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Responding to a Toddler’s Road Trip Stress for Restoration and Co-Regulation

By: Kaitie Westbrook

Ahh, I thought – what an excellent opportunity to head out on a bit of a family getaway!

COVID numbers, protocols and worries were lessening, we had some free time, and we were invited to stay with friends, and we have never experienced any type of family vacation!

We excitedly talked about the trip at our dinner table in the days leading to our departure. My 3-year-old was particularly happy and curious about “going on a holiday.” I made the necessary accommodation bookings, packed the suitcases, prepped road trip activities and snacks, a lot of snacks!

We set out, and it took all of 8 minutes before my son asked for his first snack. We spent 7 hours travelling to the hotel as we made our necessary pit stops and then experienced navigation challenges and rush hour. These were easy stressors to detect – both for us as adults and for our tiny humans! We reached the hotel, got into our bathing suits and restored by moving our bodies in the pool. It was a great time, full of games and giggles. We settled into our room for the evening, woke the next day, enjoyed our breakfast, and travelled another 3 hours to our destination.

We were staying with friends of ours that have two children, ages 4 and 6. My son knows both boys and has played with them occasionally. While he can be shy and cautious, he is typically a social child, warming up once he feels the environment is safe and then engaging in play with peers his age. However, during our first day there, I noticed that he didn’t leave our sides often and required our involvement in the play. Both boys showed so much kindness and empathy as they offered him various toys of theirs to play with and repeatedly invited him to play.

At bedtime, my son said he wanted to go home, and it was obvious he was feeling upset. The boys took him and I around the home, offering various comfort items for him to sleep with. He chose a dinosaur, and we went upstairs. We kept this routine the same as we would at home and chatted about his highs and lows of the day and then read (many) books in the bed. I stayed with him until he fell asleep.

The next day he opened up a bit more and played. We noticed that the boy’s toys and interests were much different from his toys and interests. We also noticed that they liked to roughhouse, something my son is not used to, and this appeared to make him nervous. We redirected the play and stayed with him when he needed that. That afternoon we went to an outdoor ice trail. The timing of the excursion, and while on the route, my son had a brief nap in the vehicle. He definitely could have used a longer nap in a bed rather than his car seat. He woke up looking depleted, and he was not afraid to let us know he felt grumpy. He endured the activity and perked up for hot chocolate afterwards. We arrived back at their house, and as we prepped dinner, my son witnessed the siblings get into an argument, and one brother had hurt the other. He also heard their parents become upset with the brother who hit. The situation was quickly resolved, and we proceeded to have dinner, and then all three boys watched a show before starting the bedtime routine.

I was caring for my 5-month-old in the adjacent room when suddenly, I heard some voices, the discussion of bedtime and the TV was turned off, and I could hear my son crying. As he realized that instruction for bed was being given, and neither of his parents was in sight. As a toddler who completes his bedtime routine with his parents and is already experiencing discomfort and homesickness, this seemed to be the straw that broke my poor toddler’s back. As he ran to me crying, I could see he was in a state of allostatic overload and that it would be essential for me to respond using my Self-Reg knowledge.

I scooped my toddler into a big hug, and we went to a private, quiet area in the home as he sobbed. As I held him, we practiced some deep breathing together. I thought about the last couple of days and the most overt stressors involved in our road trip. The long car ride, the hotel stay, the snacks, staying with another family, a new place, different routines, different smells, inadequate sleep, children he is less familiar with, different toys, and the overwhelming feeling of not being in the comfort of your own home. Even though he had both parents, this was still his first trip ever!

After some big deep breaths, he communicated that he missed his toys and wanted to go home. He was still hugging and talking into my chest, unable to look at me. Given that it was 7:00 PM and we were 8 hours from home, I could not fulfil this request. I could, however, work to restore his energy and reduce his homesickness and the stress associated with this feeling.

I hugged him and drew on his back. I reassured him that Mommy and Daddy were here

with him and that we would all be going home together tomorrow. We talked about the fun things we can do in the car on the way home – the I Spy and his very own ‘Guessing’ game. We talked about what we could do when we got home and what it would be

like to be home. Then we engaged in our bedtime routine with lots of books. He fell asleep, and the next day we travelled home.

While I thought that this road trip would be restorative for us all, there were many stressors that caused energy depletion that I didn’t account for. While the stressors may have been missed initially, pausing and attuning to my child’s needs with a Self-Reg lens prevented us from getting caught in a stress cycle. We reduced the stress we could, used our tried and true practices to restore some energy and ultimately, co-regulated!

Reflecting on moments like this, I am exceptionally grateful that Self-Reg is a process, not a program! My Self-Reg journey has brought a tremendous amount of rich learning opportunities, personally and professionally. But, in these moments as a parent, when I need to be stronger, wiser and kind for my tiny humans, I am so thankful that I can apply my Self-Reg learning to meet their needs through co-regulation!

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Thanks for your story Katie,

I too am so thankful that I have learned the process of Self-Reg it is such a gift towards understanding and compassion - for ourselves and for the littles in our lives!



Aviva Dunsiger
Aviva Dunsiger
Apr 12, 2022

Thanks so much for sharing this story and your thinking throughout the process! It really has me thinking about the need to slow down, reflect, and see the Self-Reg (or co-regulation) at play. I wonder if others feel the same.


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