Recently, my wife and I decided to surprise our kids with a vacation to Costa Rica. My children are 8 and 6 years of age and both have been diagnosed with ADHD. My wife and I have read stacks of books on this disorder, listened to countless podcasts and attended many lectures, yet we still struggle as parents from time to time. One of the main pieces of advice experts suggest is forecasting. A week prior to our trip we informed the kids about our vacation plans. They were beyond thrilled as after our last trip to Disney my wife and I almost had nervous breakdowns and declared, “We are never taking you anywhere ever again!”
My wife explained to them that in Costa Rica the food isn’t the same, most of the population speaks Spanish, there’s a time difference, it will be extremely hot and you need to wear sun screen otherwise you will get a bad burn. Lastly, my wife told them we’d be staying in a condo for a week. The kids seemed cool with everything.
Knowing ADHD kids aren’t good with change, my wife packed their alarm clocks, white noise machines, a ton of black garbage bags to cover the bedroom windows in case the blinds weren’t dark enough, their night lights and snacks that contained no sugar or artificial colours because these substances tend to speed up kids with ADHD.
When we landed at Liberia International Airport in Costa Rica the kids were manic. After five hours on a plane they chased each other through customs. Customs pushed us through at breakneck speed. Perhaps we shouldn’t have let them play on their ipads for the entire plane ride but this was called self-preservation for us. The children’s psychiatrist claims ipad screens can cause extreme hyperactivity in ADHD children if used for extended periods of time.
When we settled into the cab, my wife offered our kids Fiji water and snacks. Their naturopath claims ADHD children should only drink Fiji water because it doesn’t contain heavy metals like other bottled water. The cab resembled the Mystery Machine Van from the old Scooby Doo animated series. Inside the van, our Costa Rican driver played Spanish music from his smart phone. The Mystery Machine rocketed down the highway. The kids swayed back and forth. Their screams were a blend of excitement and terror. Our daughter shouted and waved out the window, ‘Hola’ to the other drivers and all the animals on the side of the road. As the driver berated me in Spanish to stop the craziness, my wife calmly distracted my daughter and subtly convinced the kids to play a game of ‘I Spy’. Two hours later we arrived in the surf vacation town of Tamarindo.
Upon arriving at the condo my son was adamant he sleep in the master bedroom. Both my wife and I denied his request but he argued relentlessly and had several meltdowns. In the meantime our daughter had stripped down to her birthday suit and was dancing on the furniture and singing the hit tweeny bopper song, ‘Havana’. Our son continued to rage about how unfairly he was being treated. At this point we attempted several parenting strategies from our toolbox, cognitive therapy, mirroring, de-escalation, humor, distraction and empathy, but nothing worked. He was hell bent on sleeping in the master bedroom and we were in hell. Hours later, beyond being frustrated and feeling nauseous from the flight, we told him we’d table the discussion until later that evening.
The kids despised every restaurant we tried for various reasons except for Subway. Subsequently, we determined it was best to buy groceries and cook their favorite foods in the kitchen condo. Nothing like Kraft Dinner on vacation.
The next day we took a cab to Costa Rica’s best water slide park. Once there our daughter was quick to dive into the pool. However our son became belligerent and indicated that he’d had enough of Costa Rica and would rather stay in the apartment and watch Spanish television or find the next flight home. I felt like screaming and losing it. I went through a mental checklist in my head attempting to understand what precipitated this change in behavior. Did we give him artificial flavors, had he been running around enough, were we providing him with enough transition time, was he hungry, was he full, was he sleeping enough, or was he sleeping too much? I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs out of sheer frustration. I was literally at the end of my rope when my wife reminded me that our Parents for ADHD KIDS group suggests when you’re feeling signs of anger creeping on, it’s best to leave the situation. I spent the next half hour on the beach, calming myself down.
Our psychiatrist provided us with a few ways to help us de-escalate. He pointed out to put things in perspective. You’re child may be rigged, stubborn, even down right hostile but no one’s, dying, there’s no terrorist attack happening so re-frame the situation. He has a disorder related to chemical alternations in the brain and needs you to model calmness and provide him with boundaries. Other de-stressing advice he mentioned was imagining yourself walking along a beautiful beach, which I didn’t need to imagine. When I came back our son was diving off various platforms pretending he was the Hulk. My wonderful wife had told him he didn’t have to play at the water park but we couldn’t return to the apartment until the cab picked us up in a few hours. He could either watch or participate. After watching for ten minutes, he went to the washroom changed, and decided to enjoy the adventure. Later he apologized to us for his belligerent behavior after we sat down with him and discussed different ways he could have handled the situation, which is something we usually do a few hours after everyone’s chilled out. He even agreed to let mommy and daddy have the master bedroom.
A few days later we signed them up for surfing lessons. Our son was riding the waves within forty minutes. The surfing seemed to dramatically decrease their ADHD symptoms for the rest of the trip. Their psychiatrist maintains that if ADHD children master an activity, it provides them with more self-confidence and a feeling of control over their environment. Every night we watched the sunset and body surfed in the waves until dark. Our children tremendously enjoyed being picked up and thrown and tossed into the rippling water. My son was truly in his element explaining to his sister how the moon’s gravity affected the tide. The body surfing also seemed to provide them with an inner calmness.
One afternoon we took them zip lining on a mountaintop. After the zip lining they refused to leave the resort and jumped into the pool with their clothes on. Even though my wife and I were becoming increasingly frustrated, I tried to use humor to solve the situation. I dove into the pool and pretended to be a sea creature and tossed them around until they’d forgotten about not wanting to leave.
Truthfully, the more engaged my children were with activities the better their behavior became. Whether it was riding horses on the beach, sliding down water slides or playing with underwater turtles, their moods changed from being distraught, irritable and cantankerous to happy go lucky kids on their first winter vacation.