Hitting the road with children doesn’t have to be an ordeal. Here, expert advice for the smoothest family vacation yet.
One in four American families will take three or more vadations in 2018, according to data from AAA. Furthermore, more than 70 percent of traveling families will be seeking new experiences, including places none of them has ever visited before.
That’s a lot of families hitting the road and a lot of kids finding themselves in totally new surroundings. If that sounds potentially stressful for traveling parents, you’re right. With summer travel season approaching quickly, we caught up with Katherine Firestone, founder of the Fireborn Institute, a non-profit that provides parents with clear, practical, and easy-to-remember strategies to help their children thrive in school (both socially and academically). Here, her top tips for navigating family travel challenges.
1. LET KIDS BE KIDS
Kids look forward to vacation just as much as you do, but they often have a completely different to-do list. “Kids have plans,” says Firestone, “and they may include more time to hang out with friends, play, read, or chill with movies.” Does that mean you have to hand over your entire vacation schedule to your little ones? Of course not. “But if there are too many travel plans, kids may feel like they don’t get to do their thing.”
2. KEEP THEM FED AND RESTED
Feeding your kids and making sure they get plenty of rest is not exactly an alien concept to most parents, but those healthy daily routines sometimes fly right out the window once the family leaves the familiar environment of home. “Keep your children well fed, give them plenty of opportunities to slept, and keep them on a schedule,” says Firestone. That can mean packing healthy snacks to keep blood sugar stable, and some treats for the moments when a few, say, Oreos are the difference between a meltdown and a patient wait on line for the Haunted Mansion. And in those moments when an expected eating or sleeping schedule is unavoidably altered by vacation, let kids know what’s happening. “When your plane is about to land, talk to your kids about how you may have to wait for a rental car, check into a hotel - prepare them for the waits.”
3. PLAN YOUR DAYS
“Have activities already scheduled,” Firestone says, to avoid too much unfocused downtime, which can be surprisingly stressful for kids of all ages. “You can still stay spontaneous, but you don’t want to be making up too much on the fly.” But, don’t forget to…
4. SCHEDULE DOWNTIME
As mentioned above, kids want to be kids. Overscheduling on vacation can be just as stressful as unfocused downtime. “Build some downtime into each day. Kids love reading, playing, snuggling, napping, and TV, and older kids may want to be in touch with friends on their smartphones,” says Firestone. Some vacations even call for entire days of, say, relaxing on the beach or in a park, and they can often be just as memorable as the hectic theme-park and museum visits.
5. PACK SURPRISES
Whether you’re traveling with a toddler prone to meltdowns or a teenager prone to angst and ennui, it will help to bring along some distractions. “Pack surprises - treats, toys, games. Especially if you know of a difficult stretch of your trip in advance, such as long plane rides, road trips, or long lines at popular attractions, have something ready."
6. ANTICIPATE ANXIETY
Parents, teachers, and doctors are seeing rising rates of anxiety among children across the U.S. Pretending anxiety isn’t going to interfere with your vacation is like pretending ants won’t invite themselves to your picnic - especially if you’re taking your kids to a completely new destination, or one where crowds, loud noises, and long lines are common. “Plan for it,” says Firestone. “Talk about anxiety ahead of time and brainstorm solutions together. Have your child name what may be causing their anxiety, talk about signs that anxiety is affecting them, such as clenched teeth or a tummy ache.” Firestone also points out that saying, “Calm down!” never helped anyone, parent or child, to actually calm down. Instead, validate their anxiety, and encourage your child to take deep, relaxing breaths. Firestone also recommends “cognitive distractions” such as reading, puzzles, Mad Libs, and other activities that engage the brain.