Just Go! How To Travel With Inflexible Kids

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Your child may be less flexible in daily life than an average kid for a number of reasons: physical or mental health issues, pure personality, or even just going through a “stage.” It may be hard to imagine a child who has to eat, sleep, and play on a rigid schedule at home managing to sleep in hotel rooms, eat foreign foods, and not have a meltdown during critical junctures on a trip. Missed flight, anyone?

If you follow the Instagram feeds of families that travel, you will soon believe the world is full of adventurous little children. Some less experienced adults may even try to convince you that children are born adventurous and curious about the world around them and it’s only us that drums it out of them at an early age.

I’m not buying it. 

Traveling with kidsIf you are a parent, especially of more than one child, you already know that you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. You get the kids you get, not the kids you planned for. You may curse and shake your fist at the universe sometimes, but it doesn’t change much. If you are a person who loves to travel, and wants to travel with your family, it can be particularly frustrating when one or more of your kids is not as excited about all these new experiences as you want them to be. It’s even worse if your child is the anxious and/or defiant type that just puts his/her foot down and vows to make the experience as miserable as possible for everyone.

Hey parents, I want you to know one thing: you CAN travel with your lovable little monster. It just may be a little different than the way you anticipated it would be (which is probably like everything else in your life by now). Family travel is actually a great way to encourage your kid to be more flexible, but you still have to know your child and support their needs. With a few little mindset shifts, you can make your trip much more enjoyable for everyone.

Make it about them

Many children have a hard time when they feel out of control. Let kids help design itineraries and choose restaurants. If you have a child who is a planner, you may have to make at least some definite plans, even if that’s not your (or your spouse’s) idea of a good time. As much as my husband and I enjoy last minute adventures, if they lead to a meltdowns in children, they lose their luster quickly. Be clear about the schedule for each day, and go over it the night before.

Speaking of schedules, planning your journey around your child will probably mean arranging for appropriate rest. If you know your child needs a lot of downtime, make sure they get it, even if it means evenings in a hotel room while everyone else is out exploring. You will still have a great trip! It will just be a little different than before the little monsters came along. Which leads me to my next point.

Traveling with inflexible kidsLet go of expectations

Traveling with kids inherently involves altering expectations. You can see the world, but you probably won’t be doing it while lounging around with a cocktail in hand and a quiet breeze running through your hair (unless you brought a nanny along, in which case good for you.) But, in addition to letting go of expectations for your vacation, you also need to be careful about your expectations for your kids, if they don’t happen to be the easy-going type.

Anxious kids will often ask to do something, nay, beg for something, then back out at the last minute. Totally frustrating, but probably predictable. Give them opportunities to branch out and try new things, but plan for contingencies and don’t lose your cool when they change their minds.

After years of experiencing this phenomenon, I really believe (based on experience and no formal training in psychology) that the way you handle this is critical. Don’t get too upset when they back out. Keep giving them second chances to try something new. One day, when they are feeling most happy and secure, they may surprise you.

Give choices

A story about choices: I have a son who is totally into geodes and rocks and crystals. We were on a trip to Utah, where there are some amazing places on public land where you can literally just dig crystals out with your hammer and chisel. So we planned a trip to Topaz Mountain, mostly for him.

Except he refused to go. “I’m not driving in the car for two hours,” he said. We tried bribery, promising him he could spend the whole drive watching a movie. “No,” he said. We pointed out that he just survived a fourteen-hour road trip to get to Utah in the first place and was fine. “I didn’t have a choice,” he pointed out.

A-HA. He knows by now that sometimes he has a choice and sometimes he doesn’t. It was  hard to argue that going to Topaz Mountain wasn’t optional, since he was well aware grandma would be home to watch him. So we went without him; his brother and uncle and dad and I all had a great time.

Traveling kidsAll of this is incredibly frustrating as a parent. However, if you just keep using the techniques you use at home on the road, you will be okay. If you have to give clear boundaries, expectations, consequences, and choices at home: keep on doing it on the road. You must go on this trip with us. You must go into the amusement park with us. But you don’t have to ride any ride you don’t want to. You have to go into the restaurant and sit appropriately; but I won’t force feed you any new foods. Our vacations always involve clear lists of “must do” activities versus “you can choose” events. It drives us crazy sometimes, but it minimizes meltdowns.

Travel Slow

You know the slow food movement? I’m going to start calling family travel the slow travel movement. When bringing kids along, you always need extra time. I mean, their legs are short, after all, and they’re not real fast in the bathroom. But for a kid who feels like a ticking time bomb, you need even MORE time, because they might just sit down in the middle of the hallway and refuse to move another step. That’s okay! An extra hour at the train station or the airport isn’t going to kill you. Take a deep breath, pack snacks and games, and enjoy your family time together.

It is totally possible to travel with your kids even if they aren’t the “easy-going” type, and the younger you start, the less anxiety-producing some aspects of travel will be. For example, my child who is currently refusing to get on a boat or train has no issue at all with airplanes, since he’s been flying since infancy. So don’t wait: plan that trip. You got this, parents! Happy travels!