Preparing for & Surviving the Family Road Trip

“Are we there yet?” I’m certain many articles and blog posts about the family road trip start with that question. It’s not for lack of creativity! It’s because that question encompasses everything in the family road trip experience: restless children, parents at the end of their wits, and everyone strapped into a tiny room on four wheels, anticipating the fun to come.

Looking for family road trip advice, I turned to Ann Douglas, a bestselling parenting author and weekend parenting columnist for the CBC. She released her latest book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, earlier this year.

 Ann Douglas, the author of Happy Parents, Happy Kids
Ann Douglas, the author of Happy Parents, Happy Kids

Start Planning Now, But Not the Way You Think

Douglas’ approach to parenting moves away from abstract rules that define “good parents” and focuses on helping parents see that many of things that make parenting difficult are actually not about parenting. “It’s all the other stresses in our life, all the stuff that’s happening behind the scenes, that is making things really hard,” she says.

However, Douglas also recognizes that, despite the schedules, work hours, homework, etc., we as parents still need to parent. So she offers some advice on how to create happiness within yourself first. “ […] Parents in their own households, in their own families, can also do some things to bring down their stress levels and to improve the quality of their parenting as a result,” she says. “Because when you’re massively stressed out and exhausted, you can’t be the kind of parent you want to be.”

That brings us to her first tip for preparing for the family road trip: Start spending time now on things that make you happier as a person. Not as a parent, but a person. “Sometimes I think we have this idea that we have two separate buckets,” says Douglas. “That there’s one bucket of how happy we are as a parent, and there’s another bucket of how happy we are as a person. But really, there’s only one bucket. It all gets mixed in together.”

So, whether that means finding five minutes to just think your own thoughts instead of ones filled with potty humour and food complaints, or it means finding several five-minute spaces where you can get more physical activity, Douglas says to start now, before your family road trip.

The Journey Itself: Be Real & Flexible

I’m only saying this because I know I need to remind myself of this once in a while: you’re travelling with kids. Whether they’re toddlers, midway through elementary school, or close to finishing high school, they’re still not adults. If your expectations of them more align with their developmental stage, you can ease the strain of your family road trip.

A baby is sitting in the car seat
A toddler sits in the car seat

For example, Douglas suggests spending some time in the backseat with your toddler to entertain them, because you can’t expect them to entertain themselves for hours on end. Second, schedule more frequent bathroom breaks, especially for young children who are recently toilet trained.

And third, remember that kids get restless when they don’t have enough physical activity. Strapping kids to a seat for hours can create a good case of the grumps. Schedule time to just let them run and play. (In addition, if you have a family dog along for the trip, they’ll thank you for the extra playtime, too.)

Braving Busy Highways

Just the thought of being stuck in traffic jams on highways with your children can bring on nightmares suitable for family road trip movies. Douglas encourages parents to think strategically about these.

  • Before you leave, brief your kids that they’ll be sitting for a long time. Make sure they pack their own activities.
  • Although she prefers to limit device use in kids, long traffic jams are one situation where letting kids watch something appropriate can really help.
  • Turn your mind into what psychologists call “discovery mode.” In short, challenge yourself to find something interesting to do that will occupy you and the kids for a half-hour, like a new family road trip game.

Be Realistic

“At the end of the day, the idea of a vacation is actually to have a good time and not be dreading the next day, or thinking ‘I wish we were home in our own beds,’” says Douglas.

I’m going to finish off with one tip from Douglas that changed my perspective on parenting: “What most parents love most about parenting,” she says, “ is actually spending time with their kids. It’s all the other stuff that sort of gets in the way. That makes parenting harder and more stressful.”

So, when it comes to planning and going on your family road trip, focus on what matters: your family. Plan the essential details around that and let yourselves enjoy your time together. That’s they you’re traveling in the first place, right?

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