How to survive long journeys with young children

With school holidays fast approaching, this is the time that parents start to dread the annual holiday exodus. That long haul flight seemed such a good idea when you booked it! (And the 5.30am take off time made it so much cheaper!). Or perhaps you’ve decided to drive to France this year because Granny doesn’t like planes? Long journeys with young children start to look a lot scarier the closer they get. Even a short hop by train to the seaside can seem like a round the world trip when you have a toddler in tow.

Now, I’m not going to lie and tell you long journeys with young children are a breeze if you just follow my advice. But there are definitely a few basic steps you can take that will optimise your chances of surviving the journey with stress levels (largely) below explosion point. Here are my top tips:

Prepare in advance

Don’t just pack the bags and hope. Long journeys with young children are much more likely to go well if you prepare in advance. Yes, I know it’s extra work when you already have a huge ‘To Do’ list – but avoiding ten hours of bickering or grumpy children is definitely worth the effort. And it will hopefully mean that you arrive at your destination still liking the rest of your family and not too traumatised to enjoy yourself.

Stick to their routine

If possible, try to plan your journey around meal and/or nap times to avoid disrupting your child’s routine too much. If that’s not possible, then plan ahead for how you are going to meet their physical needs for food, toilets and sleep on route. Tired and hungry children are always harder work!

Set some rules

To be clear about your expectations, set some ground rules. Make the rules simple and positive, using words your child will understand. For example, “Stay in your seat.” “Use a quiet voice.” “Hold Mummy’s hand.” Then, just before you set off, remind them of the rules and ask them to repeat them back to you. You might need different rules for different stages of the journey (in the car, at the airport, on the plane etc), so go through this process at each stage. Don’t wait for them to get it wrong – as soon as possible, praise them for sticking to the rules. Let them know how much you like it when they get it right so that they are motivated to keep it up.

Keep them interested

Bored children are much more likely to misbehave. So plan lots of interesting activities to do on the journey. Word games. Playing cards. Colouring books. And if ever there was a good time for digital devices, plane journeys are that time! Hold activities back and bring out something new when you sense that their interest is waning. Have lots more activities up your sleeve than you think you’ll need, in case of delays (or exceptionally fractious children). You could get your children to draw a map of the journey, with key landmarks to be ticked off on the way. Or set them a challenge to make a photo collage of the journey.

Motivate with rewards

Motivate your child to stick to the rules by offering some positive rewards. For younger children, these need to be quick and immediate. Arm yourself with some shiny stickers and put a sticker on their hand at every transition in the journey for sticking to the rules. Or, make a secret trip to a Pound Shop in advance for some cheap and cheerful surprises your child will like. Wrap these up. Every time they stick to the rules for a whole half an hour they get to unwrap a surprise. (You can make the time periods longer/shorter, depending on their age). Older children might like to collect reward points that they can cash in for specific treats when you stop at the service station. Small, regular rewards work best for long journeys.

Be clear on consequences

What are you going to do if your children start misbehaving? Do you feel comfortable using a Quiet Time strategy with people watching? Would you be able to ignore a tantruming toddler on a train? Think in advance about what you could do to step in early to nip difficult behaviour in the bud. If you have set up a reward system, this is much easier because not getting the reward (or the star, point or sticker) is an inbuilt consequence. Explain the consequences to your child for misbehaviour at the same time as you explain the rules and rewards.

Do a practice run

Sounds daft? This really helps to establish rules and expectations. And it can also be fun! If you will be travelling a long distance by car, then do a rehearsal over a much shorter distance (with a nice treat at the end if the kids stick to the rules). If your children are off on their first plane journey, then set up a pretend plane in your living room using chairs and talk them through the journey and what they will need to do when. A practice run means that by the time the real journey comes around, your rules and expectations are already firmly in their heads.

These are my top tips for surviving long journeys with small children – what are yours? Please share successful strategies you have used in the comments below so we can all benefit! Happy travelling!

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©Anita Cleare 2018

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