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What We Learned When We Took Our Son With Anxiety to the Amusement Park


There are times when we have an idea that, on the surface, seems like it will be a good fit. The expectations seem reasonable and attainable, we may even have experienced success in the past. We know to anticipate a few ups and downs but for the most part, feel confident the day will go well.

I had one of those days this week. We’d made a plan to attend an amusement park with relatives. This type of outing has always gone well in the past.

It was quite chaotic trying to get ready to leave that morning, but we finally made it onto the highway.

It was an hour-and-a-half drive to get to the park.

We arrived and met up with another cousin who we hadn’t seen in a while. Everyone was excited to go in and start exploring the park and the rides. Smiles, laughter, boasting about previous experiences. Happiness.

Within 15 minutes of our arrival, anxiety took full control.

It’s always hard to watch this happen because you know your child doesn’t choose this. The things that happen, the words said, this is the anxiety roaring and asserting itself as master. Anxiety chose escape as its only strategy that day. Escape was all that could be thought about.

Get.Me.Out.Of.Here.Now.

These moments are hard for a parent. You don’t want to “give in” by simply getting up and leaving. You need to do a good assessment of the situation and determine the likelihood of being able to turn things around. You need to provide the time and opportunity to calm, to re-frame, to try again. And you need to set aside all your own hopes and expectations you had for the day and really listen to what your child is trying to tell you.

It was pretty clear that anxiety wanted nothing to do with the amusement park, but I still tried. We walked for a bit, hoping the movement would help. It didn’t. We sat on a bench. Just sat there. Nope. We left the park and sat in our truck.

I saw the anxiety loosen its hold a bit then. Muscles unclenched. I wasn’t ready to give up yet. We continued sitting there. Sometimes talking, sometimes not. Just allowing ourselves time.

There just wasn’t going to be enough time on this day.

That’s the thing about anxiety. It doesn’t give you a solid timeline for recovery. Ever. Sometimes we’re able to manage it quickly and continue on with our day, and other times, like this day, it holds you tightly in its grip. Not willing to move on.

When we finally drove out of the park, sleep took over. A full hour of sleep.

Ah-ha. I started reflecting on the clues and signals that had been sent my way. The excitement of the coming day had interrupted our sleep the night before. My child had provided me with clues earlier that morning, but in the rush to get ready to leave I didn’t give the attention I should have. I thought about all the expectations I’d recently placed on my child – we’ve been traveling to visit relatives, our time in the vehicle has exceeded 30 hours in the past ten days. Our longest stay in one place has been four days. And you know what? My child, this boy who craves routine and quiet and space, he has coped so well with this trip.

Sometimes when things are going so well, we forget to pay attention to the details.

We forget to look at and honor what it takes to cope with such a deviation away from our typical, quiet, predictable days. We assume that because things are going well they will continue to go well, forgetting all the energy it takes to manage and cope.

As he slept in the seat beside me, I could have embraced my own mom guilt about what had happened at the park, but instead I chose to think about all the successes we’ve already had on this trip.

When he woke up we had a chance to talk about what had happened. He gave voice to all I’d been thinking about while he’d been sleeping. It’d simply been too much. We talked about our plans for the coming days. We’d be staying in one place for the remainder of our trip. We’d become more predictable, and I’d pay more attention to the signals he was giving me.

When we arrived back home, we let the dog outside to play. Our child has a lot of anxiety about his dog being out off-leash; he’s worried our dog will run away or get hurt.

But on this day, the one that had been so hard, I asked my son to let me show him how our dog would listen and run with me when he was off his leash. Only for a minute. Reluctantly, he agreed. But he wanted to run with the dog.

I smiled as he unhooked the leash, and I directed him to run towards an outbuilding and then back towards me.

It was a beautiful moment. Anxiety was replaced by joy. My boy laughed and marvelled at how fast our dog could run, how quickly he could switch directions. He let the dog stay off leash for the rest of the time we were outside.

And in those moments, my son had released his own tether to anxiety, and both of them were free.

Follow this journey on Champions for Community Mental Wellness.