Vacations are exciting.

Kids who have special needs do not often handle excitement well.

Kids with special needs don’t always handle vacation well. Vacations (and Christmas, birthdays, parties, and other special events) can be land-mines of hyper-arousal and poor behavior.

Parents have to make tough vacation decisions for kids with special needs sometimes.Tough Vacation Decisions for Special Needs Kids|The Holy Mess

Kids with Special Needs: Holidays & Vacations

Those of us who have adopted children feel this vague guilt that our children either

  1. aren’t getting treated as fairly as our birth children are treated, or
  2. lived a deprived life. (And some kids come out of foster care who did live a deprived life.)

So we pile stuff onto them, but it’s stuff they cannot handle.

Too much stuff or too many activities makes our kids feel guilty because their birth family isn’t getting these things and they are.

Or it’s just plain old sensory overload.

No one ever told me it’s okay to NOT do something for my child with special needs.

It took me years to get over this mom guilt and give myself permission. Those were hard years, let me tell you.

If you have a child with special needs, I here and now give you permission to simplify vacations, holidays, and celebrations. (Which you don’t need from me, but you have it just in case.)

Tough Vacation Decisions

August, 2015

Our family has been planning a vacation to Glenwood Springs.

It’s been a crazy summer and Mike put together this quick get-away for us. While just a couple days, a get-away is a get-away, and we are all looking forward to it.

Two days before our trip, we see an increase in our son’s difficult behaviors. I notice he is more agitated than usual and will not be soothed.

During one of his build-ups, I take him out to the garage to hit the punching bag. In the past this would be a full-blown rage. Currently it’s pushing the line, but he doesn’t cross it.

He is pacing the garage, knocking over items. He takes a fishing pole and taps my road bike (MY ROAD BIKE!!! THAT’S A DO-NOT-GO-THERE-ITEM!). He doesn’t do any damage, but obviously he is trying to get my attention by doing what he doesn’t normally do.

We talk through the event and he does calm, but I can still sense this low level buzz of anxiety from him.

I talked to Aaron, our attachment therapist, that night on the phone and explained what was going on. He is blunt.

“I think your son is trying to tell you with his behavior he can’t handle this vacation. I don’t think he’s up for it. Yes, he will be disappointed not to go, but he might actually be more relieved. I’ve seen this with other kids I work with. The last thing you want is to have to try to arrange a hospitalization down there if he blows up. You and Mike think about it, and pray about it overnight, and let’s talk in the morning. If you agree with me, we need to arrange some type of emergency respite.”

Mike and I process this news. We are not happy. This is not what we want to hear right before leaving for a supposedly relaxing get-away.

Then again, what family vacations do we have these days that are relaxing? There are relaxing moments, but the vacation itself is exhausting.

We worry about leaving our son in respite. We haven’t ever used any Medicaid overnight respite and don’t know the providers. That could create new trauma for our son. We don’t want to burden Mike’s parents by asking them to watch him when he’s really too much to handle. We don’t want to ask our friends to take the risk of damaging their home or putting their other children at risk.

And, what about our 6 year old? His behavior is not stellar either. He’s not very emotionally regulated and is having rages now, too.

Taking our younger son on vacation doesn’t seem quite right either.

Mike comes up with the creative solution. He decides to stay home with the boys for their own stay-at-home vacation while I go with the older 3 teens to Glenwood Springs. I will get a much-needed respite and time with the older ones. The younger two will stay at home where their behavior can best be managed.

It is a disappointment, but once the decision is made, Mike and I settled into it quickly.

We know it is right. These are the things we do as parents.

How to Tell the Kids

We spend the day before the trip packing.

I know my son suspects something because he asks me strings of questions, “When are you going to pack my stuff?” “What if I fall and get hurt while we are hiking?” “How far away is where we are going?” “When are we leaving?” “How long will we be gone?”

I tell him, “Don’t worry. I’ve got a plan for you to manage your behavior for the next couple days and keep you safe.”

He doesn’t press further.

Aaron comes for therapy that evening. We meet to talk strategy.

Aaron tells us to simply be honest. Beating around the bush creates more anxiety. We talked about some ways to phrase what we will say, and how we think our son might handle the news.

We call our son upstairs, and meet in the backyard since our younger son is in the middle of a fit in the living room. (Each of the boys is always terrible when the other one is having therapy. Jealousy.)

Aaron prepares our son by saying Dad has something to tell him that will be difficult for him to hear, but he expects our son to handle it well and with good behavior.

Mike tells our son we are the parents, and we give kids what they need, not what they want, and we have decided this time it will be best for the younger two boys to stay home with Dad instead of go on vacation. They will still do fun things at home while we are gone.

Our son is teary for a moment, but then seems excited about the idea of staying home with dad. He says he is excited to get to spend time with Dad, since dad is often at work. He asks if they can create a huge Lego fort, and if they can go out to eat, since we usually never go out to eat since it costs over $100. (Truth.)

Aaron tells him he can make a list of ideas, but Dad is still in charge. They talk a little more then go inside for a music jam session.

After Aaron leaves, we tell our younger son. He takes the news much harder. Cognitively, his understanding is lower, and he doesn’t understand why he can’t go on vacation with us. He has been so excited to get to go.

Two Vacations

Glenwood Springs is fantastic.

As Nancy Thomas says, moms get so worn out from their special needs children who require so much intensive attention. Then moms get a respite break and they turn around to their other children and think, “Wow, look at this! Children who are fun to be around! I have forgotten what this is like!”

Hanging Lake

Hanging Lake

Hanging Lake Waterfall

Waterfall at Hanging Lake

Glenwood Canyon

Biking at Glenwood Canyon, dipping our feet in the cold water.

We have a great time in Glenwood Springs. We hike up to Hanging Lake (a tough hike the younger ones could not have done). We walk around downtown. We talk. We bike. We watch TV.

We rest.


The boys stay home and play in the river one morning.


Fun Lego time at home.

I’m so thankful for my husband. What a guy!

Still Standing

Still Standing|The Holy Mess

Bible Verse

And we desire each one of you show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end.

Hebrews 6:11Tough Vacation Decisions for Special Needs Kids|The Holy Mess

Journal Prompt

Think of a time when you said “no” to something big. Was it with great sadness, relief, or both? Did you pray about it first? If so, how did God provide direction?


A friend of mine (who spent time in foster care as a child) and I co-wrote this article about helping kids with special needs during holidays. Be sure to check it out here: 10 Tips to Help Kids with Special Needs Celebrate Holidays, which has specific examples about setting up a safe structure for these types of situations.

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