I can think of few things I like to do LESS than go on a long road trip with my child, who has severe combined ADHD. But we’ve been working on our technique for a few years now and, thanks to frequent long-distance medical appointments, have had so very many opportunities to get this figured out. Here’s what’s worked for our family. If you have any other tips, leave them in the comments!!
You need to time your drive strategically. Will your child sleep in the car? Drive when they’re likely to sleep. Does your child take medication that wears off? Try to drive while the meds are in effect. Will your child absolutely not sleep in the car, ever ever? Don’t drive when they need to be sleeping. Since my ADHDer tends to launch out of bed, full of energy, regardless of time of day, we tend to prefer to start our road trips fairly early in the day. We are freshest – and most able to cope with hyperactivity – early on, so starting BEFORE his first dose of medication is usually a winning strategy for us. If at all possible, we prefer to try to arrive at our destination as the meds start wearing off.
Obviously, movement breaks are essential. Your family’s needs will vary, but we find that stopping every two hours works well. We get out and use the restroom, of course, but we also run around a little. We instigate a game of tag or follow the leader, or if the rest stop has a small playground, we get him using some of the equipment. Sometimes we pack a few outside toys (a ball, a frisbee, etc) and get those out for a few minutes. This is good for EVERYONE, not just those with ADHD!
Even if your child resists the idea of running around, they need to. Everyone needs to. Just do it.
Visualize the passing of time
While my other kids were able to conceptualize time to a certain extent, my ADHDer really cannot. Since he has a variety of diagnoses, we’ve not been too sure what causes this, but in talking to other people with ADHD, and other parents of kids with ADHD, it seems that this is a common theme. When I tell him we have 5 hours until our destination, and then he asks again in four minutes and I tell him it’s still 5 hours, he’s genuinely surprised by this. He’s not asking to annoy me. He’s not being a pest. He actually, literally feels like it might’ve been a significant amount of time because it FEELS like it has been.
As much as possible in his life, we try to make time more concrete and visible. We use a visual timer, for example. So, in the car, we try to use this same strategy. The visual timer doesn’t work that well, since ours only goes to 60 minutes, but our car’s GPS has a display that includes the estimated amount of time remaining in the trip. I almost always use the GPS for trips, even if I don’t need it, simply so he can LOOK at the numbers on the screen and see them counting down. (If I’m really honest, it’s not just him that needs to see those numbers counting down sometimes, lol. When we drive from Iowa to Utah, the grownups like seeing it, too.)
As we get closer, I use a timer app on his tablet or on my phone – it’s like a digital version of the visual timer, but can go for longer than an hour – and set it to about 10 minutes longer than the current GPS estimate. (Because I’d rather get there sooner than the timer.)
These things don’t totally eliminate the almost constant conversation about how far we are, but it does really help – he can SEE time moving, and he can somewhat answer his own questions. To encourage this, we also tend to direct many of his questions back to him. “How far are we from home?” “Well, what does the timer say?”
One of my kids’ favorite road trip things is the Car Prize. I started this about three years ago on a long trip. I decide in advance about how often the car prizes will come out. Every stop? Every other stop? Between stops? And then announce it in advance. “Alright, if everyone can keep it under control for another half hour, it’ll be car prize time!!” (Use your own discretion here – there was a time when announcing this in advance would’ve just resulted in a total breakdown as the combination of excitement, a surprise, and the frustration of the car ride got to be too much.)
The car prizes serve two functions. One, they are something to look forward to that’s more immediate than arriving at your destination. Car trips are boring. This is something fun. Two, they give the child something to do that’s new. I don’t buy boring toys if I can help it. I buy things that will take up some of the time, or that will provide some needed sensory input. The year my ADHDer was pinching everyone all the time because he needed that input, the car prizes were mostly just a TON of sensory type toys – playdough in a balloon, squishy toys, wax sticks – things that gave him that input he was seeking.
Car Prize ideas: mixed bags of cheap prizes like they sell for Halloween, or for doctor’s offices, etc. Target Dollar Spot things when they go on clearance. DIY toys like playdough in a balloon. Fun edible treats if your kids eat orally. Wax sticks or reusable clings that can be used on the windows. Scented markers, or one of those pens with four ink colors in it. I also usually spring for a few more expensive prizes (I mean, like in the $3 range). I’ve found good prizes at party supply stores, craft stores, superstores, dollar stores, Amazon, etc. I am usually constantly keeping an eye out for cheap, fun, small things, especially after major holidays.
Note: some kids with ADHD and/or anxiety cannot handle knowing there is a surprise. My kiddo is getting better about this – and copes with car prizes fine because this is our routine. You’ll need to use your own judgement here. The goal is to make the ride EASIER for everyone, not harder, so if knowing there’s a prize coming up will mean your kid will just nag you to death about when does he get another prize, you’ll need to figure out how to make this work for you. (For example, for many things, my child can handle waiting, but he can’t handle not knowing what it is. For our most recent trip, I actually took him with me to pick out prizes. He knew what was in the bag, but not what he’d be getting each time. This is a compromise that works well for him. This is also what we do for birthdays and Christmas – he knows what the gifts are going to be in advance.)
We ALWAYS have a prize for the end. And it’s usually not a physical prize, but it is something to look forward to. “When we get there and settled in, we can go to the pool!” if we’re staying at a hotel. Or “When we get there, we can go to Walmart!” (OK, because to my ADHDer, Walmart is basically heaven on earth. That child loves Walmart.) “When we get there, you can play with your cousins!” Choose something doable that your child likes – or choose something you need to do anyway that you can put a fun spin on. Getting groceries and picking out a fun snack, for example. Or, is there a playground nearby your destination that you can visit? Again, we’re mainly looking for something the child can look forward to.
This end prize, like the car prizes, is NOT a reward for good behavior. It cannot be taken away. It is a fact. It is going to happen, whether you feel the child deserves it or not.
I’m going to put a note here about visiting family. If you’re driving to visit family, DO NOT feel you have to skip this end prize because of judgy family. Your child’s needs are more important than Aunt Bertha’s. She’s an adult. She can cope if you decide that your child’s end prize is a half hour at the park down the street. Consider warning Aunt Bertha in advance. “Hey, Aunt Bertha! We’re so excited to see you! When we get there, we’re going to stop at your place really fast to unload the car and then we’re going to head out to the playground for a bit. Little Timmy is going to need to get out some of his little boy energy after so long in the car. Then we’ll come back and stick around.”
Assuming your child eats orally, you can use food strategically during road trips. It starts with awareness of what your child will eat and how food affects your child. Don’t pack snacks that are going to set your child off. BUT you can pack treats (treat: something they love to eat that won’t negatively affect behavior) to use a car prizes. The key to making this work is to keep it a secret. I tend to save the food stuff for when we’re hitting one of those “everyone’s so irritated from being in the stupid car forever” phases. “Hey, look what I found! There’s just ONE for each person, but I have granola bars!!!” or whatever. Even though my kid isn’t really oral eating, he does have foods he likes to nibble at, and he get just as excited over, for example, a snack pack of Fudge Stripes as the other kids.
Kids (and adults) with ADHD tend to love novelty. When we know we have a long trip coming up, I start hoarding new things. That DVD we planned to buy anyway? I buy it in secret, hide it, and keep it stashed until our trip. Ta Da! It’s like a present, but not really because we planned to buy it anyway. I also usually try to find a few free apps for his tablet that he’s never seen before, maybe download a few new movies from Movies Anywhere. It’s not new stuff I bought – it doesn’t cost me any more money than I would have spent anyway – but it’s new TO HIM.
Even when – especially when – your child doesn’t seem to “deserve” your praise, he or she NEEDS it. And considering that kids with ADHD tend to hear FAR more negative messages than positive ones, kids with ADHD need it even more. Find things to praise throughout your trip. On our recent trip, I thanked my child for not hitting his siblings, for example. (I phrased it as “thank you for keeping your hands to yourself.”) Sometimes when things seem to be heating up a little, we thank him for being so patient so far, and emphasize that we know it’s getting boring, but in x time, we’ll be stopping again to get out. You can almost always find something to praise.
If you can swing it, seat your ADHD child away from other kids. If your ADHDer is at all like mine, when he starts to get bored, he looks for ways to create excitement. An easy way to create excitement in the car is to start a fight with siblings. “ho, hum, I’m bored,” his subconscious mind says. “What can I do to spice things up? ooo, hit your brother! do it! hit him!! He’ll yell and then he’ll tattle and then mom and dad will get all angry face and there’ll be a lot of yelling and THAT will be exciting. Do it, Do it, Do it!!” Except this all happens in a flash with my son being none the wiser. He doesn’t know why he does it. Before he can blink, he hits his brother, and his brain gets that boost it was looking for, as the fallout from that creates some excitement. One trip, we bought a large piece of foam board and stuck it between the carseat that held my ADHD son and the booster that held my three-years-older daughter. That helped a lot. Since then, if at all possible, we move one of the kids to the third row in our SUV and seat the other two on either end of the middle row, with a cooler in between them. The other kids are close enough to talk or play together, but not close enough that he can hit them if the mood strikes.
I find I need to work on my own patience a LOT. Deep breaths. Consciously relaxing my muscles. Reminding myself that he’s not being naughty on purpose. Reminding myself that he doesn’t understand how time works at all. Reminding myself that he’s struggling, too.
Hopefully, this gives you some ideas on how to survive a long road trip with your child who has ADHD! I know following these strategies has made a huge difference for our family.