By Beth Blancher, M.A.
Disney parks provide an excellent therapeutic environment to help parents “reparent” a child. Reparenting is beneficial when a child has experienced trauma, loss or discontinuity of caregivers. Most often we see this in adoptive and foster children or sometimes with a child who has had a sick or unavailable parent, moved frequently or have been abused or neglected. All children need a secure attachment with a parental figure. While these skills help children with attachment issues; they can enhance a healthy relationship as well.
Opportunities for reparenting on vacation include but are not limited to the following:
· Parents need to be stable, predictable and set limits. Security is crucial. Take a moment to decide on limits and privileges for your upcoming trip. Set limits like time spent in park, shopping, attire and eating properly even if it’s just one meal a day. Remember fatigue can make the best of times difficult. If you find yourself pushed to the breaking point stop and take time to regroup or gather your thoughts. Emotional outbursts can frighten a child, especially one who has come from an unstable environment. Keep moods in check. Do not promise things that are unattainable.
· Teaching discipline not punishment. Many children who come from unstable environments have been taught that hitting is a way to get someone to obey. Set your rules in advance and he consequences. Make them realistic. Do not make threats like “we will never come back to the park again” instead pull a child out for a ride or delay a treat. Delay seeing a specific character if rules are not followed. Make the consequence fit the behavior.
· Provide a safe structured environment. Safety is vital to reparenting and Disney parks are filled with adventures that may frighten a child. The benefits are that you can reenact protecting a child in a safe environment. For example, holding a child close and protecting them in the haunted mansion or holding tight on Expedition Everest. This works when the child is ready to trust you on a particular ride and can have a negative impact if pushed too early. Every child has their own level of readiness, from holding hands, closing eyes or a full hug. Use these opportunities to help your child grow and learn to trust others and feel safe. These activities will vary by age and readiness from posing in a family picture or with a character to going down Summit Plummet
· Have simple and clear rules. Set rules and consequences ahead of time. Every child and family is different. Know your child and anticipate the problem areas. Does your child run off when you are in line? Set the consequences in advance. Do you have problems with hitting? Not sharing, taking turns or breaking line? Remember to make natural consequences and rules and consequences you can keep and follow through…. Consistency.
· Have consequences for behaviors both positive and negative. Don’t forget to reward the good behavior as well. Don’t go overboard. If travel to Orlando is difficult, for example, long car rides then a great reward could be the child could select the first ride in a specific park.
· Help your child succeed. Explore your child’s personal goals and help them attain them. Try to make it fun and challenging. If it’s ordering by themselves at a kiosk, locating a particular character, getting their own FP or getting up and ready by themselves, discuss their goals and help them to be successful.
· Help children learn to trust their own capabilities. Reinforce age appropriate activities that help a child learn to trust their capabilities. These skills can range from learning to drink from a cup, swimming across a pool, ordering their own ice cream or riding a ride alone. When these opportunities arise take the time to point out their accomplishment.
· Allow children to grieve for loss of a parent(s), former communities, friends etc. A Disney movie provides a great opportunity for grieving. Movies are often shown at night throughout the parks. Movies such as Bambi (loss of mother), Lion King(loss of father), Tarzan (loss of both parents) and Lilo and Stitch (loss of parents and adoption) and Meet the Robinsons (adoption), provide excellent grieving opportunities and reinforce happy endings.
· Nurturing is multifaceted and opportunities are abundant in the parks. Nurturing can be achieved through active listening, affirmations, consistency, security, a gentle touch or great big hug. Know your child’s limits and respect them and prepare for their needs in the parks. If you are still exploring limits with touching then use the opportunities with characters or rides to help stretch the limits but be patient.
· Read stories to your child. One of my favorite times to read is in the morning. My children were difficult to wake in the morning so I would read to them in the morning while they slowly woke up. Before you know it they were awake and listening to the story. A gentle way to wake them up. There are plenty of opportunities to read at WDW from maps to storylines throughout rides, in airports, poolside or the in the room. Reading helps children transition from one activity to another especially when they are tired, on overload or too excited to sleep or wait.
· Play alongside the child is simple in the parks. Now there are many ride ques that have interactive stations that you can play with your child while passing the time. There are so many great opportunities including taking turns, delay of gratification, transition with events and more. There are numerous opportunities for different play in different lines from Winnie the Pooh’s Huney Pots, Soarin, the Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain and more. It’s also a great opportunity for reciprocity in play and games. Letting others have a turn and playing with strangers as a team. Make the most of your time in line.
· Affirmation is important… you are so smart, you are patient, you look like a princess, you share, take turns… endless affirmations will help to build the child’s self esteem which is often damaged with children in need of reparenting. A child’s identity is critical so if your child doesn’t look like Cinderella then find a character that represents their hair, skin or eye color. It’s important that a child does not see only one type of character as an ideal beauty, especially for girls.
· Be reliable and trustworthy, do what you promise and don’t promise more than you can do. Be aware of a child’s limited ability to think abstractly. If you say we are going to visit the castle in 3 days, do not forget to include time for travel. Many little hearts are broken because they didn’t understand that although the family arrived in Orlando only to find they have to wait another day to enter the park. Promises such as “we will see Stitch today” are often broken when you miss the character meet or meant when you get to the magic kingdom only to find the ride down etc. Make it an adventure, try to find the character and be sure of dates, times and locations before making promises.
· Avoid criticizing or judgmental statements especially if the child is scared or disappointed. Forcing children to do what you “think” they will enjoy is not fun and calling them names or labeling them for fear of rides or characters is not helping your child to grow and develop.
· Avoid setting unrealistic expectations..this one is tough for most visitors to the park. Try to stay flexible, allow time for hunger, down rides and missed transportation, sleepy mornings and tired nights. It’s difficult to explore an entire park in a day with children especially if it’s your first time or in peak seasons with long lines. Plan to do about three big rides, maybe a break for a parade and lunch or a trip back to the room for a swim. Then everything else is bonus instead of a disappointment.
· Children should keep old toys or clothes from their past. It’s important to help give them stability. It can be challenging and sometimes creativity is required. Sometimes it’s best to let the child learn that it’s too hot or too cold for the outfit after reasoning has failed. While it’s difficult to let a child wear sweatpants in June that are two sizes too small for that group photo you are helping the child feel in control in a world that has been out of control for too long.
· Help children learn alternative ways to get their needs met. Bargaining with your child or giving them alternate solutions can help the child develop and learn to adapt and change. Letting the child use those small sweat pants as pajamas, finding the character they longed to meet in the parade or as a souvenir or locating a character greet for a later time; it all helps them to make adjustments in life and learn to compromise.
· Many adopted or foster children have a life book. A Disney vacation will help you develop your life book. Pictures with the new family or characters from a favorite movie. Help your child add to their book. Unfortunately some children don’t have any pictures from early childhood. Try stopping by areas such as “honey I shrunk the kid” play set in the Hollywood studios and pretend they are small again or other larger than life props. Travel the world with them in EPCOT or live out a fantasy at the Magic Kingdom. The opportunities are as endless as your imagination.
As always please share your stories photos and questions with us here at Mouse-aid. Keep believing!