Cruising With Your Anxious Child: lots of kids struggle with anxiety, here’s 6 tips to help them deal with their anxiety on a cruise ship and help you enjoy your vacation.
We’ve just returned from a family cruise vacation on board Royal Caribbean’s beautiful Anthem of the Seas and I wanted to share some tips for cruising with your anxious child. We’ve been on quite a few cruises with our kids over the years, and I feel like I’ve learned a few things that might be helpful to some other parents out there traveling with their anxious child.
1. Prepare them for what to expect -but try not to worry them.
It’s always a fine line with anxious children to prepare them well, but not give them too much information so that they’re worried.
We find that rehearsal is a great technique for helping your anxious child know what to expect. Online you will be able to find photos and videos of the ship. You could see what a room will look like, see sample schedules for the day, learn about the kids clubs and what they have to offer, and even see the dining room menus. Depending on what your child is anxious about these could be really helpful. Anxiety is often driven by fear and by feeling out of control so knowing what to expect can really help.
I found over the years that an anxious child often has an anxious parent -often undiagnosed. So, although giving info on what to expect can help prepare them, we want to be careful not to give them anything to worry about. We also want to be really careful that they don’t pick up on anything we’re worried about. Are you concerned with your luggage getting lost, missing the cruise ship, getting sick on vacation… the list could go on and on. Try really hard to keep those worries to yourself. You don’t want to give them something to fixate on. Often things that seem harmless to an adult, like the emphasis on hand washing to keep everyone from spreading germs and getting sick (be prepared to see hand sanitizer everywhere, and sinks you must use on your way into the buffet) could really cause the worry wheels to start turning for a child who struggles with anxiety. As their parent, you know better than anyone what their triggers are so be prepared to reassure and redirect attention when needed.
2. Remember there’s no vacation from anxiety for you or for your anxious child.
It’s your vacation, and you’re looking forward to relaxing with no work while someone else cooks and cleans for you. The good news is you don’t have to make dinner, but the bad news is you’re not on holiday from parenting an anxious child. In fact, their anxiety is likely to be worse than at home since breaking routine, and dealing with new things is often a trigger for anxious kids.
Don’t forget to do all the things that help at home. As much as possible keep to a routine -I know you’re on vacation but it might really help your child to not mess with bedtime, bedtime routine, meal times and familiar foods as much as possible.
3. Keep them as physically comfortable as possible.
There’s a lot of physical environmental changes on a cruise ship. There’s the sensation of being on a boat -so remember to bring some motion sickness medicine with you and make sure it’s the children’s chewable kind. I’ll never forget trying to make my nauseous anxious child swallow a pill for the first time -disaster.
Another thing that might seem little but for some kids is a BIG deal is the comfort of their clothing. We’ve found that buying second hand clothes for a spring break trip works really well. Where we live there aren’t really summer weather clothes in the stores yet, and over the winter your child will most likely grow out of their summer clothes from last year. Second hand clothes are generally softer and more broken in than brand new clothes and I’ve found my anxious child likes that so much better.
Also there is the formal wear. Not every kid likes to get dressed up, and often formal clothes are a lot less comfortable. Here are my tips. Try to find things that are dressy but still comfortable, made of soft fabric.
For girls that might mean dresses made of t-shirt material, avoiding something like tulle or crinoline, and sparkles or sequins because they’re often scratchy and uncomfortable. I’ve found soft velour, or cotton jumpsuits are helpful since some girls find dresses in general uncomfortable -or adding leggings under a dress. I’m also really careful about the formal footwear. I try to find something that’s a little more dressy, but my main priority is comfort since I don’t want to have a fight about it after she’s had them on 10 minutes and never wants to wear them again.
For boys, perhaps a tie is just too restricting, and so is a jacket. A collared polo shirt might be a good compromise, or a jacket made with a stretchy material.
Also keep in mind that there are no formal wear police. The most dressed up people are usually first time cruisers. Over many cruises I can say that there are people in gowns and tuxedos all the way to jeans and EVERYthing in between. People are especially gracious of children, so I really won’t worry about it if it’s a big deal to your child. Another option also is to eat in a more casual setting like the buffet on the formal night and not worry about it, or even feed the kids there and then send them to the kids club and go to the dining room without them that night.
Some kids also really have issues with new foods. The cruise staff is AMAZING and they will truly bend over backwards to try and accommodate you. There is a children’s menu even in the main dining room. Feel free to order from the kids menu or the adults menu for your child. Also feel free to make requests like no sauce or something on the side, or to change the sides. When my girls were little and ordering off of the kids menu, I’d always request an extra plate of cooked vegetables for them, since everything came with fries. I’d also sometimes order from the adult menu, roast turkey for example, and then split the adult meal between them. I think the waiters would do basically anything within reason that you requested. If your child didn’t like their dinner they’d be happy to bring something else for them to try. Also, if you had to deal with any special dietary restrictions you just let them know and they can accommodate you. Up at the buffet there is a huge variety of options, and I’m sure you could find something suitable for anyone. If you’re worried about the food in port, return to the ship for lunches, and carry some suitable drinks and snacks from the ship with you. We always used to bring some ziplock bags with us just for that purpose when the kids were little.
Your Anxious Child Isn’t Trying To Be Difficult
Remember too that your child isn’t trying to be difficult or ruin your vacation. They wish they had a vacation from anxiety too, but it just doesn’t work that way. Congratulations for making the decision to vacation with them even though there may be some challenges. I remember long ago determining in my own mind that I refused to let anxiety rule our family. At some point you have to decide that even though it will be hard, you will not let anxiety be the reason your family misses out. Sometimes your own determination to not give into it and give up and just stay home will inspire your child that they don’t have to be held captive to it either. Having said that I also try to remember to always be kind and have mercy towards my child. It can be difficult when they’re having a meltdown, but try to remember they don’t want to be having the meltdown either. My anger tends to only ever escalate the problem. I have to try to stay calm and de-escalate the situation when I can. Comfort, downplaying, and distracting and helping them refocus are all good strategies, and ones you’ve probably used a hundred times on land and they’ll help at sea too.
4. Try to create some alone time and space for them.
Our last cruise was 12 nights. That’s a long time for an introvert to be with their family. Near the end of the trip we invested in the internet package. I think it really helped for my daughter to FaceTime some of her friends at home and have a little break from us. One night she didn’t join us in the dining room for dinner, and many times during the day she found a quiet spot to read, watch tv, or draw on her own. I have always made sure to bring enough things to help to create their own little space. When they were very little we brought their portable DVD player and headphones, cards, and colouring all to the dining room. That way, when they’d mentally had enough, they could literally just watch the movie while the rest of us enjoyed our dinner. We also always brought with us from home life jackets, water shoes, and beach toys for our beach days. It was worth it to us to carry it because we knew our kids would be happier and more comfortable on the beach and then we in turn would be too. Make them as comfortable as possible and then you get to be as comfortable as possible too. 😉
Just all being together in one tiny room for that long can be a lot for your anxious child. On our last cruse the bed for the kids was a double. In the past we’ve always had separate pullman bunks for them above our bed. This one was a pull out couch trundle-bed. At first we thought it was way better and more spacious for them. But then the fighting started. Our first idea was separate duvets which helped but didn’t entirely solve it. Next I had one change direction in the bed so they weren’t “breathing” on each other. Near the very end of the cruise we realized that the trundle could be left on the floor to create two heights and essentially two twin beds. This was the best solution.
The staff really want to help and for you to have a great vacation. The children’s staff for the children’s programs are all trained children’s workers and generally happy to help your anxious child feel better. The first day of the cruise the children’s space is open for tours and you can go in and talk to the workers about any concerns. We’ve been on cruises where my older daughter was allowed to join in to the younger group to be with her sister. Also, there are pagers you can use that they supply so that if your child wants you, you can be reached. As the kids get older there is an option to allow them to sign themselves out from the program and leave at any time , which might help your older child feel a little less trapped. For my kids I usually made it a rule that they had to go to the kids program a few nights to give it a try and then after that it was their choice if they wanted to go. Telling your child they only have to go for one night might help with anxiety about not wanting to try it out. More often than not once they were there and playing they wanted to stay.
One other time, after a very long day of travelling and flying into the port we had just boarded the ship and it was time for the muster drill, where they bring you to your gathering place in case of an evacuation and count you and instruct you in case of emergency. It’s mandatory to go, and I took my very tired, and somewhat cranky 5 year old as required. Out in the sun, and the wind, and with the noise of the alarms she went into full meltdown. I was literally afraid she was going to kick someone as she flailed around on the ground. The older people around me where very sweet and kind about it, but I was embarrassed. I wish I’d known that I could have just told a crew member and excused us. Lesson learned. Feel free to tell someone that your child struggles with anxiety and ask for what you need, they’re generally more than happy to accommodate.
After all I’ve said it might make it sound like it’s not worth it, but I promise it is. I’ve grouped together all I’ve learned and therefore lots of mistakes I’ve made after 7 cruises with my kids. I haven’t told you all the fun it is, and all the amazing memories we’ve made. I also think that I’ve helped my anxious child to know that even though anxiety can be a challenge we’re not going to be captive to it, or let it keep us from having amazing experiences in life! You are helping them to learn now how they’re going to deal with this challenge the rest of their lives. And since it’s often coming from one parent, you get to take all you’ve learned about dealing with your own anxiety in the best possible way and model it for them.
One of the reasons we’ve done so many cruises is because a familiar vacation helps an anxious child feel less anxious. They know what to expect after that first one, and that calms them down -ALOT. My advice, start young, and make travel a normal part of their lives if you can. We love that all the Royal Caribbean ships are very similar. Although they’ll have some differences they have a lot in common including the general ship layout and the names of things. This really helps. Even in the children’s club after their first cruise your kids will know the names of the games and activities, since they’re common to all the ships. Also each night you will get a schedule of the next days activities in the kids club so they know exactly what to expect when they go, and can even pick and choose what ones they want to go for.
There was a time in my life that I thought to myself “why are we taking the same vacation over and over”? But then I shifted my thinking a little. It’s the vacation that works for us. The kids are happy and familiar and even looking forward to it because they know what to expect. Even if we’ve been to the same Caribbean islands lots of times, there’s always a different beach or restaurant to try. I started focusing more on who I was with -enjoying family and friends and letting that be the part of the trip I looked forward to the most.
Next year, after 7 Caribbean cruises with the kids, we are planning on visiting Europe. We hope to spend a week maybe in France, but we’ll end with a cruise. And even though it will be really different from a Caribbean vacation, and I’m sure a little challenging for my anxious child, at least she’ll be looking forward to the familiar Royal Caribbean ship at the end, and I know that will help.
With these tips in mind, even when your cruising with some one who struggles with anxiety, life is really a party!
Disclaimer: I received some perks from Royal Caribbean in exchange for this post. As always, all opionons are my own. Thanks so much for the supporting the brands that make Life is a Party possible.
You might also enjoy this post: Top Ten Tips For Cruising With Kids
You may also like: Cruising: The Perfect, Affordable Family Vacation