September 17, 2017

We’re going to Disneyland! After a crazy month getting ready for our big move, we are taking a much needed family vacation to break up the trip to Hawaii with a little stop over in Disneyland.  Planning for this trip reminded me of a few conversations I had over the years with foster and adopted children who have a history of trauma and their experiences with Disney (or other high value experiences).

Many truly amazing families have taken their new foster children or recently adopted children on fantastic vacations. And, unfortunately, despite the high hopes for a “memory of a lifetime” experience, some come back reporting that it was extremely challenging.

This is actually a VERY COMMON experience.

Remember we talked before that children with a history of trauma don’t respond to traditional parenting logic.  They usually don’t care about consequences, but more importantly, don’t think they are worthy of rewards.

Now, let’s apply that to Disneyland/Disney World or other Exciting Events

Excitement Phase

This does not just apply to Disney, but to any exciting new adventure.

I can’t say that I have ever met a child that doesn’t get excited about the prospect of going to Disneyland.  For weeks before the trip, I hear them talk about the airplane trip or the rides or the parades. They may watch commercials or videos and think about all of the fun stuff that is going to happen.  They are really, really excited.

The problem with this excitement is that physiologically, it is actually a very similar response to fear.

This concept is explained in an article by Olga Khazan in The Atlantic where she explains:

That’s because anxiety and excitement are both aroused emotions. In both, the heart beats faster, cortisol surges, and the body prepares for action. In other words, they’re “arousal congruent.” The only difference is that excitement is a positive emotion‚ focused on all the ways something could go well.

So, your children that have a history of trauma are used to feeling these same feelings; however, typically from a fear based perspective rather than a simply positive frame of mind.

Which leads to…

Fear Response

Despite the excitement, your child might actually have some unexpressed worries about this event.  He might be afraid of heights or not want the feeling of being out of control.  She might be worried that she will get lost from you or worse, left there and abandoned.

There are all sorts of fears that come up (some rational and some irrational) when a new and exciting event is proposed.  Combine this with a nervous system response that feels a lot like anxiety and you have a child that might start feeling like something terrible is about to happen. Or, one who is triggered by other memories of when their body felt that same way when something scary really did happen.

Grief Response

Another common experience I hear from kids is that while they are truly enjoying the opportunity to do something amazing with you, internally, they might also be having a grief response.  This response is something like, “I wish my biological family did this with me.

This can be true even if the biological family did some pretty terrible things OR if the child doesn’t even remember them.   These feelings come out of nowhere -the child was not expecting them and doesn’t usually know how to verbalize it or explain it.

This can also come up if the child DID in fact have a fun experience pre-trauma.  The memory of doing something fun with biological relatives or before a big change can also trigger the sadness of grief.  They are grieving the memory of that experience and the loss of the future experiences with those people.

Guilt Response

This can turn into a feeling of guilt.  Sometimes children will feel like they are not worthy of an experience like this. Or they feel guilty because other siblings do not have the same opportunities.  Sometimes to lessen the burden of that guilt, they might sabotage the experience by “not enjoying it.”

You’ve heard of survivor’s guilt, right? People who survive a tragedy often feel guilt because they lived while their friends died.  Children with trauma history sometimes go through a similar experience.  They wonder why they get to do something so cool while they are acutely aware that not everyone else does.

Again, this triggers the “I’m not worthy” response.

Sensory Overload +Lack of Routine

Now, combine all of the feelings, body sensations, and thoughts with sensory overload to the millionth degree. The sights, the sounds, the crowds, the movements.  It’s really all overwhelming.  Add to that the fact that you have taken away every bit of routine (the bed, the schedule, the mealtimes, possibly a time zone change), etc.

It’s like taking a car that is already going 90 mph and added a shot of nitrous oxide to it.


Be Prepared for the Crash

As much fun as it is, just be prepared that you are likely to experience some problem behaviors during an event like this.  It doesn’t mean that you can’t go, it just means, be mindful of what all of this is like from the child’s point of view.

Expect any of the following

  • Increased defiance or disrespect
  • Decreased ability to follow directions
  • Regressed behaviors (acting younger than age)
  • Helplessness
  • Lack of fear response
  • Hyperactivity
  • Loss of sleep
  • Irritability
  • Interpersonal problems (ie. fighting with peers or siblings)
  • Refusal to Participate
  • Basically any other problem behavior you can think of

What Can You Do?

Start by being aware that this is a potential response for any child, but especially for children with a history of trauma.

Acknowledge it and talk about it with your child.  Tell them that it is normal to feel both anxiety and excitement and that sometimes their brain gets confused about which is which.

Prepare by giving your child specific things to expect out of the trip (schedules, daily activities, etc).  Aim for few, if any surprises.

Keep to your schedule (or a best, give the child the daily schedule).  Review it each morning (today we are going to do x, then have lunch, then so y, and then come back to the hotel for bed).

Don’t overdo it.  Don’t overcrowd your schedule trying to fit it all in.  Sometimes it’s better to ride the same few rides over and over again.

Don’t take it personally.  If the child is feeling sad or guilt, acknowledge it and talk about it.  But don’t get offended.  “We spent all of this money and you don’t even appreciate it” is NOT helpful here!!!

Bring something sensory as a comfort.  This might be a coin or stone to keep in a pocket, or a soft piece of fabric or a chewable piece of jewelry.  It is helpful to have something to keep your hands busy as this reduces the stress response in your body.

When you get back home, things return to normal pretty quickly.  Usually within a week.

Final Thoughts:

Even if your child has not experienced a major trauma, the experience of Disney or other theme parks can be overwhelming.  Pat yourself on the back for being willing to go on this adventure with your child.  Remember that from their point of view, a tiny sliver of the park is still pretty amazing.  Be a kid yourself.  Experience the joy and don’t let a few (minor or major) tantrums stop you from doing cool stuff.

And, for those of you who have been to Disney with toddlers…pray for me.  You know what I’m going through this week. Lucky for me, the next stop is a beach in Hawaii. (And I know that wasn’t the case for most of you, so I am especially grateful for that).

About the Author

Jen Taylor, LCSW-C, RPT-S is an EMDR Approved Consultant and Certified Journal to the Self Instructor.  She is a therapist specializing in complex trauma, an international play therapy teacher and a published writer of multiple play therapy chapters.  Jen is the creator of the original 2017 Play Therapy Summit and many other innovative programs for mental health professionals.  Jen uses writing therapy, play therapy and expressive arts for her clients and for other mental health professionals so they can lead more joyful and meaningful lives.  Jen encourages people to try new things and create daily habits that allow for incremental progress towards previously unimaginable results.   Jen is a travel enthusiast, an avid reader, and a girl who lifts weights and runs for fun.  

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