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7 Vacation Planning Tips When Traveling With Tweens & Teens


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Are you planning a summer vacation or family road trip? There are unique challenges to traveling with small children, but if you have a tween or teen, you might wonder if it’s even possible to vacation together without World War III breaking out.

At this age, your older kids still want to spend time with you, but they also long for independence and plenty of private time to go off and explore on their own. So, how do you balance keeping them safe and engaged on vacation while still giving them the freedom and autonomy they want? And how do you it while still saving money on your vacation? Let’s take a look.

Understanding Tween & Teen Psychology

The “tween” years, when children are between 8 and 12 years old, can be a challenging time. It’s during this period that hormonal changes begin to cause major mood swings and emotional sensitivity. Many tweens are painfully self-conscious about their changing bodies, their changing voices (for boys, at least), and even their changing ideas.

Tweens often feel caught in the middle of childhood and the teen years. One one hand, part of them may yearn to stay a child, while another part of them longs to be a “grown-up” teen. Feeling pulled in both directions can be challenging for tweens and parents alike.

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Teens take these dramatic changes to a whole new level. From ages 13 to 18, their brains are literally being rebuilt, with new nerve “superhighways” created as they learn and have new experiences. During the teen years, their brains go through more “construction,” as Psychology Today puts it, than at any other time in their lives.

It’s also important to note that in a teen’s developing brain, the amygdala still holds sway. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped part of the brain responsible for strong “gut responses” such as rage, sexual desire, and fear. Once their brain is fully mature, which happens around their mid-20s, your child will start to rely more on their frontal cortex, which controls logic and reasoning.

Frontline reported on a fascinating study conducted by researchers at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. Lead researcher Deborah Yurgelun-Todd and her colleagues studied how adolescents perceive emotion compared to adults. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they observed teens’ brains compared to adults’ brains as both were shown pictures of faces and asked to identify the emotions displayed. Using the MRI machine, researchers were able to track which part of the brain was being used to answer the question for each respondent. They found that adults used their frontal cortex to correctly identify the emotion of fear on the faces. The teens’ incorrect responses varied between “shocked, angry, and surprised.” What’s more, the teens mostly used their amygdalas when answering the question.

This study helps shed light on why your teen can demonstrate such strong, emotional responses in certain situations. They’re relying on the part of their brain that’s ancient and ungoverned by reason and logic. Especially when they’re under stress, it’s challenging if not impossible for them to respond logically. Take all this and pile on dramatic hormonal changes and a fervent desire to define themselves and find a unique place within family and social groups, and you can see why travel with a teen can be a powder keg.

However, knowledge is power. Now that you know how your how tween or teen’s brain works, it can help shape your response to tense conversations or outbursts, both of which you’ll probably experience while traveling with your kids.

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Travel Tips for Tweens & Teens

Still planning on going on that family vacation? Great. Traveling with a tween or teen can be challenging, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. It can be a perfect time to reconnect with your child and get to know them in a new way before they head off to high school or college.

There are plenty of strategies you can use to make traveling with your tween or teen more fun, relaxed, and enjoyable for all of you.

1. Get Them Involved Early

Tweens and teens desperately want to have more control over their lives, and this includes being part of the decision-making process. So, ask for their input as you start to plan your vacation. Better yet, give them a few options and let them choose where you’re all going to go.

Letting your kid pick the destination can be incredibly empowering. They’ll likely be more engaged during the trip – because, after all, this is where they wanted to go -and less argumentative along the way. If you have multiple children, let them work out where they want to go as a group. Again, give them three or four options to choose from and help them use negotiation skills and compromise to reach a consensus.

What do you do if your vacation is simply a visit to a relative’s house? Let your tween or teen have a say in what you do when you get there.

2. Talk to Them About Budgeting

Vacations can quickly get very expensive if you’re not careful, and most families have to stick to a set vacation budget.

When it comes to planning excursions and activities on vacation, decide how much you can afford to spend on these and let your teens know this amount and why you decided on this number. Encourage them to research activities they’re interested in and find out how much each will cost. Then, work with them to pick activities that will stay within the budget you allotted for extracurricular activities.

Allowing them to choose things they want to do gives them the autonomy they so desperately want and need, while still enabling you to set limits and teach them how to work within those limits to get what they want. Discussing budgeting with them is a great way to teach your kids about money.

It can also help to focus activities and sightseeing around your tween or teen’s current interests. For instance, if your tween is really into horses, encourage her to find some horseback trail or beach rides in the area. If your teenager loves cars and skateboarding, encourage him to find a car museum or car show he’d like to visit or look up the nearest local skate park. Just make sure the itinerary they create still fits within your budget.

Be sure to talk to your kids early on about the cost of souvenirs and other vacation purchases such as new clothes or gadgets for the trip. Encourage them to start saving their allowances to spend on vacation, or give them extra chores to do at home so they can start earning their own vacation money to spend on things they want. Make it known that you’re setting the budget for souvenirs you will buy for your kids. For instance, you might allot $20 per child for souvenirs or other unplanned purchases. After that, they’ll have to buy what they want on their own or do without it.

3. Let Them Pack Their Own Bags

Many parents oversee the entire “packing for vacation” process. With young children, that’s a necessity. But now that your kids are older, they can pack their own bags. Talk to them about the climate where you’re going and what you’ll be doing when they get there. Discuss with them what type of clothing will be suitable for the trip or make a vacation packing checklist to help them.

If you’re flying, let them know that they will be in charge of their own bags. If they cram all of their clothing into a giant suitcase, they’ll be the one schlepping it through the airport, to and from taxis, or on public transit. Make sure they understand the size and weight restrictions of the airline you’re using, or better yet, encourage them to learn how to pack light and take just one small bag on the trip.

Then, take a deep breath and step back. Let them take charge of their clothing choices and packing. This can be difficult for parents. (What if they forget their underwear or toothbrush?) However, it will teach your children responsibility and accountability. It will also help them learn how to plan ahead and make choices based on future events.

So, what happens if you arrive at your destination and your daughter discovers she left her favorite outfit at home, or your son forgot his iPad? Well, they’ll learn some important lessons about planning, as well as about being flexible when things don’t go perfectly. They’ll live through it.

4. Try to Compromise on Screen Time

While at home, your tween or teen’s face is likely glued to their cell phone or tablet screen much of the time. And unless you talk about it, the same will happen on your family vacation.

It’s unreasonable to ask your tween or teen to leave their devices at home – after all, how could you? However, it is reasonable to set at least a few limits on screen time while you’re on vacation. Talk with your kids about only using their cell phones or tablets at specific times of day – after breakfast for an hour, for example, or for an hour before bed.

You’ll also need to set an example here. Don’t pull out your phone to check email or send pictures unless it’s the agreed-upon “screen time hour.”

Your tween or teen will want something to fill their time while they’re on the plane or in the car. If you want to keep a screen out of their hands, consider getting them a great travel toy like a Rubik’s Cube, which is the best-selling puzzle of all time, or a leather travel journal and a nice pen so they can record their thoughts and experiences while they travel.

5. Plan Lazy Days

It’s tempting to hit the ground running as soon as you arrive at your new destination so you can see and do everything on your list. But tweens and teens can quickly get overwhelmed and overstimulated when traveling – which can quickly turn your child into Godzilla.

So, make sure that the day you arrive at your vacation spot is a lazy day. Don’t plan anything. Get checked into your hotel or condo and let your tween or teen have some time to unpack and relax. They might want to head out and explore a bit on foot or find a cool place to eat. Let them call the shots, at least to some extent. You all need some rest and private time after traveling, and this can be a great way to ease into your vacation.

If jet lag is an issue, give your tween or time plenty of time to sleep in over the next few days and adjust to the new schedule. Don’t plan early morning sightseeing trips or you’ll be in for a rude awakening yourself when they refuse to get up – or spend the day in a funk for lack of sleep.

Make sure you have some lazy days during your stay too, or at least some unplanned mornings or afternoons. Your tween or teen might want to just hang out at the hotel while you step out to do some exploring, or they might like to walk on the beach while you hold down the fort and read a book. Don’t make the trip feel like boot camp for your kids; remember, you’re there to relax and have fun.

It’s also important to stay flexible. If you have an exciting morning of sightseeing planned but your tween wakes up tired and cranky, it might be best to change your plans. More running around will probably send them over the edge, and you’ll all suffer as a result. Instead, hang out at the pool and go sightseeing another day.

6. Let Them Navigate

Before you leave for vacation, teach your tween or teen how to read a map and use a compass. Then, put them in charge of navigation when you’re walking city streets. Sure, they can use Google Maps on their phone, but using a map and compass is more fun and challenging.

Will you always get to where you want to go? Probably not. But chances are you’ll explore some areas you might not have wandered into otherwise. Just remember to stay aware of your surroundings, and leave an area if you feel, even for a moment, that you’re not safe. Read up on the common types of theft abroad so you’re aware of local scams and con artist schemes.

7. Give Them Opportunities to Have Fun Without You

Many resorts and tourist destinations now have sightseeing tours or activities for tweens and teens that they can do without parents. For example, Vail, Colo. has horseback riding, zip lining, and hiking trips specifically for groups of tweens and teens. In the winter, they offer a myriad of skiing and snowboarding lessons and groups. The city also has free public transportation, which can be an easy way for teens to explore on their own.

Research where you’re going to see if there are any tween- or teen-focused tours or activities. Make sure to read reviews to determine if the activity is well-supervised and safe. Then, talk to your teen about which activities they might like to do on their own.

Even if there are no tween or teen-focused sightseeing tours, they still might want to take a kayaking trip or some paddle boarding lessons without you tagging along. Get their input and, again, make sure you research any tours to make sure your child will be safe.

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Final Word

Traveling with tweens and teens can be stressful, but it will also make for a richer, more rewarding experience for all of you. Remember, they’ll be adults the next time you blink, so try to use this trip to reconnect and spend time together.

What strategies, tips, and tricks do you use when you’re traveling with your tween or teen?

Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.