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Travel is one of the best gifts we can give our kids. It's a great way to invite them to see the world and learn new things. But sometimes, vacation anxiety takes over, making family trips more difficult to navigate.
So how can we help our kids, whether they are experiencing mild travel anxiety in new social situations or are battling a difficult anxiety disorder? I asked my friend Katie Wetsell—a parent coach, nurse, and mom of four who specializes in giving parents strategies to help kids through anxiety—to share a few tips on helping family vacations go well.
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How to Recognize Anxiety
The first step is to recognize that your child may be experiencing anxiety about an upcoming trip. "The hallmark of anxiety is avoidance," says Katie. Do you have a tween who is sulking in their room before a trip or young children who are refusing to follow directions? Kids who are anxious may try to avoid their fears however they can, even hiding on the day of departure or being aggressive to parents and siblings.
Physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches are other possible signs of anxiety. Katie recommends that family members watch for patterns with aches and pains. Your child could actually be sick, so check for other symptoms (nobody wants a stomach virus on an airplane or a family gathering!). But if your kiddo often feels ill before new experiences like the first day of school, then that pattern may repeat before a big trip.
Get Curious About Their Fears
Parents can help anxious kids by finding out more about their worries. "If you notice your child is having an anxious response, or you think they might be ... slow down and get curious about it," says Katie. She suggests asking calm questions with genuine curiosity.
As an example of the importance of being curious, Katie recalls a recent experience with her own children. She discovered her younger two kids were upset about the plane ride for an upcoming family vacation. Initially, she felt a little dismissive of their fears, since it wasn't their first time flying. But when she asked some questions, it turned out to be a good thing because she got some interesting answers.
"When I slowed down and actually got curious about it —'So why don't you want to fly?'—instead of jumping to fix their feelings ... they were afraid that they wouldn't be able to use the bathroom while they were on the airplane!" She was able to reassure her kids that there are, indeed, bathrooms on airplanes. "Their little minds were just blown," she adds.
Prepare Before a Trip
If an upcoming vacation is causing anxiety for your child, build comfort by finding small steps to take as practice. For young kids, imaginative play helps them develop confidence in their own abilities. Is your child experiencing fear about flying on an airplane? Try playing with toy airplanes, reading books about airplanes, building cardboard box airplanes, or even visiting the airport to see planes take off and land.
Katie says walking a child through vacation anxiety is all about using a "Just Right Challenge" to meet them where they are. How does that look for parents? "Finding a way to help the child to engage with what they're nervous about, but at a level that they're willing, so they can build confidence towards where you need them to be, towards the goal," she says.
Parents can prepare themselves for the trip by thinking through boundaries and plans. "As much as you can anticipate, being clear on what is in your control as a parent, and what is in your child's control," recommends Katie. "Your goal is to get them to participate, but there's only so much you can do." Parents can also develop contingency plans for what to do during the vacation. Will one parent stay with an anxious child while the other parent does activities with the rest of the kids? Make decisions in advance to ease expectations on the trip so your family can instead focus on having a great time.
Work Through Anxiety in the Moment
So you're in the car, on the plane, in a social situation, or waiting in line for the roller coaster, and anxiety crops up for your kiddo. What can you do? Be ready with a supportive statement which will communicate empathy AND confidence: "This is hard for you. You're having a hard time. I see that. I get that. But I know you can do this."
"As a parent, you have that experience with your child of seeing them overcome fears in the past," says Katie, adding that parents can remind their children of how they conquered nervousness while practicing for the trip.
Do you have a tween who sulks before vacations or kids who won't follow directions on road trips? These may be signs of anxiety! Try these tips to help families work through vacation anxiety together.
Grounding techniques are another way to bring your child back into the present. Car travel can offer a good time to incorporate this strategy. Remember the game I Spy? It's actually a great mindfulness technique to keep the whole family focused on the moment. "If one kid is having a hard time, we start looking out the window. What do you see out the window? How many colors can you see? How many license plates?" says Katie. "Grounding is a way to help get your brain in the present moment. And it helps you feel a little bit safer, because you're not thinking about all the 'what-ifs.'" She recommends going through all five senses, even passing out gum to help kids focus on what they can taste.
Slow Down and Use Your Tools
As much as we often wish a magic word would soothe all of our children's fears, the real answer is slowing down and giving kids space to work through their feelings. When possible, keep wide margins of time in your vacation schedule and release expectations of everything going perfectly.
Remember the "Just Right Challenge" and being curious about your child's anxiety? These tools will work while you are on your trip, too. "Meet them where they are. Slow down, and see what's happening," says Katie. She recommends asking kids what they DO feel comfortable doing, and going from there. "What is the first step on the road to where you want them to be? Or, ideally, where THEY want to be?"
For kids who are nervous about amusement parks, start with smaller rides and work up to riding a bigger roller coaster by the next day. If your child hates hiking because they are terrified of bugs, then start by walking to a nearby tree and back. Ask how far your child is willing to go, then try it and see how they feel. Meeting your child where they are and giving them challenges they can handle will build their comfort and confidence.
Slowing down also gives parents a chance to think about what their child values and find ways to meet that need. "I did this with one of my kids with a roller coaster," says Katie. "For him, being together was so valuable, he was willing to tolerate some discomfort to be together." Despite being nervous, he decided to ride the roller coaster to be with his siblings.
Focus on the Positive
We can't control how our kids feel or what they decide to do, but we can celebrate their progress every step of the way. We can think of bravery as a skill that needs to be practiced and strengthened.
"This is their experience. There are things you want for them as a parent and that you want for your family as a whole, but ultimately, this is their experience," Katie says. "So if I take all my discouragement, and that's what I have for my child, which direction are they going to go? They're going to feel a sense of failure, and if they get a chance to do something like that again, they are going to remember how they failed. But if I can help my child see their growth? Focusing on that positive helps you build. Both of you."
Katie Wetsell of Parent with Hope is a Nashville-based parent coach helping families find hope in challenging seasons.
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