Traveling With Young Children
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Some parents may find that their children become more sensitive — or unruly — in new situations. This month, we will share our understanding of changes in children’s behavior. We will discuss possible causes of overly sensitive (withdrawn, worried or fearful) and reactive (defiant, irritable or unruly) behaviors when it comes to changes in a family’s routine, such as travel.
While this deeper understanding of behavior is not limited to traveling, we look at the emergence of new behaviors while traveling as an example of how to help a child understand that his or her behavior is related to how he or she is feeling.
Anxiety is a general word for when something feels uncomfortable or unsafe. For young children, safety comes in many forms, including the safety they feel from their parents’ comfort and the predictability of their daily routine. Some children feel less safe when they are faced with unknown or unpredictable situations.
Changes in behavior usually indicate changes in feelings. Sometimes the reasons for these behavior transitions are quite obvious; for example, a child becomes upset because he doesn’t want to stop playing and leave the playground. Other times, changes in behavior can be perplexing. When perplexing changes in behavior occur, it can be helpful to first consider whether something in the child’s life has recently changed or is about to be different.
Take, for example, a situation in which a family is about to travel on an airplane to visit extended family. A child may feel excited about some aspects of the trip, but she may also feel some anxiety about the unknowns. She may wonder, “Will Mommy and Daddy still tuck me in? Where will I sleep? Will I be good? Will it be fun? What if I don’t like it?”
Some children regress when they feel anxious; they may cling to their parents or seem to need more from their parents at school drop-off time or bedtime. Other children express the same feelings with more activity — they may seem hard to settle down or be more reactive.
Helping Children Recognize Their Behavior and Feelings
In many cases, worries can be dispelled with understanding and thoughtful conversations. Children benefit from parents who can help them recognize that changes in their behavior often have something to do with how they are feeling. Once parents reflect on the circumstances that might be causing the changes, they can begin to talk with their child about what they see. In doing so, parents not only help organize the behaviors and feelings for their child, but also open up the opportunity to think together about how their child feels in various situations.
Parents can start a conversation about this by making comments such as, “I’ve noticed you’ve been having a harder time listening lately. I know our trip is coming up soon and it might be on your mind. You might be excited, but you might also have some questions about what it will be like. I can tell you more about that.”
When to Seek Help
In some cases, this type of support is not enough, and some of the behaviors described above persist in everyday life, rather than being limited to a more obvious change, such as a trip. In such cases, feelings and worries interfere with a child’s ability to manage his or her behaviors on a regular basis. If you have unanswered questions about your child’s ability to cope with the ups and downs of life, a qualified mental health professional may be able to help you think about effective ways to support your child.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.