Traveling with Kids: Disarming the Gremlins

Allowing enough time in the travel plans to stay relaxed goes a long way in avoiding stressors, and when you’re relaxed together, it helps create opportunities for fun along the way.

Traveling with kids can be an absolute nightmare. It takes forever to get them out the door; they fight you the whole way; then they’re grumpy and squirmy in the car, or crying while dragging their feet and a tiny suitcase behind them at the airport or train station. However your child expresses their unique brand of protest, you’re not alone.

Exploring new sights and sounds, meeting people from different backgrounds—it’s all so rewarding and interesting, fosters curiosity and empathy, and leaves you with fond memories. 

But part of the excitement is venturing into the unknown, which means that travel comes with some potential for stress: traffic, a spill on a clean shirt you finally got your kid to put on, a disrupted meal/nap/anything schedule, or the dreaded motion sickness. And our nervous systems—both our own and our kids’—respond automatically to all of these stressors (you may even have felt your heart rate increase just reading about them).

Even a minor stressor can hijack children’s developing nervous systems and throw them into a dysregulated state: a child’s body and brain get the signal that something scary is happening, which activates their fight-flight-freeze response and floods them with stress hormones. 

“Bad behavior” is just a symptom of this system spinning out of their control. It feels really overwhelming to be in that dysregulated little body. The behavior we associate with meltdowns signals the need for help. Dysregulation is a state which will not be resolved through discipline. As frustrating as it is to have to contend with a meltdown on the road, it can help to remember that our kids aren’t giving us a hard time, they’re having a hard time. And let’s be honest: when our kids are melting down, we often are, too (adult bodies have the same stress response as kids, hopefully with a little more perspective).

So how do we help our children (and ourselves) have a better—dare we even say fun—travel experience? By tapping into our biology. Melting down and calming down are actually two sides of the same coin. If we understand why the body turns toward getting upset, we can use that knowledge to turn toward connected calm instead. 

Our nervous systems are wired to connect to each other and calm each other down. Think about how your body feels when you’re stressed or overwhelmed: your heart pounds, maybe you start to panic a little, it’s hard to think clearly, and fun is certainly off the table. But have you ever been hugged in a moment like this? The comforting smell of someone you love, the grounding warmth of their arms around you, and the steadying sensation of breathing together can totally transform the experience in your body: your heart slows and your brain clears as you settle into feeling connected and calm. 

This is what it feels like when our nervous systems pair up with each other and calm us down. This two-way process is called autonomic co-regulation, and it’s a quick, direct way to help your family manage the stress of travel and change. Kids need help getting regulated when things are stressful. Co-regulating taps into our senses and emotions to set us up for success. 

The positive experiences we want to have with our children are only possible when their (and our) biological need for connection is met. At the end of the day, travel just comes with some added potential for stressors. If challenges arise, it’s not your fault. 

Rather than begging your kids to hold on for another half hour or trying to reason with them, try co-regulating to unlock calm in their body, with your body. Here are some suggestions:

Before You Go:

  • Acknowledge their feelings of upset and share your own: “I hear that you’re sad because you don’t want to leave home. That must be really hard. Let’s try to feel better together.”
  • Try cuddling for a few minutes before leaving—let them settle into the comfort of your hug, your smell, the sound of your voice. Then try leaving again once they’re calm. 
  • Make eye contact and tell them what you’re looking forward to. If you’re feeling sad about going, share that, too. 
  • Allowing enough time in the travel plans to stay relaxed goes a long way in avoiding stressors, and when you’re relaxed together, it helps create opportunities for fun along the way. Giving a heads up that you’ll be leaving (in X minutes) makes the change less jarring.
  • You can even carry them outside to help the transition: feeling held and supported can help them borrow your body’s calm. 
  • Offering kids a choice (between options you give them) can help them feel more in control of their experience: “We’re leaving for school in 10 minutes. Would you like to wear your red shoes or your blue shoes?” The opportunity to make their own decision is very respectful; the more respectful you are, the more they’ll reciprocate that respect. 

While on the Go:

  • The pressure receptors that talk to the body’s nervous system run along the torso, so hugging tummy-to-tummy can help you co-regulate faster. Breathe deeply and slowly so they can match your rhythms.
  • Make up games, read, or tell stories. You can tell beloved stories over and over again, or invent an exciting, never-ending saga. Stories that tap into shared emotions are great, as is anything that makes them laugh. Ask them to tell you their favorite story! 
  • If you speak multiple languages, talk or sing to them in your primary language (the language your parents or grandmother spoke to you as a child). It will have stronger emotional ties and tap into the physiology of co-regulation better.

In the Car:

  • If the car seat is making things harder, sit next to them in the back for a while. 
  • If they’re very upset, place a hand on their abdomen and press gently but firmly to engage their torso’s pressure receptors, which helps stimulate a calming response.
  • If you have to sit up front, reach back and hold their hand(s), or even their little feet.
  • Sing favorite songs together. Singing puts you in tune—not just with the song, but with each other. The lower the tone, the more it resonates in your body. Make them laugh by singing low and encouraging them to use their lowest voice. Laughter is co-regulatory! 

Knowing we all have this wonderful calming mechanism built into our bodies is a secret weapon against the stressors of traveling. Our little ones are doing the best they can. They just need a little sensory-emotional connection to process those big feelings. And, honestly, so do we.