“You Can’t Have Itchy Feet When You Fly,” and Other Lessons for Holiday Travels with Children

My daughter recently informed me that you have to deal with itchy feet before you fly. Granted, we were about to go on Soarin’, a Disney World ride, and she didn’t want to drop her shoe while itching her feet 20-feet off the ground, but I think she was on to something bigger. You see, there’s something really important about having the basics taken care of before entering a more challenging task. The current challenge for me is holiday travels with a 5 and 2.5 year old, and many of you will be experiencing that challenge in a few weeks as winter break begins.

Traveling with kids is difficult. Add in stress from work, family conflict, disruptive weather, and the common cold, and you have a recipe for a rough experience. Sometimes I talk to clients about a healthy mind platter. Imagine a well-balanced meal for your brain. Good sleep habits, physical exercise, times of social connection, emotion coping skills, opportunities to engage in things where you feel competence and value; these are critical to emotional health. So as you prepare for the holidays, strive to do the basics really well. Create good sleep habits for yourself and your children. If you’re lacking in physical exercise, add 10-minutes to each day that is devoted to your physical health. Get creative, use the space you already have at home, and remind yourself that you’re taking care of your body and mind, and modeling positive balance to your children. If the basics are not in order when things get messy, your stress coping will be poor and vulnerability to negative emotions will be higher. And that combination often leads us to parenting patterns that we regret later. The cold that was being passed around my family finally got to me on our first morning at Disney, so I can admit that my physical state and sleep pattern have not been healthy. We’ve all been there and know how it impacts our experiences and our parenting. So before you “fly” this winter break, whatever that looks like in your life, do your best to take care of the itchy feet beforehand and get yourself physically and emotionally ready.

Another thing I have noticed while traveling with children is how easily I lose sight of their stage of development. My expectations and requests do not match their development at certain times, like when we need to move quickly and efficiently through the airport, or when we have to wait patiently in long lines. We can set ourselves up for frustration when we ask things of our kids that don’t match their stage of development, and instead ask them to meet our needs and desires. We don’t consider how many instructions they can remember at one time, or how well they can plan the steps that will take place across a certain amount of time, or even how long they can keep a thought in their mind. Part of our job as parents is to be the scaffolding that builds these various capacities, and it takes time and practice to learn. Unfortunately, they don’t magically appear on travel days. So we should expect to repeat ourselves, to break tasks into small steps, and to answer the same question multiple times because they are simply too young to remember what time they get to do an activity, or to feel the passing of time in a way to know if it has been 10 or 20 minutes. Kids are also still learning to effectively regulate their behavior, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when the 2-year-old that still jumps on the furniture when she shouldn’t, decides to use a restaurant fork as a “dinglehopper” and brush her hair at the dinner table (check out the Little Mermaid if you’re unfamiliar with the reference).

Look over general guidelines for developmental milestones for the age groups that apply to your family and consider how these areas of development may come into play during upcoming travels. You might be able to adjust your expectations or plans to create a situation where they can be more successful (and you can be less annoyed).

One example to get you started.
For the 4-6 year old who is striving for more independence. Create a small set of note cards with the steps that will take place on your travel day using pictures of the important components you want them ready for, such as time in the car, standing in lines, going through airport security, sitting at the gate, sitting on the plane, etc… Walk through the pictures with them and think about what will be easy and difficult in each situation. Then try to find ways to make the difficult stuff more manageable, and a couple jobs they can have, such as handing out snacks to the family when you arrive at the gate, or carrying the gifts into the house when you arrive at Grandma’s. This will give them a sense of value and responsibility to look forward to, which you can remind them of during the harder parts of the day when they are needing to follow instructions more than be in charge. Planning in advance of your travel day will give them practice imagining the different parts of the day and an early sense of connection with you around an experience that can be stressful for all involved. We know it doesn’t always go according to plan, so remember what I wrote at the beginning- prepare by doing the basics of physical and mental health well, and this will help you be flexible when the tough moments arrive.

Posted in Articles, Parenting.