Helping Children With Travel Worries

When traveling, kids might become harder to settle, more impulsive and hyperactive, or even irritable.
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Some children become especially sensitive or difficult to manage in new situations, such as when they are traveling. In this month’s column, we will share our understanding of the connection between changes in routine and changes in children’s behavior. We will discuss possible causes of overly sensitive (withdrawn, worried or fearful) and reactive (defiant, irritable or unruly) behaviors.

Understanding How Anxiety Forms in Children

In its simplest form, anxiety is a general word for a feeling that a child experiences when something seems 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, such as when there are changes in their usual routine. Feelings of anxiety can occur in even the most loving and supportive families, as anxiety is often a state of mind and, as such, an interplay between the environment (reality) and the child’s mind (fantasy).

Changes in Behavior Often Indicate Changes in How One Feels

When changes in behavior occur, it can be helpful to consider whether something in the child’s life is different. Even positive experiences, such as a trip to a relative’s house or a theme park, can stir questions or insecurities in a child’s mind, or simply leave a child feeling unsettled. In most cases, the anxiety seems to exist on its own, leaving a child unaware of why he or she is acting or feeling differently.

How Parents Can Help

Children depend on parents and other caretakers to help them make connections between how they are feeling and how they are behaving. In the case of an upcoming trip, for example, a child might become harder to settle, more impulsive and hyperactive, or even irritable. Other children may exhibit very different behaviors, such as increased sensitivity, difficulty coping with disappointments or even quiet withdrawal.

Children benefit from help in recognizing that changes in their behavior often have something to do with how they are feeling on the inside. In many cases, children’s worries can be dispelled through understanding and thoughtful conversations with their parents. Once parents reflect on the circumstances that might be causing the changes, they can begin to talk about what they see. In doing so, parents not only organize the behaviors and feelings for their child, but they also open up the opportunity to think together about how their child feels in various situations. A parent could make a comment such as, “I’ve noticed you’ve been acting a little different lately. Our trip is coming up soon and it sure is a lot to think about. You might have some questions about what it will be like. I can tell you more about that.”

When Support is Not Enough

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, the anxiety interferes with a child’s ability to manage himself — that is, resist urges to regress or control urges to act out — on a regular basis. If you have unanswered questions about your child’s ability to cope with the ups and downs of life, seek the help of a qualified mental health professional for more specific ways to assist 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 to learn more.


Categories: Family Vacations, Health and Development, Parenting, Travel