Shopping while hangry. Zoo-ing past nap time. Children’s museum-ing during spring break (today’s special brand of crazy, brought to you by: homeschool mama who doesn’t know the school schedule anymore apparently).
After a happy weekend, we needed a little something “extra” to transition into Monday so that the weekdays wouldn’t feel boring. Our local children’s museum has no field trips on Mondays, so that was a sure bet.
Until we pulled in the stroller-swamped parking lot and realized: it’s spring break. Our lovely, sensory-friendly, building-experimenting-and-playing haven on a homeschool-friendly day was overrun with spring break families out of school. Grandparents buying toys for spun-out kids, parents taking pictures and tripping over their strollers, toddlers screaming, body-to-body Disney-style crowded, kids at every station of every hands-on learning zone, and the sound of balls, hammers, water and machinery.
And then there’s me, and my kiddo – who both get overwhelmed by crowds and noise – standing there hand in hand suppressing the panic.
I gave my Sweetpea the option to leave immediately. Nope, that’s not an option for her, we’re DOING THIS. Thankfully, gratefully, blessedly… she and I have had enough of these scenarios go horribly wrong, that we have created some shared language and systems to lean on. Nothing goes perfect (ever in life, because: humans), but having a plan always helps. So I wanted to share what our backup plan for a sideways field trip looks like, in case we have some tools that other parents could use if their kiddos are prone to being overwhelmed easily, too.
- Check myself first. Then reassure her. Put on your oxygen mask first when you feel “the sideways” coming. Kids feel and respond to our emotions, even if we think we’re hiding it. The best way for my overwhelmed kiddo to jump ship is if she feels me being anxious, rushing, frustrated, stressed, worried, etc. Because she needs me to help HER, and if I can’t help myself it’s a scary feeling for littles. No matter what I do, it’s guaranteed to be worse if I freak out.
So: a few deep breaths and I tell myself “I can do this.” Squat on her level, smile reassuringly, “It’s ok, baby. We have a plan. We got this.”
Food before anything. We found the quietest spot possible with our lunch bag to eat some protein and drink water. Without protein, we are a train headed over a cliff. Both of us. No rushing, no nitpicking over what she eats or drinks when, hardly any talking at all, just take our time and eat. Give our “tanks” some time to fill back up (we notice & talk a lot about whether our tanks are full or empty, and this code pays off in moments like these). Food also signals to our “downstairs brains” that we’re safe.
- Manage the sensory overwhelm. I keep headphones and earplugs in my purse for just such a plan B (thanks, extremely loud showing of “Beauty and the Beast” that left us clutching our ears). I gave my kiddo the headphones and played a classical lullaby playlist made for just such occasions. She listened to it while she munched a Lunchable. While she listened, I kept physical contact with her (which is comforting for my snuggly girl, your mileage may vary depending on your kiddo who you know best). I tapped on her while she ate, which is also regulating and calming.
- We made an escape plan. I have a flat, no-questions-asked agreement with my daughter that if she is ever overwhelmed, scared or can’t handle something – no matter where we are – to squeeze my hand hard and we leave. Yes, leave the grocery buggy. Yes, leave the movie we just paid for. Yes. We do. Because my kiddo feeling safe and knowing I’ll help her regulate when she can’t is worth more than a movie or a buggy of groceries.
Me: “This place is crazy. We’ll just do our best. Anytime you or I have had enough, we’ll just leave – no questions asked. We have a membership, so there is no pressure for us to stay all day. … And, if you want to keep playing but need a break, where are some quieter places here that we can go?”
Sweetpea: “The book room… the quiet room with the floor pillows… and outside?”
Me: “Perfect. If you need to get out of somewhere RIGHT NOW, just squeeze my hand and we’ll find the closest quiet place.”
- Keep checking in & staying attuned. Instead of standing on the fringes with the wall-o-parents, I played with my girl in any of the spaces she felt comfortable because my presence is comforting to her. I hopped across hay bales and climbed in the animal habitat. I held her hand, rubbed her back, kissed her head. I squatted when I talked to her, so I could put my hand on her chest to feel how hard her heart was hammering. I offered bathroom and snack breaks away from the crowd. We found a new building station tucked in a corner, and stayed there for at least 30 minutes and built in silence.
And… we left happy and regulated. Some of the pent-up stress showed up on the drive home, but I was expecting that. Loop back to step 1. I found a safe place to pull over and calmed my self. I let my Sweetpea unbuckle so I could hug her. I “pulled the aliens” out of her ears (a funny, redirecting way to blame crabby moods on the alien that grew inside ones ears). I validated her feelings. I talked about other random little things – the deer we could see, the play date on Wednesday. And… we got home happy and regulated.
Over and over. Our kids have big feelings. They’re human. That’s normal. We calm ourselves, we validate how they feel, we meet their needs, we give them love. And they feel safe, and start trusting that we’ll do the same thing the next time they’re overwhelmed, or disappointed, or frustrated, or mad, or scared.