For some parents, there is nothing more stressful than traveling with their children. Dr. Jacob Boney, owner and clinical director of Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services, is often consulted about tips on traveling. One parent recently asked:
“How do I possibly travel with my 5 and 8 year-old children? They always seem needy, irritable and at each other’s throats constantly. It becomes so stressful that my wife and I would rather not travel at all than deal with it. What can we do to make traveling easier?”
Note: Flying with children is its own topic which Dr. Boney has addressed with many patients. Look for an upcoming video presentation that deals just with flying. Today, we are going to talk about car trips and basic traveling that does not involve flying.
Dr. Boney’s Recommendations for Traveling with Children
- Be practical. The younger the child, the shorter the traveling time should be. In fact, when your children are extremely young, it may actually just be easier for people to come to you. This is especially true for babies and infants. Some parents feel the need and do manage cross country trips with very small children, but, for those who experience a great amount of stress, it might be better to simply limit long distance travel until your children are older.
- Plan ahead and plan accordingly. Have as many options, reinforcers, and stimulators as possible. Be prepared to engage your children visually and auditorily. Think about bringing headphones, iPads, and other favorites. Rotate the different items frequently to prevent boredom. Remember, you will need at least five to ten items per child, and they should be items that they will want to engage with. Keeping children stimulated on books, games, iPads and other appropriate items will decrease their motivation to argue and fight with each other.
- Keep demands low during travel. Do not give a lot of task demands or chores. Limit responsibilities, especially on younger children. Not only will their tolerance level be lower, but their compliance will also suffer. You children may be stressed, scared, fatigued and unable to appropriately manage their responses in new and changing settings, so keep those demands low.
- Parents and children should be dressed comfortably. The easier it is for them to relax and be comfortable, the less likely you will get irritable, argumentative and defiant types of behavior.
- Provide more drink and food access than what is typical in order to stabilize your child’s blood sugar and caloric levels. Fatigue and hunger mixed are more likely to result in behavioral bursts or tantrums. So, temporarily consider increasing their caloric intake.
- Try to keep one caregiver on child duty at all times. This can be a parent or mature, responsible teenager. Predicting the needs of your child gives you the opportunity of filling those needs preventatively and not having to put out so many fires. Prevention is always easier and preferable to crisis management. Remember, being frustrated, irritated and overwhelmed is when children use behaviors like screaming, crying and throwing tantrums to communicate. Filling those needs before the child gets to that point prevents those behaviors from being necessary. Do make sure that caregivers take turns so that the other can rest before going back on duty!
- If your child is especially small, clingy, scared or fearful, consider some sleep restriction and drowsiness medications. Dr. Boney has consulted with many different psychiatrists and developmental pediatricians on this, especially with regard to his severely impaired patients. While this might seem a little “old-school” or inhumane, it is really kinder to the child to have them drowsy during the trip than constantly stressed and fearful.
- When driving, consider more frequent or planned stops to allow for physical output activities. This can help to regulate your child’s mood and energy levels and prevent the likelihood of sudden behavioral bursts or disruptions. Confining a child or several children in a small space over an extended period of time is a recipe for disaster. Plan stops so that they come before your child begins to act out in an inappropriate effort to communicate that it’s time for a break.
- Maintain a positive attitude. Traveling can be stressful and fatiguing for the parent and no one is at their best as a behavioral manager while they are traveling. If you plan accordingly, you will better be able to maintain a positive attitude which will set a good tone for the emotional energy around you. Children are especially reactive to stress or uncertainty in the environment when they sense that their parents are stressed. Arguing, acting stressed or angry in front of a child is more likely to produce irritable behavior from them. Even if there are issues, it is important to put them aside during the experience and maintain a positive attitude for the child.
- Exhaust or wear-out a child as much as possible before it is time to go to bed, especially in a strange hotel or somewhere other than home. It is harder for children to adjust to changes in their sleep environment than it is for adults. Make use of things like the hotel pool or activity area to help them use up as much energy as possible. Try to totally exhaust them to overcome their reactions to trying to sleep in an unfamiliar, scary place. If they don’t look exhausted, don’t even try and take them back to the room until they are.
- Plan to minimize time in the hotel room if it is small or if you have more than one child. Someone needs to be put in charge of getting children ready and out of the room as soon as possible. This will help stop that pent up type of energy from developing and prevent a lot of behavioral outbursts. Dr. Boney stresses that you have to remember that any time that you have kids in a confined space for extended periods of time, you are asking for trouble, eventually. Hotel rooms when traveling with kids should pretty much just be used for sleeping. The sooner you can get them in and out, the better the chances of getting some behavioral consistency.
The last piece of advice is to always remember the basics. You get the behavior you consistently reinforce. Stay positive. Put the emphasis on earning things instead of losing things. Be a giver and not a taker. Keep demands low and keep prompts really efficient. Don’t use a lot of words: use just the few that you need. Only prompt what you are willing to make your child do or enforce the consequence for not doing. You need to pick your battles, and you need to let some things slide, even more so while traveling. Give your attention to the best behaviors. Be the giver of good things, because, when you have that reputation while traveling or on a vacation, your children are going to be more likely to try and impress you with their behavior and be in the mode of earning things instead of trying not to lose things.
Utilizing evidence based practices and the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, the Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services team provides assessment, treatment, and consultation for a wide range of behavioral issues. We work with a variety of children, families, schools, hospitals, mental health agencies, and local community organizations to provide these services. If you have any questions about traveling with your child or would like more information about any of the services offered by our team, please feel free to contact us by phone at 480.410.4040, email us at [email protected], or click here for our convenient online form.