For parents whose children display challenging behaviours or have special needs, family holidays can lead to difficult behaviours and meltdowns among kids, resulting in heightened stress for parents.

With interstate travel opened to most Australian states and regional travel freely encouraged, 46 per cent of Australians intend to go away on holidays between now and February 2021.

This might especially be the case after families have been cooped up for much of the year. From in-depth planning to good communication, an expert offers tried-and-proven tips that will help parents minimise challenging behaviours while away.

Autism expert, Ash Bhattacharya has helped hundreds of families improve the behaviours of challenging children – namely, children on the autism spectrum.

Founder and CEO of a parent-driven intervention program for autism families Autism 360, Ash says:

“Travelling with children is no easy feat. For children who display difficult behaviours or who have special needs, parents need to consider how they may react to unfamiliar situations and settings. Children on the autism spectrum, for instance, don’t handle changes to routine well and perform better when they follow a strict schedule and know what to expect when changes do occur. Even very small or slight disruptions to a routine can cause distress and confusion.

“The key to having a holiday that the whole family can enjoy is planning, prioritising familiarity and routine, managing expectations, tagging children in case they get lost, and reassuring them of a return date.”

Six tips for managing children’s challenging behaviour on holidays

1. Maintain at-home routines as much as possible

Most children are used to their day revolving around a schedule. A good tip for parents is to try to keep mealtimes and bedtime consistent with their children’s at-home routine.
Ash says: “Familiarity is essential for young children with challenging behaviours. For instance, taking a child on the spectrum out of their comfort zone may lead to increased anxiety and inappropriate behavioural tendencies, as they don’t understand fully what is happening. It’s essential to maintain a familiar routine. If the child usually eats breakfast at 8 am and then has outdoors time, try and incorporate that same structure on holidays to reassure normalcy.”

2. Prepare children’s expectation for the holiday

Children – especially those on the spectrum – fear the unknown. In the lead-up to the holiday, parents could educate their child on what to expect and what sights they may be seeing.
An idea is for parents to make it into a game and show pictures or videos of the monuments or wildlife they may encounter while away, or research fun facts to get them excited before going away, to maximise their engagement in holiday activities. 

3. Reassure children they will be returning home

Family holidays can be chaotic and a drastic change for children with challenging behaviours when they suddenly find themselves sleeping in new rooms, in new properties and new surroundings. Parents could regularly remind children they will be returning home. Clearly stating when the holiday is beginning, and finishing can significantly reduce their anxiety.
A good tip is to repeatedly state or countdown the holiday time, so children are not caught unawares when they are packing up to return home.

4. Plan a holiday schedule and try to stick to it

Children often behave better when they know the plan for the day. Planning the day’s activities and sticking to it will minimise any challenging behaviours.
Ash says: “It is useful if the child knows the plan for the day. By associating time with an activity, the child can be informed and unlikely to demonstrate difficult or out-of-character behaviours. A good tip is to allow children to be part of the planning process and to work the day’s activities into conversation throughout the day, so the child knows what to expect. This will minimise behavioural episodes, as it will give the child peace of mind by knowing the schedule.”

5. Look out for child-friendly airlines, travel agencies and destinations

More times than not, the destination matters. Ash encourages parents to look out for child-friendly airlines that have experience in dealing with special-needs children who may be out of their comfort zone.
“Similarly, look out for hotels and activities that have experience with special-needs children, as they will know what to expect and will have experience in diminishing any unforeseen complications. Many domestic airlines offer special assistance to those with disabilities including early boarding time, easy access to the toilet and seating arrangements so the family is not split up and access to special food recommendations.”

6. Ensure children have parents’ contact details on them

All children tend to wander off from a parent when excited or in an unfamiliar setting such as a theme park or airport terminal. A simple tag with parent or carer details can make a massive difference to a distressed child and parent.
This is especially important for children on the autism spectrum, as they often have trouble with verbal communication and may not be able to effectively describe what their parent looks like when asking for help.