How Can We Go on Vacation When it Throws Off My Child’s Need for Routine

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In this Parent Lean-In episode Debbie answers a listener’s question about how to travel and navigate vacations with a child who is tied to routines. Debbie shares her past experiences and offers tips for pre-trip planning, addressing concerns ahead of time, establishing new routines while traveling, being flexible, using visual aids, and getting the child active and moving, and more.


About Debbie Reber

Debbie Reber, MA is a parenting activist, bestselling author, speaker, and the CEO and founder of TiLT Parenting, a resource, top-performing podcast, consultancy, and community with a focus on shifting the paradigm for parents raising and embracing neurodivergent children. A regular contributor to Psychology Today and ADDitude Magazine, and the author of more than a dozen books for children and teens, Debbie’s most recent book is Differently Wired: A Parent’s Guide to Raising an Atypical Child with Confidence and Hope.


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Episode Transcript


Hey everyone, I’m flying solo on today’s, hey everyone, I’m flying solo on today’s Parent Lean In episode and I really love this question that’s come in. It brings up a lot of things I’ve given thought to and consideration to over the years. And I also know this is a topic that impacts many listeners. So here’s the question.

Our nearly five -year -old, no formal diagnosis yet, but most likely autism, is really tied to his routines. And this creates challenges for our family, especially when it comes to vacations. It typically takes him about a day to adapt, and then he seems to be doing fine, but he’s only willing to do things he wants to do, which obviously impacts everyone else in the family. Then when we get home, it takes weeks for him to readjust to the rules and routines of our household. Do we need to just not travel? Traveling and vacation is really important to my husband and me, but sometimes it feels like it’s so hard that it’s not worth it. I would love your thoughts. 

Okay, so I have thoughts, per usual.

And this is actually something I did a podcast episode about many, many, many years ago with Asher. And I’ll include a link to that in the show notes page because Asher and I had a conversation about how we navigated vacations, but I’m gonna share with you some of my best tips. We did a lot of traveling, we still do. But from the time Ash was pretty little we traveled quite a bit and then, when we were living abroad from the time he was nine until 14 we did a ton of travel so we got pretty good at it and I figured out a lot of stuff. So the first thing that has always made the biggest difference is that. Is that pre-trip planning. So just like we would do before a holiday break or any kind of break in routine to sit down and have a bunch of conversations. And I say a bunch because usually one big conversation doesn’t do it, but start kind of planting the seeds that there’s a trip coming up, there’s a vacation coming up, we are making plans and actually involve the child in planning the activities, give them a chance to express the things that they really wanna do, what their preferences are. They might have ideas about what to do, depending on where you’re going. That may not be on your radar at all, so it’s good to get clear on what those things are. If you have an itinerary that you’ve already created, you could go through that. 

During one of our trips, I made a PDF that I printed out and it was like a day by day, very, very detailed, but not so detailed that it was hard to engage with, but it had pictures of where we were going. It had kind of very rough, like morning, do this, evening, do this, but really kind of laid out the proposed flow.

But also, again, leaving some windows open for free time or things that I knew that my kid wanted to do or that he had already expressed. So for example, we always had pool days. I always had to find places that had a pool. That was very, very important to me when my kid was younger. And so sometimes, depending on the length of the trip, I would have to build in like half a day at the pool.

Even if we were in a really cool location and the last thing I wanted to do was stay inside a hotel with a pool. That’s what we would do because that made sure that my child felt like their needs were because that made sure that my child felt his needs were being met. And it just kind of created a lot more, I guess, goodwill around the plan. So having that pre trip planning meeting, getting your child involved, give them a chance to share what they wanna do, give the details, ideally give details that they can have a say in or have opinions about, you know, maybe helping to choose a restaurant, maybe helping to choose an activity, if there are playgrounds where you’re going, looking at those playgrounds in advance and making sure that you schedule in time to go explore those things. As much as you can do that as possible, I highly recommend that. 

And then again, part of that pre-trip planning means that you might go over that schedule multiple times. So not just like the day before you leave, but maybe in the week or two leading up to while you’re having breakfast or having a snack, hey, do you wanna go through our plan again? Make sure it’s still sounding good or just kind of make sure or just kind of walk through some of the highlights. Again, that’s kind of planting those seeds that this is what’s to be expected. This is what’s gonna happen and it can help to mitigate the challenges that come with routines being off and unpredictability. I’m not saying that you’re gonna make this plan and there will be no problems because I also experienced that even, you know, as much as you can plan and lay everything out and prepare, there’s still gonna be dysregulation and challenges. But this can help to mitigate and make sure that there are things built in there that your child really wants to do. 

Okay, my second tip is to address concerns ahead of time. So you might sit down, again, not one conversation, but over several conversations and really talk to your child and identify what are those potential stressors? What are the concerns that you might have ahead of time? So, and they might be things again that are completely aren’t on your radar. It might be things like I’m really concerned about what the bathrooms are going to be like, or I’m really concerned about how cold it’s going to be and I’m not going to have my warm coat, or I’m concerned that there’s not going to be enough room for my stuffies in the suitcase, or I’m concerned that I’m not going to like the food and I want to have access to my snacks. Like we don’t know. So it’s really important to try to get a sense of things that might be creating anxiety or concern for your child leading up to that because then you can together brainstorm solutions for how to mitigate or address those problems in advance. If it’s, I don’t know why I always bring stuff back to food, but if your child is concerned that they’re not going to like the food or that you won’t have access to those snacks, you could look at the menu at the hotel where you’re staying or some of the restaurants nearby. You could plan in advance. You could ask what would help you feel better about snacks and what could we actually bring? Let’s bring a couple of special things so that you have some comfort food if and when you need it. So getting ahead of concerns and then with your child brainstorming ideas together to address those, that can go a long way.

Okay, so another strategy is as you’re able to, think about ways to establish new routines where you are. So if your child is really tied to a routine at home and that works really well, are there ways you can create an expected or predictable flow or routine where you’re traveling? So again, I mentioned the pool example earlier, having built-in pool time could be a thing.

But also, I think about screen time, right? So I’ll never forget one of our first family trips after we moved abroad was to go to Barcelona. I had never been to Barcelona. I was so excited. I love to travel. I can walk for hours and hours. I just wanna see and do everything. And my child was really into Minecraft at the time. As was my husband, honestly, my husband and Ashwood design mods together and always had stuff going on in Minecraft. So I remember very clearly. So I remember very distinctly, we were staying in this little Airbnb and we got there and it was day two and I had 100 things I wanted to see and do. I knew I wasn’t going to get to do them all, but I still had my big ideas. And my child was just not into it that day and really just needed a day to hang out in the Airbnb which did not have good natural light. You know, we’re in this beautiful, warm, sunny place. And I came there from Amsterdam and I just wanted to be outdoors. And my child wanted to stay indoors and work on Minecraft. And luckily my husband was cool with that. So my husband stayed with Ash and I went for a walk by myself. I wasn’t out the whole day, but I really had to wrap my head around a lot of things on that trip and just really come to terms with the fact that travel is gonna look very different than I hope or than I would expect. And also realize that it’s okay if my child spends half their time in Barcelona in the Airbnb playing Minecraft.

You know, I think I used to get really caught up on the fact that all these missed opportunities and I wanted to make sure that he saw and did everything. And you know what? At the end of the day, that was what his experience needed to be in order for him to feel regulated and calm and have the routine and security that he needed. So part of this too for me, and maybe this is true for the person who wrote the question, maybe it’s true for you if you’re listening. Part of this is just also adjusting our own expectations about what vacations mean and finding ways to create joy. Little moments of joy and fun and new experiences that might just be for ourselves, even if they’re a little quick walk to the corner to get a gelato or do something while your child stays in the room and does their thing. All right, I sidetracked a little bit, but really what I’m talking about is incorporating routines, screen time, favorite activities, do those things and make sure there’s time because that will provide that comfort and that stability to help your child stay more emotionally regulated when everything else feels so different and new.

And my next tip is really about being flexible. And I did just touch upon this, but we are always asking our kids to show flexibility, but we wanna do the same. We wanna be flexible and be willing to adjust plans based on what’s happening with our kids. Sometimes our kids wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Sometimes our kids don’t sleep at all and they are just not in a good space. Sometimes the sensory information in this new environment is way more than we anticipated and our child is really activated. We just don’t know. And so part of navigating family vacations together is going into it with this mindset of I’m gonna be open and flexible and attune to what’s happening with my child and if necessary adjust plans. And you may have this be part of your own pre-trip planning. So just like you met with your child or your children and kind of talked through the plans and proactively planned for problems, you could have kind of a backup list. Like if things are really derailed while we’re away, here’s how we’re gonna handle it. Just so you can go into that holiday trip with the confidence that, okay, this is what the hoped for outcome, this is the initial plan and if things start to deteriorate, here’s plan B. So having that in your back pocket can also just help with your own anxiety as you go on this trip.

Another tip, and again, I touched upon this earlier, but I’m a big fan of those visual aids. So you might have a whiteboard or a chalkboard in your house where you kind of write things out. Again, I think putting together a little booklet with visual aids that explain or show pictures of a meal you’re gonna have or a playground or a park or a museum if your kid’s into art or something or things that kind of highlight visually some of the activities you’ll be doing.

That can just help kind of be an anchor. I also, this is making me think of departure times. This wasn’t part of the question, but I will say that getting out of the house, especially if you’re on a time -sensitive schedule and you have to catch a flight or get on a train or do something where you have to get out of the house at a certain time, that can be very stressful, and that is not the way you wanna start a vacation as well. So as much as you can also map it out, so as much as you can kind of prepare your child for that departure. And what we used to do was, I’d do this on a whiteboard and I would sit down and I would write at the top what time, for example, the plane was leaving, and then I would write down below that, what time do we need to be at the gate? Then I’d go, and I would do this with Asher. So we would kind of, it became like a fun little activity. How long do you think it will take us to get through security? Okay, let’s write that down. How long do you think it will take us to do this? And so we would just create this very, okay, if we need to be at the gate by this time, we need to be going through security by this time. We need to arrive at the airport by this time. We need to depart our apartment by this time. How much time do you need in the morning? And so we would just back it up. And so we would create that schedule together and we’d have it as a visual. And that way we both kind of felt bought into it and it was very clear what the expectations were. And in that meeting, you could also talk about, okay, what’s our backup? How do you want me to help you get ready? What if I notice I’ve asked you three times to get up and you’re still in bed? Should we have bags sitting by the door? Should we lay your clothes out? So getting really granular about how to kind of preemptively plan for a smooth departure. Again, it doesn’t always work. We’ve had many, many a challenging Uber ride to the airport because getting out of the house was just a complete disaster, but planning can help support and it’s helping to build executive function skills on top of that. So a lot of bonuses there.

The last quick tip that I’ll share is the importance of getting our kids out and about and doing things physical that can help regulate them, you know, so and that can also help create routine, so maybe you get out in the morning and you go for a short walk around the block wherever you are, or maybe you go to a, you found a great playground a block away from the hotel and you go there every morning. You know, finding ways to get our kids active and moving their bodies that can help regulate them, it can help them stay more grounded. And also, I always, I do this all the time, I always bring it back to food, but using food as an incentive, you know, gelato or ice cream or let’s getting a croissant or getting a hot chocolate, finding ways to run little errands so you get your child out and about getting them moving, helping to regulate them, but also incentivizing them with things that might get them excited. So yeah, I’m not above incentivizing through food. I think that’s pretty clear. If you’ve listened to this show for a while, also it works for me. So, if your kid is motivated by things like that, then why not embrace that? 

So, okay, I hope this offered some helpful strategies. Again, I will include a link to the show notes page for the episode I did with Asher many, many years ago now. I actually included a couple of downloadable PDFs. Actually, I’ll put them in the show notes for this as well, because I used to really like worksheets, so I had created some pre -trip planning worksheets that I would go through with Ash. So I’ll post those in the show notes page as well. So thank you so much for sending in that question. If you have a question that you would like me to answer on another episode or me to answer with one of the parent coaches or me to answer with one of my guest coaches like Zach Morris or Margaret Webb, or Seth Perler, you can email that to me at tilt. You can submit that to me by going to You can submit it in writing. You can leave a voice message for me and I would love to tackle your question in an upcoming episode. That’s all for today. Thank you so much for listening.


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