Little Kids, Big Emotions

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How To Keep Your Kid From (Understandably) Losing It During Holiday Travel

Experts explain what you can do to alleviate travel anxiety and minimize disruptions.

It’s time for the holidays, so to grandmother’s house we go! By way of trains, planes, or a 10-hour road trip, packing up your kids to travel during the busiest time of the year can be a lot for parents to manage. But holiday travel can be particularly stressful for young kids, too. Between the disruption in routine, unfamiliar people and spaces, and the hubbub of the holiday season, it can be a lot for little minds to handle.

If you’ve ever dragged an overtired, screeching toddler through airport security or made an emergency pitstop for your 5-year-old to puke after they ate too many road trip snacks, you know exactly what I’m talking about. What is generally the most wonderful time of the year can go sideways quickly when your kids are stressed out.

Why Holiday Travel Is Stressful For Young Kids

“Holiday travel can be stressful for young kids for several reasons,” psychologist Dr. Dan Peters, tells Romper. “First, travel often includes going to unfamiliar and new places. Whether traveling by car, train, bus, or plane, there are usually crowds of people on the road, at the airports, and at train and bus stations. With crowds come noises, smells, lines, and timelines.”

As an adult, travel can create a sort of sensory overload when we haven’t done it in a while (because, pandemic) or aren’t emotionally equipped to cope with everything that’s going on. Peters reminds parents that “young children do not have a lot of travel experience and can be overwhelmed by all of the above.”

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It isn’t just the actual act of traveling itself that can throw a kid out of sorts and increase their stress level. Literally everything around your child has to change when you travel for the holidays, and those changes can be huge for them.

“Think of all the differences, particularly if you had to skip holiday travel last year: switching time zones, sleeping in different beds, eating new foods, crowds at airports, sharing toys with cousins, seeing new faces, grandparents’ rules — so much new,” Galena Rhoades, Ph.D., a research professor at the University of Denver’s Department of Psychology, tells Romper. “Even fun activities like the beach or amusement parks can be stressful. And, we ask children to have these experiences all without their creature comforts of home.”

Routine Plays A Role In Holiday Travel Stress

Most parents will agree that kids thrive on routine. When that routine is disrupted by travel and holiday plans, it can turn even the most structured of households upside down. “Holiday travel can disrupt a child’s routine and make it difficult to get back into when they return home,” neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez tells Romper.

“Disrupting your child’s routine can affect your child’s sleep and eating schedule, which can cause meltdowns,” Hafeez says. “Structured ways are essential in helping regulate your child’s emotional and functional changes as they continue to develop.” Basically, when your child’s routine is disrupted, they’re going to feel more stressed and act accordingly.

The absolute hell that is trying to get a toddler back on a solid sleep schedule after a cross-country flight and a few days in a different time zone is almost indescribable. As difficult as it can be, the best way to combat this is to stick as close to your normal routine as you can during holiday travel. That might mean packing familiar snacks for the plane or finding a quiet place to nap at Aunt Emma’s house, but Hafeez explains that with kids, “maintaining a regular schedule can help sustain their energy and blood sugar levels.”

Family Dynamics Can Be A Stressor For Kids

It isn’t uncommon for families to fight around the holidays, but the stress created by certain family dynamics can absolutely make traveling harder on kids — especially if you’re all staying under the same roof. The typical bickering that happens over scheduling, expectations, and even politics when extended families get together for the holidays can have ripple effects that extend out to your children.

When your Aunt Linda is mad that you won’t let your little ones stay up past their normal bedtime to watch her favorite Christmas movie or Uncle Joe loudly denounces your political beliefs in front of your kids, it can be maddening. For your kids’ sake, though, it’s important to discuss these adult issues ahead of time (or at least out of earshot of little ones) to try to mitigate stress and avoid the drama that can sometimes occur when traveling to see or staying with extended family.

Tips To Help Kids Cope With Stressful Holiday Travel

In addition to keeping kids on as much of a typical (for them) schedule as possible and keeping family dynamics in check, there are several things experts recommend parents do to help particularly young kids handle the stress of holiday travel.

  1. Meet their needs. “Know your child. Plan for what your child is going to need to make holiday travel a success,” Rhoades recommends. “Is it bringing a special lovey? Packing favorite snacks to have throughout the trip? Replicating your home bedtime routine? Planned quiet time with a coloring book or stories? Activities with just you? Take some time to think this through to help alleviate stress for your child.”
  2. Talk to them. “Keeping an open line of communication with your child can be helpful when visiting family you don’t often see, as there may be rules in their homes they’re not aware of,” Hafeez says. “This can help avoid conflict and subtly prepare your child for a new environment, making them more comfortable.” Let your kids know what the plans are so that they know what to expect, but also know that things may change.
  3. Offer a balanced diet. Hafeez notes that holidays come with a lot of big meals and treats, so keeping your child’s tummy happy and balanced is a good piece of advice. Can they have a slice of pumpkin pie? Of course. Will their routine and good mood go out the window if they eat 27 tiny Christmas chocolates? Probably. You know your child best, so keep an eye on when they’ve spent so much time playing with cousins that they’ve gotten hangry, or when they need something other than a candy cane to keep the day going. Likewise, if you know they aren’t big holiday dinner eaters, make sure there are some foods on their plate they will enjoy.
  4. Build in breaks. “It is important to remember that small and large family gatherings are often stressful for adults, so we can expect them to be the same for young children as well,” Peters says. “Having a quiet place for a child to go to can help with managing holiday stress, and it is a good way for parents to get a break as well.”
  5. Lean on your partner. As Rhoades puts it, “parent together,” if you can. “If you’re traveling with your partner, take a minute each day to connect, high five, and debrief about what went well and what tomorrow will bring.”
  6. Manage your own stress. “This sounds simple, but it is the single most effective way to help kids feel calmer. When parents are stressed and anxious, kids are generally stressed and anxious, as they look to their parents to set the emotional tone, as well as pick up on their parents’ emotions,” Peters says.

Even without travel, the holidays can be a particularly stressful time for kids and parents alike. With a little planning and many, many deep breaths you’ll hopefully make it to January (mostly) unscathed.

Experts:

Dr. Dan Peters, psychologist, host of Exactly Right Media’s Parent Footprint podcast

Galena Rhoades, Ph.D., research professor, University of Denver Department of Psychology, partner of the nonprofit group Bright By Text

Dr. Sanam Hafeez, neuropsychologist in NYC, director of Comprehend the Mind