Little Chick flits between activities and interests. But every now and then he really gets into something. Almost obsessively. His latest passion is dominoes. I’m happy with this. I enjoy watching YouTube videos and share his admiration for Hevesh5. We even bought a second-hand domino set to build our own amazing creations.

This has not been a great success. The lorry that lays out the dominoes at set intervals to allow a smooth run doesn’t work (partly explaining the ridiculously low price we paid). Or rather, it works intermittently but the frustration we both experienced at the stop start nature was enough for me to declare it officially broken. Unfortunately, placing dominoes by hand is a much trickier endeavour than I anticipated. It tests me, a relatively calm, steady handed adult. For an overexcited fidgety three-year-old it is a disaster waiting to happen. Even when we leave the safety gap (we learned this from the pros) we aren’t guaranteed to keep them upright, in place, secure.

And that’s how it feels with Little Chick right now. Precarious. Dangerous. One false move and it will all come crashing down.

There’s a lot going on in this wee fella’s head.

Toilet training; starting school; being a big boy; being a baby; being a puppy; mummies; daddies; babies; happy; sad; angry; fed up; listening; not listening; glasses; no glasses; see better; not see; friends; not friends; hospital; safe; not safe.

And that’s just today. I’m finding it exhausting, so no wonder Little Chick is absolutely spinning. I’m just disappointed, for him, that he found his routine hospital trip so challenging today. Previously, he has been very compliant, and staff have commented on how easy he has been. With hindsight, he was in Freeze mode. Since it proved helpful for those around him, I overlooked the possible reasons why, for which I am sorry. Today – as has regularly happened lately – he flitted between Fight and Flight mode.

It’s tricky. Freeze mode was likely just as difficult for him to manage, but people (often myself included) are content to see a compliant child who is making life easier for everyone. Fight and Flight draws attention. Draws look of pity and judgement. Draws tuts and sighs of disbelief. Mostly, I can focus on Little Chick’s needs and ignore public comments, but sometimes my skin and patience aren’t thick enough. Recently, on holiday, Little Chick struggled significantly with the new. New location, new food, new sensations. Daily meltdowns were witnessed by other holidaymakers. Since the time and location (and triggers) varied they usually received new audiences who, assuming it was a one-off smiled patiently and apologetically. However, mealtimes, for reasons we need to explore further, were the worst times and often the same guests would witness his meltdowns several times, from breakfast through to the evening meal. Well-meaning people would try to intervene and calm the situation; invariably causing Little Chick more distress and making a bad situation worse.

His behaviour is the physical manifestation of his early years trauma. I wish we could ignore it, but that’s neither helpful nor kind. We need to acknowledge it. And help Little Chick. We made that promise to him. But sometimes I just feel so helpless and inadequate. It’s so frustrating that, like the domino rallies he enjoys building, one false move and it all falls down, then we have to start all over again. The safety space that pro builders use isn’t available to us. We must become that safety space. But it’s so much harder than I thought.

Home from holidays

When I first started making notes for this post, I considered naming it “The Aftermath”, since that’s what it initially felt like. I felt shell-shocked and the least rested I have ever felt after a holiday. However, I soon realised that “Lessons Learned” was more appropriate. As tricky as the holiday was at times, we are determined to learn from it and try again.

Preparation was key. I knew we couldn’t prepare for every eventuality but considering possible obstacles and thinking about how we could help Little Chick to overcome them was vital. Without doing this the holiday would have been much tougher.

Checking in and the time spent at the airport in the UK was relatively straightforward. The busyness and noise were difficult – for all of us – at times, but we coped. We were some of the first people onto the plane, which helped Little Chick to settle, but the additional time on the tarmac unsettled him. By the time we took off, he had been in his seat for an hour and was keen to take off.

He loved taking off. He looked so chilled and took it all in his stride. But he was also excited and amazed by the experience. Once we levelled off and the seatbelt signs came on the trouble began. We kept our belts on to encourage him to stay still, but he wanted to explore. I should have foreseen this as he always performs a full inspection when we visit somewhere new and there was no reason why he would see this as being any different. The lengthy delay added to the feeling that the flight was not just long but too long, for all of us. The toys and distractions worked reasonably well, and the snacks were happily devoured, but the Kindle barely left the bag. With hindsight, Little Chick displayed signs of hypervigilance, aroused as he was by the unfamiliar setting, all the new sights, smells, and sounds, not to mention the vast number of people in such proximity.

We arrived at our destination airport late in the evening, though the lack of lighting in the terminals made it feel considerably later. This also made everything feel slightly more chaotic. One thing I hadn’t considered was the different language. The staff in the resorts all speak excellent English but I had forgotten that it would be a much greater mix of nationalities and languages in the airport. At times the noise was deafening and the words were indecipherable. I think this was probably the hardest part of the day for Little Chick and I will need to consider how we can ease this pressure should we fly abroad again.

In some ways the travelling was as tiring as the entire holiday, especially when he didn’t sleep on the way home, even though it was a night flight and he was beyond shattered. Any future holidays may need to involve less travelling and waiting time. Though, like most things, I also anticipate that the more we do it the easier it will become. The fear of the unknown is hard for Little Chick, but my own anxiety can also make things harder than they need to be. I need to consider my own self care in order to make it easier for him.

Our time abroad was definitely a mixed bag. Undoubtedly, the biggest issue was food and mealtimes. Little Chick is a good eater and will try most things, which he did. But he struggled with the number of people and the necessity of staying still. We have experienced this a little when having meals out in the UK, but those occasions are few and far between. Since we had an all-inclusive package, mealtimes were plentiful and painful. The sheer abundance and availability of food was too much for Little Chick. By the end of our holiday we were taking shifts and the five of us were unable to eat together. But we all ate well and mostly enjoyed the occasion.

As we had an open plan apartment Little Chick essentially shared a room with us. This disrupted his sleep, even though we made allowances, such as putting him to bed much later than usual, so that we were all on similar timetables. His lack of rest equally disrupted us and the combined tiredness was not pleasant. Having grandparents in the adjoining apartment was a blessing and he had a couple of sleepovers to allow us to restore our energy and refresh ourselves for lots of time in the pool.

Little Chick is such a water baby, but the public baths are too hot, too noisy, and too crowded for him to enjoy. The openness of the outdoor pool suited him much better and his confidence and ability in the water improved incredibly over our stay.

Undoubtedly, the best outcome from the holiday was Little Chick’s progress with toilet training. About a week before leaving he had announced he wanted big boy pants. We happily obliged and encouraged this. Our previous attempts to get him dry for school in September had been futile: this was the moment we had been waiting for. He did brilliantly well at home and at nursery, so we decided to run with the momentum of his success and try it on holiday. He was a superstar. The good weather, the regular toilet breaks, and the child sized toilets all contributed to major progress. Admittedly, I wouldn’t want to put my head in the pool as I think that may have been used as a giant toilet but… This leap forward is a relief for us. We suspected that he might not be toilet trained by September and, while we appreciate that it must be in his own time, we didn’t want him to stand out from his peers. More importantly, Little Chick has grown in confidence and takes such pride in his newfound skills. Though we did make more than a dozen trips to the toilet on the flight home just in case he really did need to go. We didn’t want to do anything that would dent his confidence.

To be honest, if you had offered me the improvements in toilet training and confidence in the pool for the cost of the holiday, I would have snapped your hand off. So, anything else – the day trips, the sun, the unlimited ice cream and cocktails – was a bonus.

So, would we do it again? Probably. But not yet. It was entirely different to the holidays the Other Mrs Reed Warbler and I have enjoyed in the past. It was often tense and the lack of sleep made us more tired upon our return than before we left. But we spent quality time with Little Chick (and my parents) and we saw his joy. Yes, there were bleak moments where I think we all considered thumbing a lift back to the airport, but overall it was filled with memories. And that’s what holidays and family are all about. And, hopefully, Little Chick will learn that one of the best things about going away is coming home again.

Edit (July 2019): When you’re in the midst of things it is hard to see clearly. Similarly, it is easy to remember only the stress and disappointment rather than the successes and moments of joy. Looking back, it was tricky, but it could have been much trickier. We have paid for the holiday in the form of dysregulation and other fallout, but we have also gained a much more confident little boy who can (occasionally) show pride in his achievements. Ultimately, it’s about whether Little Chick managed it and enjoyed it. He says he did and wants to go again. I doubt that we will go abroad again next year (not least for financial reasons) but it is encouraging to know that it has not been ruled out entirely. As I’ve said before, we love travelling and have gained so much from our experiences. We want to share that with Little Chick, but only if it is helpful and beneficial.

Holiday preparations

Later this month we will have our first foreign holiday as a family. There will be lots of firsts for Little Chick, including going on a plane, staying somewhere all inclusive, and access to several swimming pools. Potentially all very exciting; potentially completely overwhelming and dysregulating. Whenever we try something new as a family, we are mindful that Little Chick thrives on routine, likes to know what to expect, and needs to know that he is safe. This holiday could be brilliant or just plain bonkers. We know that we can’t always legislate for how he feels, and he has often surprised us by coping far better than expected or even thriving in situations we thought might be tough. But we have made some preparations to ensure that we make it as straightforward for him as possible.

We have been drip-feeding information about the airport and flight for some time now. We have taken a trip to the East Midlands Aeropark so that we could watch planes land and take off, while playing with cousins and enjoying a picnic. Little Chick can be especially sensitive to noise so we wanted him to hear just how loud it could be so that it isn’t a shock.

Little Chick enjoys role play toys and we managed to pick up some Playmobil bargains, which can be incorporated with his existing play sets. The check-in desk is darn cute and he loves playing with the ticket machine. However, I fear we might have a little disappointment on the day when he isn’t allowed to work the computer. We also purchased a private jet. It’s not the most realistic example (with only two passengers), but it does allow us to run through several possible scenarios with him. One tip though: always read the product details before bagging a bargain. I anticipated that the plane would be small enough to slip into hand luggage and be played with inflight. When it arrived with a wingspan of almost 50cm I quickly realised it would be staying at home!

We have bought an I-Spy Airport book, primarily to prepare him for what he will see in and around the airport. The I-Spy element may be too tricky on the day – due to the age appropriateness of the book and the logistics of checking in and boarding – but it should familiarise him with some of the sights and sounds he will likely encounter.

My biggest concern is the flight itself. A four-hour journey is a lot for any first flyer, let alone a busy, fidgety three-year-old. I have sacrificed my hand luggage allowance to ensure he has enough storage for the books, toys, etc. we have compiled. For the past few months, I have been scouring pound shops and charity shops for small toys and blind bags. Bling bags are great because you never know what you might get, though it may be disappointing if you get duplicates. Where possible, I try to buy small toys I know he will like and wrap them in tissue paper. He loves the sensory quality of the paper and unwrapping them can last longer than the time he plays with the contents. We have several activity books, mostly with stickers, so he has a variety of quick activities to flit between. However, I am fully expecting that his Kindle will be our lifesaver. He loves his Kindle, perhaps a little too much, and we have agreed that he can use it freely on the days we travel if it keeps him happy and us sane. We have also prepared a streamlined version of his calm kit – a collection of sensory toys that he uses when he is overwhelmed and/or dysregulated. Oh, and snacks. Lots and lots of snacks.

Probably the best weapon in our entertainment arsenal is Grandma. She and Grandpa are holidaying with us, in an adjacent apartment, and will be on hand for babysitting and fun. Within reason. It is their holiday too. But I’m hoping that Grandma’s presence will help and somebody else to do a toilet run will be appreciated.

We have tried to explain that the flight is long because we are traveling a long way, making clear that we will all be coming home again. Using his inflatable globe, we have shown him where we live and where we will be going, using stickers to show both. Additionally, we have shown him videos online of the resort, so he knows where he is going. We have printed off photos for a small scrapbook, which will work as a prompt before we leave and as a souvenir upon our return (it will go in his memory box, along with any other bits and pieces he takes a shine to while we are away).

As I said, this could be brilliant or bonkers and all the preparation in the world doesn’t allow for the response of a three-year-old, much less one with a tricky start in life. We hope he will enjoy it as we have always loved travelling and hope to share that with him. But we appreciate that if he is not ready yet (or ever) then we will find other ways for the Other Mrs Reed Warbler and I to get our travel fix. The main thing is we have assured Little Chick that we will keep him happy safe and well wherever we are – and we intend to keep that promise.

NB. I will not be blogging while we are away, to ensure that my focus is fully on my family and our holiday. We have been looking forward to this time together for some time and I want to make sure I am ‘present’ throughout our time away.