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Road Travel With Preteens

How To Ease the Tension When Traveling with Preteens

When my daughter was 11 or 12, we traveled to spend some time at my father's house. As we got in the car, I thought how much easier I had it than my sister and brother who were also traveling. One had an infant; the other had a toddler. I remembered the days of loading down the car with diaper bags, changes of clothes and portable baby cribs, and fighting with a cranky child who was tired of being strapped into a car seat. I was so lucky to be past that stage, I thought.

Of course, I had moved into a new stage – traveling with a preteen. In the car, my preteen sulked because she forgot her Walkman and wanted us to listen to her music on the car stereo. Then she sulked some more when we said no. At her grandfather's, she flip-flopped between wanting to be spoiled like the little kids and wanting to be treated like an adult.

It was no easier when we drove halfway across the country to visit other relatives and do some sight-seeing in Texas. She grumbled loudly about every day trip we had picked out, even though she had a say in them. If she were a few years older, we would have let her have more independence. When she was younger, she followed along willingly, more interested in the adventure itself, rather than the destination. At age 12, while she was at an age where she had more varied interests and more stamina to go at an adult pace, it still seemed nearly impossible to make her happy – no matter what we did.

A Universal Problem

Jo Pitesky of Studio City, Calif., is seeing the same type of thing with her 11-year-old daughter. While she says that it is easier to travel with a preteen because it allows them to visit a wider variety of restaurants and museums, for example, it also means hormonal meltdown behaviors. "With our younger child, meltdowns usually just mean we need to take something of a rest or have a snack," Pitesky says. "With the older one, it seems that she's just tired of being with the same group of people. That's a lot harder to manage when you're sharing a small hotel room."

Life with preteens can be frustrating and challenging no matter where you are, but especially so during the intense family time of a vacation. While everyone needs to make concessions to life on the road, it can be harder for the preteen and the parent. Adjusting to life with a preteen in the family is difficult enough without it being magnified in the tight quarters of a hotel room or a minivan.

The idea behind a family vacation is for the family to enjoy spending time together, away from the stresses of everyday life. So what can parents do to ensure a pleasurable trip for everyone?

Involve the entire family in the travel plans.

"Make sure that you plan the trip as a team," says Debbie Mandel, author of the Weekly Wellness Newsletter. "There is great creative energy in a team, and preteens need to get to voice their opinions about the trip. So don't load them up with purely adult vistas to explore like museums or ancient excavations. Some of these culturally enriching activities provide great exposure for kids – but in small doses! Make sure after a loaded morning's worth of touring that in the afternoon, kids can swim, see a movie, go shopping for souvenirs or go to an arcade."

Give preteens some sense of independence.

They need a break from their parents. "We found that cell phones are a wonderful boon for this age," Pitesky says. "We can be in, say, a large bookstore and let the older child go off on her own to browse, knowing we can always find her easily by calling her."

Walkie talkies are also useful. When my son wanted to crash in the room and watch television after a long day, we took off for a half hour of adult time in the hotel lounge. He could reach us instantly, and we let him know when we were on our way back to the room so he could unlock the door.

Make sure your preteen eats healthy.

"Avoid eating unhealthy fast foods and plying them with sugary snacks," says Mandel. "They will feel stressed and become more disagreeable. If the places you are visiting do not have preteen-friendly food, pack staples for them: peanut butter and whole wheat bread, oven-roasted meats like turkey breast, instant soups and pastas, etc."

Recognize that your preteen's interests have probably changed since the last vacation.

Preteens aren't always content with "little kid" activities, and parents aren't always prepared for their child's "teenager" behavior. Kim Price of Rootstown, Ohio, took her stepdaughter and several nieces and nephews on a trip to Myrtle Beach. "The younger children played games in the hotel room and played happily in the sand while we were on the beach," Price says. On the other hand, her preteen nieces were more interested in flirting with boys from their hotel's balcony or going to the nearby amusement park.

Consider traveling with friends.

One reason preteens complain of boredom is because they feel lonely. Allowing your preteen to invite a favorite playmate to be a travel companion is one option. There are pluses and minuses to this option, however. As Pitesky points out, while her daughter would be less likely to have a "meltdown" with a friend around, taking an extra child would be an added expense and would cut into the family's privacy.

A second option is to travel with another family. According to Stacy DeBroff, author of The Mom Book: 4,278 Tips from Moms for Moms (Simon & Schuster, 2002), traveling with another family offers an extra source of companionship and amusement for everyone. "Having kids who play well together cuts down on TV and video time, complaints of boredom or seeking out adults as the singular source of entertainment," she says. "Only-children will have playmates besides their parents." She adds that families can break into smaller groups when everyone cannot decide on one activity. "This way, more people's preferences can be accommodated, rather than dragging one or two people along to an activity that holds no interest for them."

Traveling with a preteen is a challenge, to be sure. They can be moody and uncooperative. They want their freedom, and they want their interests to be taken into consideration. But preteens have a greater understanding of the world around them, and this will allow you to see your favorite destinations with fresh eyes.

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