Traveling with children can be a very exhaustive, tedious experience, but add a nervous child to the mix and you may swear off traveling completely! Trust me – I have been there!
Although nothing will make your trip completely stress-free, there are a few steps you can take when traveling with anxious children to at least stack the deck in your favor!
Prepare your anxious children
If you have an anxious child you probably already do this in your daily life, but let this just be an extra reminder. Tell your children what will be happening on the trip. Keep it simple and brief.
Often in the hustle and bustle of our travels, we forget to keep our kids abreast of what is going on. Anxious children need to know what is happening every step of the way.
Taking the extra time to let them know what to expect will help eliminate their nervousness – which can cause anxiety meltdowns. Give them a broad overview such as, “First we are going to drive to the airport and then we are going to ride on an airplane and after that we will go to our hotel” (this is called previewing).
After you have given your children a broad preview, give them a snapshot of what the next few hours will bring – “We are going to get on the plane and we will be sitting in our seats playing. After lunch on the plane – the plane will start to land.”
Be sure to give your child an update on what will be happening every few hours or when a change in activity will be occurring. It is better to overkill previewing than to under do it.
Be over prepared!
When you are over prepared, your anxious children can be more relaxed – knowing that you have it all covered! If you are neurotic like me, you might already have many of these things in your purse.
Okay, first the obvious – have Band-Aids, ibuprofen (for those sudden late night fevers that are perfectly timed for your trip) and sunblock. If your child has sensory issues – don’t forget hats and sunglasses.
Keep a change of clothes (including underwear and socks) in a Ziploc bag. You can use the Ziploc bag to store soiled clothes when you are on the road. This has been a life saver more than once in my life! Anxious children like their hands cleaned often, so carry extra wipes too! I like the ones that are individually wrapped because they don’t dry out as quickly. Have a small bag of kid activities that are portable within your reach.
Making the car or airplane ride more pleasant!
Whoever said it is not the destination, but the journey….has never traveled with anxious children! How many of us arrive at the hotel and feel like we are already done! When I am traveling with anxious children, I often feel like the trip is a marathon and that I need to pace myself. I know that sounds slightly pessimistic, but if you don’t have anxious children – it may be hard to understand!
If you sprint in the first few hours of the trip – you won’t be able to run the rest of the marathon! That car or plane ride can make or break you. Anxious kids don’t travel well. They are nervous, impatient and worried about what is happening. They need distraction and entertainment – non-stop!
Go to the dollar store and buy lots of small toys and activities. I like those invisible marker pads for traveling – so I don’t have to worry about them drawing all over the plane or car. Sticker books are always an easy and time consuming activity. Those clingy gels that stick to windows are wonderful for car and plane windows. You can also cut a small piece of contact paper (clear shelf lining that is sticky) and tape it to the window. Bring a small bag of colored tissue paper and sequence that they can stick to the paper.
Buy a handful of these activities (depending on how long you will be
trapped riding in a car/plane/boat) and wrap them up individually in giftwrap as surprise presents.
Making them into presents adds another layer of excitement for your child. Stagger out your gift giving to make them last until you get to your destination. Save the same amount of presents (wrapped in different gift wrapping) for the trip back.
For those that are comfortable with their children watching movies – download several movies that your children have never seen before or a few of their favorites (if it will keep them captivated). For those very very long trips – this can be a life saver too!
Let your children bring their own little backpack.
The last thing you might want is another useless bag that you have to drag around, but it can go pretty far in giving your children some security.
Ask your children if they would like a small, kid sized backpack that they can wear and carry. Tell them they can put a few objects in their bag. Make sure to keep it light so they will be able to carry it themselves.
This might be a nice place for their comfort object (stuffed animal or a blanket), their favorite toy or a favorite snack that they can get to themselves if needed. Anxious children like comfort objects and for many of them – “stuff” is comforting.
To poop or not to poop – that is the question!
Anxious children (and adults – you know who you are!) have a hard time pooping when they are traveling. For anxious children this can be further complicated if they already have toileting issues! Fear of new toilets, self-flushing toilets and dirty toilets can all cause your little one to go into a tail spin (no pun intended).
One way to keep your children regular while traveling is to be proactive and give them fiber gummy vitamins each day. This can help encourage regularity without using something stronger that might work too well!
Another tip is to buy a cheap foldable potty seat cover for your younger kids. If you do buy one of those portable seats, I would recommend using it at home a few weeks before your trip so your little one can acclimate to the change.
Now, what to do about those scary automatic flushers? Once a parent of an anxious child I was seeing in therapy had a great suggestion. She said she always covers up the little sensor with a post it note and the toilet doesn’t automatically flush – perfect!
Keep as much as you can the same.
This is not the time to bring a bunch of new clothes that have never been tried and tested by your picky or sensitive children. If the tags are still on them – leave them at home! Bring their most comfortable clothes and shoes.
I bring double the clothes I need because I never know what might not feel right that day or what will happen. My children can’t stand to get wet and heaven forbid they get a drop – and I mean drop – of water on their clothes – we are looking at a whole outfit change. By having additional outfits (in my purse nonetheless!), I am avoiding a huge meltdown.
Similar to clothes, food can be quite an issue. Anxious children are often picky eaters. I have had periods with my children where I could count on one hand what they were willing to eat. They would literally rather starve than eat anything new. For those with picky eaters, pack familiar snacks.
Food can be unpredictable when you are traveling and the more comfort foods you have, the better. Depending on your children’s level of anxiety, you might even consider bringing their water bottle, sippy cup and even their plastic plates to help keep things familiar.
For seriously picky eaters, you might want to bring some PediaSure or other high protein children’s shake as meal replacements if they refuse to eat.
Once you feel you have almost gotten to the finish line – you face your biggest challenge yet…
The dreaded bedtime!
Bed time can be a challenge for anxious children even at home – add a strange room and an exhausting day and you are facing an uphill challenge. The most effective way to make bed time – less painful – because it will probably be painful on some level – is to try and make the room as similar as your children’s bedrooms at home.
At the peak of one of my child’s anxiety, I would pack her lamp with us! Luckily it was one of those fiber optic lights that expanded, but folded up nice and neatly. At the very least, you want to bring all of their bedding.
I would recommend packing their nightlight and bringing whatever music they listen to at home. You want the room to look as similar to their room in the dark, that way if they wake up in the middle of the night, the room will look somewhat familiar.
Don’t overextend yourself or your child.
When traveling with anxious children- know their limits. Kids need breaks – even if they don’t realize they do. Schedule in some time to go back to the hotel room and give your children some down time.
Even if they look like they can go longer, it is better to be proactive than to find out too late that your children are starting to implode. Plan shorter vacations if you feel your children’s level of anxiety cannot handle a longer trip. It is better to have a successful short trip than bailing halfway through your long trip (Been there, done that!)
Do you have some traveling tips that have worked when you’ve traveled with anxious children? Leave a comment and share with the rest of us!! I always say, the best advice comes from those in the trenches along with you!More Anxiety Articles
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