Planning can help nervous children, writes our family columnist, Alexia Santamaria.
Travelling with kids can be challenging but if you have a child with a tendency to worry this can make it even harder. Being outside the routine with a new, magnified sense of the unknown — new smells, languages, surroundings, cultures etc — can be a bit overwhelming for someone who spends a lot of their life running worst-case scenarios in their head. It definitely pays to have some strategies up your sleeve to make things easier for all involved.
Child psychologist Dr Emma Woodward says anxiety is basically just our emotional brain thinking something is dangerous and therefore trying to protect us from this perceived threat, which in turn causes these feelings of fear.
"If you can provide strategies for when these feelings hit, as well as a belief that they can handle it, it won't be such a big deal for them. It's really important to keep a positive spin on everything you say because you don't want your anxiety around how they will cope, making it even worse."
Woodward regularly flies back and forth to the UK with kids and says one thing she sees parents stressing about is what others think if their child has a meltdown on a plane.
"Mainly, your priority is your child, not worrying about others' judgment," she says. "Generally, most people are compassionate and understanding. The more connected and attuned you are to your child, rather than focusing on trying to parent to your perception of other passengers' judgments, the easier and quicker you'll calm your child and ultimately be calm yourself. Managing your own anxiety is the key. It may be contentious but if you think it's going to be really bad, maybe think about going to your GP beforehand — sometimes they will prescribe something to help kids through a flight."
Here are some other tips from parents who have travelled with anxious children:
• Have a plan. If you're a spontaneous parent it's often a nice idea to just let the days play out, but we've found that for our little guy, that's a nightmare. So now we force ourselves to roughly map out the next day and go through it all afternoon or night before so he knows what's ahead and can raise any issues in advance.
• We find Rescue Remedy really helpful when on the plane with our nervous flyer. Whether it works or not, who knows — but my daughter believes it does and that's half the battle won. I also make sure there are plenty of distractions — card games, movies etc. If she does have a panic attack, I try to make her do something functional like ranking her all-time favourite foods, icecream flavours, animals. Something she likes thinking about and can concentrate on.
• We started with easy destinations first — Australia, then America, then the Pacific Islands. And initially we based ourselves in just one place and did lots of fun stuff during the day so we were back in the hotel/apartment at night when Seb really had a tendency to fret. Once he was good with that, we moved on to multiple — and more culturally challenging — destinations.
• Use technology, imaginative play and books to help allay fears in a really positive way well before departure. Line up the dining room chairs and play aeroplanes with really young kids, read books about the destination at bedtime and use Google Maps and Google Earth to virtually walk through places you're going to visit. It's all lots of fun but has the double purpose of giving them more information and making them excited, rather than worried about their upcoming trip. This has worked so well for us — especially looking at pictures of our accommodation.
• We always try to book accommodation with a swimming pool. It's great for calming down time when our son is overwhelmed. I often play a reward game before we go somewhere new (if he gets three stars he can choose to do an activity on holiday from the list — all things we planned to do anyway, but gives him a bit of control and we could keep talking about one of the things he had "won" and that we were going tomorrow and how exciting they were). Even if it can be tough at times, travel without a doubt helps build his resilience to situations that make him anxious.
Do you have a question about family travel? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with Family in the subject line.