit itself.

Getting ready to go

“If I have ADHD and I know I get easily bored and can’t sit still for very long, then I will want to make sure I can schedule breaks, moments where I can stretch or get up and walk around,” says Ms. Patterson, a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist from Maryland. “I’ll want to have the right kind of entertainment so I can deal with being bored.”

Young travelers often have a lot of energy and trouble maintaining attention on any one game or diversion, so be prepared to help wiggly and inattentive children during the trip. Impulsivity can also lead to possible dangers such as opening car doors too soon or dashing across parking lots. Role play what to expect during your trip, such as what to do when the car stops or your family is waiting in line at the airport. Teach your children some mindfulness techniques, including deep breathing and relaxation exercises.

“You can practice with kids, every day, ahead of time. ‘Let’s do some imagining, something floating through the air like bubbles, to help you relax,’” Ms. Patterson suggests. “Talk about how in the car ride to Grandma’s house, it’ll be three hours, but we’ll imagine floating like bubbles through the air and enjoying what we see.”

ADHD doesn’t take a holiday

Just because you’re on vacation doesn’t mean ADHD symptoms will take a break. As much as you are able, keep your family’s usual routines. This may mean that meals and bedtimes continue at the same times, even though they will be in different places. Maintaining your routine can help you or a child cope with ADHD symptoms even though you are traveling.

If traveling by air, pack medications in carry-on luggage or in your purse. If you are carrying a family member’s medication it is best if you and that family member are traveling together. If possible, older teens and adults should carry their own medications. Keep a copy of the prescription with you and leave all medications in their original bottles from the pharmacy, which will note the family member for whom they are prescribed.

“Carrying your medication in their original prescription bottle with a label on it from the pharmacy is helpful if there are any questions in the security line,” says Dr. Brendan Anzalone, chief medical officer at AeroMD Air Ambulance.

If you are traveling outside of the United States, you should contact the US State Department for information regarding those medications in your destination county. Stimulant medications are highly regulated in some countries and may not be legal for use there. Check out the State Department’s Your Health Abroad for more information.

If you forget your medications, call your doctor’s office. The doctor may be able to have a prescription sent to a pharmacy near you or may offer you suggestions for managing symptoms until you return home.

Plane, train, or automobile?

If you have the luxury of choosing how you will travel, consider what’s easiest for your family, based on how ADHD symptoms affect you or your loved one. Planes are quick, but it’s hard to move around in them. Driving may take longer, but you are in control of getting out to stretch your legs as often as you need to.

“You need to find ways to allow a person with ADHD to move his body, even if it’s chewing gum,” Ms. Patterson says. “Moving the jaw, thinking of any body part you can wiggle to help regulate and adjust the energy bubbling up inside of the person with ADHD will help.”

Make sure to wear comfortable clothes for the trip. Scratchy tags and tight pants can very quickly create sensory overload for some people. Bring quiet fidget toys for busy hands and ear plugs or headphones to block out sounds that could become overwhelming.

“Travel in whatever way fits with your ADHD,” says Neil Petersen, who writes the ADHD Millennial blog. “Traveling is all about novelty. When you travel, you see new places, have new experiences, and do even day-to-day things in new ways.”

Mr. Petersen suggests checking and then double-checking your traveling plans, including flight dates and times as you prepare.

“I’ve had a few rude ‘wait, my flight is tomorrow?’ awakenings, but admittedly those are nothing compared with the ‘wait, my flight was yesterday?’ scenario,” he says.

Once you get there

You made it to Grandma’s and the whole family is there. Maybe lots of people are talking or maybe you’re afraid your busy son is going to break the china. Identify situations that could be stressful or challenging, and think about how you’ll respond to them.

“Aunt Betsy’s going to be there, and she’s so loud,” Ms. Patterson says as an example. “Jimmy doesn’t like it when she shrieks with laughter, so plan a signal whenever he can’t stand it anymore. And when he gives it, you’ll step outside with him and go for a short walk, or toss a ball for a couple of minutes and then come back inside.”

Talk with your hosts and family members before you arrive. Let them know you are looking forward to the time with them, but you or your partner or child might become overwhelmed from activity. You hope they understand that if you have to step outside. Let them know you appreciate their support, even if it’s only to let you slip out quietly.

Ms. Patterson also suggests finding an ally if you’ll be in a big group with your child who has ADHD. Ask a special uncle, aunt, or older cousin if he or she would be willing to spend a little one-on-one time with your child outside or away from the crowd.

And if your child’s hyperactivity kicks in and he ends up breaking a plate or throwing mashed potatoes? Take some deep breaths, help your child apologize, and then have a quiet conversation with him in a separate place. That will go farther than getting angry and yelling. Above all else, stay calm: It’s family, and soon you’ll be back to your regular routine.

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Join the discussion: What are some tips you’ve found for making holiday travel easier?