Have you ever thought to yourself, what should I say (or NOT say) to my highly sensitive child at Disney World?
You’ve planned all the details of your Disney World trip with your highly sensitive child. You’ve decided which rides to avoid or try, packed familiar snacks and drinks, brought loveys and noise canceling headphones… you completed all the prep work and research. As a parent of a sensitive or anxious child, you already know that winging it is not an option. But then the inevitable happens. Your child loses it, starts screaming and crying, and you’re in the middle of a sensory overload meltdown.
I have totally been there. It is overwhelming and tough as a parent to ride out these meltdowns. There’s a sense of helplessness and feeling out of control when your child can’t seem to calm down and self-regulate no matter what you do. There’s an added layer of pressure when you feel like there are judgmental eyes of others at Disney World, and you have high expectations of your child to enjoy their time while on vacation.
What can you say to your sensitive or anxious child at Disney World?
So, what are some things you could say to your sensitive, anxious, sensory child during a meltdown at Disney World? And what are some things we can say to them so it doesn’t add to their sensory overload? The things we say won’t stop the meltdown in its tracks, but there are definitely some helpful and not-so-helpful ways to respond. We can think of this as trying to not add more fuel to the fire, even though we might need to still wait to let the fire fully burn out 😉
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Meltdowns vs. Tantrums
First, let’s make sure we understand the difference between meltdowns and tantrums. Tantrums usually occur in young children who don’t have the language ability to express themselves to get what they want. It’s very much driven by a want or a goal, and the child often has some control over their behavior. Tantrums usually stop once the child gets what they want.
Meltdowns, on the other hand, is a reaction to feeling overwhelmed. For highly sensitive, anxious, or sensory kids, a meltdown can happen when their brain is overstimulated by trying to process too much information. It seems to trigger a fight-or-flight response, and the child’s behavior is out of their control. The meltdown only stops once there’s a reduction in sensory input or if they’ve completely worn themselves out.
What we, as parents, say or don’t say won’t necessarily stop the meltdown. But there are things that we can say that will help prevent it from escalating further. And it all starts with empathy and practicing self-regulation for ourselves.
Here is a list of 10 things NOT to say to your highly sensitive or anxious child at Disney World, and what you could try saying instead. Say this, not that!
1. Don’t say: “It’s NOT scary!”
Oof, I have totally been guilty of saying this. Sometimes my children react with fear to things that seem like no big deal to me. But my experience is not their own. Something that is fun to one child may be super scary to another.
For example, “it’s a small world” at Disney World might be really fun for one child who loves slow boat rides, dancing dolls, and music. But if a child has a fear of dolls (which is not entirely uncommon!) and reacts poorly to constant auditory stimulation, they could be scared of this ride. It’s really important to not deny their own experiences, but instead, validate them. They need to know that it’s okay to feel scared, and that you are their safe space.
Say this instead: “I can see this is scary for you. You are safe with me.”
2. Don’t say: “You’re OKAY.”
I find that so many parents, including myself, say this as a way to reassure their children. If you see a toddler running and take a tumble, you’ll often see the parent go pick up their child and say “you’re okay!”. And while most parents say this with good intentions, this might make kids feel like their feelings and experiences are being brushed off. So, if your sensitive child starts to freak out during a Disney fireworks show, DON’T say “you’re okay!” Their body and brain is telling them otherwise. Instead, name the feeling or experience, and reassure them that you’re there to help them.
Say this instead: “That was [loud/fast/uncomfortable, etc – name the feeling], I’m here for you”.
3. Don’t say: “Calm down.”
When has your child ever calmed down by being TOLD to calm down?! Never. Yet we find ourselves saying this all the time when our kids start to show intense and heightened emotions or behaviors. If your highly sensitive child has a meltdown due to being around the crowds, Florida humidity, noise, and smells of being at Disney World without a break, the last thing we want to say is “calm down”.
At this point, their sensory system is on overload and they cannot control their behavior or feelings. At the height of their meltdown, it’s impossible for them to just simply will themselves to stop and calm down. Instead, we as the parents need to exhibit the calm and let them know it’s normal to feel upset or overwhelmed, especially in an overstimulating environment.
Say this instead: “It’s okay to be upset or overwhelmed. It’s good to let it out. Let’s find a quiet space.”
4. Don’t say: “It’s not a big deal.”
Another thing we shouldn’t say to our sensitive or anxious children at Disney World is “it’s not a big deal”. Again, this is another way we end up minimizing our child’s feelings and experiences. If they end up dripping their Mickey ice cream bar all over their clothes and the sticky mess is the tipping point for their sensory overload, it DOES feel like a big deal for them.
Say this instead: “I understand you’re overwhelmed. This feels hard for you.”
5. Don’t say: “Stop whining!”
The whining and screaming that accompanies meltdowns can be really difficult for parents to handle. It can feel really triggering for us. All we want is for it to stop… for me, I’ve realized that I feel responsibility for my children’s happiness (or subsequent, unhappiness). There’s a part of me that feels like if I can’t make my child happy, then I’m not doing my job right. As if their unhappiness is a reflection of who I am as a parent. It is totally an unhealthy mindset, but it’s helpful for me to be aware of why the whining and meltdowns feel like a trigger to me. Whatever YOUR reason is, telling them to simply stop whining won’t do anything at all, and might just escalate the meltdown.
Instead, try acknowledging that they’re having a hard time. If they’re older and more verbal, you can also try asking how you can help them in that moment. They might not have an answer for you, especially if they’re already in an emotional state, but at least they know you are on their team and want to help them.
Say this instead: “It sounds like you’re having a really hard time with ____. How can I help you?”
6. Don’t say: “Don’t worry.”
If it’s your family’s first visit to Disney World, all these experiences will be so new and unfamiliar to your sensitive or anxious children. With highly sensitive or anxious kids, anything new and unpredictable can feel overwhelming. It’s very likely they’ll feel nervous or worried about some of the rides, sleeping in a new hotel, riding new kinds of transportation, or being around crowds. Even if you do all the prep work beforehand, it’s still not the same as actually experiencing it in real life. As parents, we often resort to saying “don’t worry” as a way to try to reassure our child when they are anxious or scared. But it’s really not helpful. It’s important to demonstrate empathy and validate their feelings. Let them know you want to support them.
Say this instead: “I can see this makes you feel nervous. I’m here for you.”
7. Don’t say: “Why are you crying?!”
Crying, screaming, flailing, and hitting can be pretty typical behaviors during a meltdown. They can’t help the behaviors and they’re no longer in a place where they can be rational or capable of logical thinking. By saying “why are you crying?”, it could feel like we’re implying that there’s something wrong with the behavior in itself. For your highly sensitive child, it could feel like an aggressive line of questioning and raise their defenses. And therefore, make them feel more alone in their feelings. It can feel frustrating when you don’t know what caused the meltdown or how to stop it, but try not to take their behavior personally. It could be challenging for them to verbally express what is going on in their minds and bodies, especially for younger or less verbal children. But let them know you want to help and understand.
Say this instead: “I can hear you crying but don’t know what you need. Can you help me understand?” OR “Can I give you a hug?” “Can I help you take a break?”
8. Don’t say: “You need a time out!“
You’re at the Disney World and your highly sensitive child’s behavior is leaving you feeling drained and upset. You feel like they’re ungrateful and unappreciative of you bringing them to the “most magical place on earth”. When those feelings of resentment and frustration bubble up, it is so easy to want to punish your child! Maybe time outs work for your family. But time outs can make your sensitive child feel shamed and alone, and further escalate the meltdown.
Instead, suggest taking a break together. Kids have different preferences, so some might do better taking a cuddle break to reconnect. Other kids might benefit from some space for themselves if they are overstimulated. But make sure to frame it in a way where they are not being punished and isolated because of their behaviors. Find a quiet space in the park. Grab a drink or snack. Let them wear noise-canceling headphones. Give them a familiar comfort item, a favorite book, or listen to calming music. The goal is to remove them from intolerable sensory input and instead provide calming sensory input.
Say this instead: Let’s take a break.
9. Don’t say: “Aren’t you excited to _____?”
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with asking your children if they are excited to do something, especially at a place like Disney World. But for highly sensitive or anxious kids, this could feel like a loaded question that is associated with pressure and expectations from the parent. Sometimes we do ask this question with the hopes that our child will respond positively, without realizing it. They might feel like it’s NOT okay for them to be nervous or scared about something their parent thinks they should be excited about.
For example, you might say “aren’t you excited to go on the Frozen ride?” because you know they love the Frozen movie soundtrack. But maybe the dark queue makes them nervous. And if it’s their first time, maybe they are scared because they don’t know what to expect. Asking “aren’t you excited…?” makes the child feel like they are supposed to be excited. These feelings could add to the overwhelm of your highly sensitive or anxious child, when their brains are already so busy processing everything else going on. Try keeping it more neutral by saying “let’s try this!”
Say this instead: “Let’s try this!”
10. Don’t say: “Hurry up!”
I have to be honest: a family vacation to Disney World isn’t always the most relaxing. It’s likely you’ll find yourselves rushing to get ready in the mornings, rushing to catch the next Disney bus, rushing to your next dining reservation, and rushing to the next ride or show. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that the MORE we do, the better our trip is. So. Not. True. Shuttling our sensitive kids around all day long at Disney World actually makes it a more stressful vacation.
One of the traits of being highly sensitive is depth of processing, which means these kiddos take their sweet time processing and trying to understand what’s going on around them. There is a lot to take in as it is, without being constantly told to hurry up. Instead, acknowledge that there is a lot going on and provide a little help for them, if you’re really in a time crunch. But remind yourself that it’s okay to be late to something or skip something that was originally on your itinerary.
Say this instead: “There’s a lot going on. Can I help you do ______?”
So there you have it, 10 things you can say to your sensitive child at Disney World and what NOT to say! Again, none of these things will stop or prevent meltdowns. But the main goal is to provide empathy and connection with your kids. Which can really be a challenge in such an overstimulating environment.
When they are in mid-meltdown, remind yourself that this is NOT emergency and to try to stay calm yourself. Their meltdowns are not a reflection of YOU as parent. Sometimes this is the only way for all those pent-up emotions and sensory overload to come out. And you just have to ride it out. Let’s try not to be punitive, resentful, or frustrated during these tough parenting moments.
What are some helpful things you say to your sensitive or anxious child? What are some things you’ve said that seem to escalate the situation?
If you need extra support and community from other parents of highly sensitive kids going to Disney World, I encourage you to join my new private Facebook group—Planning Disney for Highly Sensitive Kids (and Adults too!)!
You can ask all your questions and get feedback from a wonderful group of Disney-loving parents who are also looking to minimize meltdowns and maximize the magic during their Disney World vacation.
Lastly, don’t forget to download your FREE copy of my must-have Disney ride planner tool! Use it so you can easily keep track of which rides you want to avoid and which you want to try with your highly sensitive kids. It will make planning your park days SO much easier! It is an editable and fillable PDF file, but there is an option to print a blank copy so you can fill it out by hand.