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Traveling with an Anxious Child: 18 Tips to Reduce Travel Anxiety

Are you planning a trip with an anxious child? This post is full of tips for traveling with an anxious child!

If you have a child who struggles with anxiety, you might wonder how to travel with your child. 

The thought of disrupting your child’s routine, leaving a familiar environment, and being at the mercy of airlines might feel really difficult.

Throw in changes in time zones, strange foods, new places, and unexpected cultural norms, and you might even wonder if family vacations are worth it.

While most people feel some anxiety before traveling, travel anxiety can be especially difficult for children or teens who already struggle with anxiety.

Traveling with kids with anxiety can be really challenging—for parents and kids alike!

However, there are lots of things parents can do before and during the trip to help kids with anxiety travel successfull!

Here are some great travel tips for children with anxiety. Using these tips will help manage your child’s anxiety when you’re traveling and make family travel easier. 

1. Choose the right destination

When planning to travel with your child with anxiety, choose a destination and season that will work best for your child. 

If your child gets anxious about being in crowds, don’t go to Paris in July! Instead, head to Brussels in April. You’ll still be able to visit incredible museums, eat delicious foods, and explore a charming city, but it will be soooo much easier on your entire family!

Think about what you could do to automatically avoid anxiety triggers or help alleviate travel anxiety. Find a vacation destination that makes sense given your child’s nerves and anxieties.

2. Prepare your child for traveling

If you know your child struggles with anxiety, start preparing them to travel far in advance of a big vacation.

Start small

Before planning a trip overseas, consider taking weekend road trips to nearby destinations.

Before booking any long plane rides, take short flights. If your child is really anxious about flying, consider taking a practice run to the airport to see the check-in area and the security lines. Read books about airplanes.

Give your child a chance to get comfortable with different ways of traveling, before planning an epic trip.

Talk about transportation on your Trip

When you start planning your big trip, tell your children about your travel itinerary.

Discuss how you’ll travel: by car, train, plane, bus, subway, etc.

Let your kid know how long different parts of the trip will be. Explain what you’ll be doing while you travel (listening to audio books on a roadtrip, looking out the window of the train, watching movies on the plane). 

Tell your child what will happen once you arrive at your destination (going through customs, getting to your hotel). Let them know where you’ll stay and what to expect when you get to your hotel room. 

3. Tell your child what to expect when you arrive

Before you travel, give your child a preview of the trip, so they know what to expect. 

Discuss every aspect of the trip in a way that’s appropriate to your child’s age and specific fear of the unknown.

Discuss what you’ll do at your destination

Talk about what tours you’ll take, the type of foods you might eat, and things you plan to do.

Let them know (or have them research) what your destination is famous for.

Also, talk about the weather where you’re going, what sorts of clothes they should wear, and how you’ll travel at your destination (car, train, subway, or on foot). 

Prepare them for differences

If you have older children, be sure to explain any social customs at your destination that might be unfamiliar or unsettling to your child.

If you’re going to a country where they speak a different language, help your kids learn some basic phrases, like “please,” “thank you,” or “where are the toilets?”

Let them know who they’ll meet

If you’re going to use a babysitter at your destination, consider having your child “meet” the babysitter over FaceTime or Zoom in advance. (Pay the babysitter for their time, of course.) 

If you’re taking a family trip and your child will meet family members they don’t know, show them pictures of these relatives or arrange a video call in advance of your visit.

Giver your relatives a heads up about your son or daughter’s anxiety, and let them know your child will be nervous about meeting them. Suggest various things they could talk to your child about.

Help your child practice navigating social situations by practicing introductions, handshakes, and making conversations with strangers. 

Have these conversations well in advance of the trip

I recommend talking to your child about all aspects of the trip well in advance of actually leaving. Knowing what to expect, in detail, can lessen kids’ anxiety.

Discuss potential plans for visiting sites or taking tours with your child before booking tickets so that you can get a sense if what you have planned might be OK or overwhelming for your child.

For example, do you need to plan a low-key day every other day or every third day? Do you need to limit the amount of time your child is in crowded areas? Overall, does the schedule meet your child’s needs? 

4. Be empathetic about your child’s anxiety

An anxious child has a lot of big, overwhelming feelings that can be hard to manage. It helps if parents can listen to those fears and empathize with the child’s feelings. 

Ask your child what questions they have about your trip and what they’re worried about.

Sometimes I’ve been surprised by my children’s concerns. They’ve been anxious about things I would never have expected them to be worried about. 

You don’t have to offer solutions. Instead, let your child talk about how they’re feeling. 

5. Get your child’s input

One of the best ways to help alleviate your child’s travel anxiety is to involve your child in the planning process.

Ask what activities they’d like to do at your destination, and book those tickets. Ask your child what type of food they’d like to eat, and find restaurants that serve those foods.

If your child is very focused on their favorite topics, find out what sites at your destination are related to their interests. 

Your child will be more excited (and less anxious) about the trip if they have input in planning the trip!

I recommend involving the whole family in planning the trip. Even if your kids and partner don’t have anxiety about travel, I’m sure they have preferences about what they do on their vacation!

6. Give them a sneak peek

Show your child on Google Maps where you’ll be going and talk about how you’ll get there.

These days, you can find YouTube videos of just about everything–whether it’s buying a ticket for the London Tube or taking a high speed train in Japan. 

Encourage your child to use the “street view” feature to see exactly what your destination looks like. Knowing exactly what to expect can really help alleviate kids’ anxiety before traveling.

(If your child enjoys this, tell them about the game GeoGuessr, where the player has to figure out where in the world they are. My kids love this game!)

7. Offer distractions & entertainment

For either a long car ride or air travel, you’ll also need to be prepared with entertainment. Bring new toys and favorite activities for your kids to keep them engaged for the duration of your travel. 

Don’t be afraid of technology

Allowing your child to use a tablet to watch movies or play games might just be a lifesaver.

Plan ahead and download a favorite movie, show or game, in case your kid just needs some downtime.

Even if you don’t normally allow your child to use electronic devices, consider using them when traveling. Talk about the appropriate use of electronics when traveling, like keeping the volume off or wearing headphones, and limiting time spent on devices.

Bring EngagingToys

Pack some surprises for your child, like small toys (easily found at the dollar store or on Amazon). 

Choose toys that will hold your child’s attention, plus are small and lightweight.

Having fun, new toys to play with will help distract your kids and lessen their travel anxiety.

Pack Good Books

Bring your child a new book to read during downtime or during transit between destinations.

If your child likes non-fiction, choose a book about your destination. If they prefer fiction, choose an engaging story set in your destination.

For small children, choose board books or simple picture books. 

8. Maintain routines

By definition, traveling with kids means that everyone will be out of their routines.

When possible, maintain the same routines you keep at home. 

Many anxious children are comforted by familiar items. To make your home-away-from-home feel like home and help your child to adjust to a new place, bring items like:

If your child is a picky eater, it might be a great idea for you to shop at a grocery store for familiar foods (even if they are slightly different), rather than risk eating at restaurants where it might be difficult to find foods your child will eat. 

9. And be flexible

Recognize that the routines and rules you have in place at home might have to be adapted when you’re on the road. Be creative about solving problems or reacting to challenging situations. 

Recognize that anxious kids often need some quiet time to recharge after spending a lot of energy traveling, sightseeing, or being with other people. Plan time in your schedule for plenty of breaks. 

Stay alert to signs that your child is overstimulated and needs a break.

Build breaks into the day so your anxious child doesn’t feel like they’re  getting singled out for a last minute change of plans that means they’ll miss out on the fun things everyone else is doing. 

If you’re also traveling with kids who aren’t anxious and don’t need as much downtime, consider dividing your group.

Do an activity together in the morning, then those who want to rest can return to the hotel, and those who want to explore can keep going. Then meet up for dinner and compare notes.

Everyone doesn’t have to stay on the same schedule!

If it’s not possible to divide and conquer, consider compromises. Maybe sit in a cafe or go to a playground with your anxious child, and let your other kids explore a nearby museum or shopping area. 

10. Build competency

Sometimes children are anxious about something because they’ve never done it before.

Give your child a chance to practice a skill and build competency.

Here are some examples of life skills your kids can practice when traveling:

  • Create a packing list for your trip
  • Choose a cafe, pull up directions on a phone, and lead the family there
  • Purchase all the public transportation tickets, as you oversee the process
  • Research the country or city you’ll visit
  • Be the tour guide at a museum or site they’re interested in
  • Ask a local for directions
  • Do the math on what time you need to leave to catch a bus, train, taxi, etc. (Double check that math!)
  • Lead a hike

11. Have your child document your trip

Ask your child if they’d like to be in change of documenting your trip. Depending on what your kid’s interests are, there are lots of ways they can do this. 

Give them a nice camera and let them take still shots and video of your trip. Make sure they have plenty of time before your trip to research and practice. 

Encourage them to use their phone’s Voice Memos or Voice Recorder to record the sounds around them. They can capture street sounds, bird song, nature sounds, and so much more. 

Or, let them collect bits of ephemera. On the trip, they can collect drink coasters, bus tickets, site brochures, or receipts, and later organize those items into a journal or create artwork. 

Empowering your child to document your trip will give them something to focus on, allow them to feel proud of their responsibility, and let you see your destination through their eyes. 

12. Talk about what could go wrong

Sometimes the many possible disasters that could happen can cause a lot of anticipatory anxiety in kids.

It might help to talk about all the different things that could go wrong and discuss how to deal with those situations.

Ask your child questions like:

  • What’s on your mind?
  • What are you afraid could happen?
  • What might you do if that happened?
  • What would be the worst case scenario?
  • How could we deal with that situation?

Usually, the thing your kid is worried about might seem really scary in the abstract, but it wouldn’t actually be the end of the world. 

13. Talk about how the trip is going

During your trip, touch base with your child or teen every day to see how things are going. A great time to do this is over dinner or while taking an evening walk. 

Ask your child: 

  • What went well today?
  • What were your favorite things about today?
  • How do you feel about the day?
  • How do you feel about our plans for tomorrow?

Talking things over as a family on a daily basis is a great way to help a nervous child discuss their concerns or triumphs.

Then, you can adjust the next day’s plans as needed. Listening and responding to your child’s anxieties can go a long way to ensuring that your child feels heard and taken seriously. 

clown fish and orange fish in an aquarium.

14. Be (extremely) prepared

When traveling with an anxious child, it’s a good idea to be prepared for anything. 

Allow plenty of time

Arrive at the airport early.

Plan extra time to get through airport security lines without being rushed.

Either book a direct flight or allow plenty of time for a layover. 

Pack everything you might need

In your diaper bag (if you have young children) or a backpack, be sure you have:

  • Comfort items (like a lovey, a stuffed animal or a blanket)
  • Prescriptions medications
  • Over-the-counter medications, like allergy medication, motion sickness medication, or pain relief.
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Band-Aids and moleskin in case of blisters
  • Change of clothes in a zip-loc gallon-sized bag

Be ready for the weather

Pack sunscreen, a sun hat, and sunglasses in sunny climates.

And in cold or wet climates, pack a warm hat, gloves, boots, and a rain jacket or coat

15. Keep things familiar

Young children on a flight might feel more comfortable if they are in their familiar car seat. If you’re traveling by car at your destination, having a familiar car seat might be more comfortable (and safer) than getting a car seat from a car rental company.

For younger children who are hesitant about using unfamiliar toilets, consider bringing a foldable potty seat cover. (Use it at home for several weeks before your trip, so it’s familiar.) Show your child how to use toilet paper to cover up the automatic flushing sensor on a toilet. 

16. Pack lots of snacks

Bring plenty of your child’s favorite snacks, so they won’t have to worry about what they’ll eat.

Be sure to pack snacks that are crunchy or chew, if that sensory input would be helpful to your child.  

Also bring gum or lollipops to help relieve ear pressure during plane travel. 

17. Keep their things close

A lot of kids feel more secure if they have their own backpack with their entertainment, comfort item, a favorite book, and snacks. 

Elementary-aged kids, tweens, and teens are used to carrying backpacks full of their gear, so they’ll want to have their backpack close by when traveling.

If you have young kids, ride-on carry-on luggage for toddlers makes keeping up with their belongings fun.

18. Ask for help when traveling with an anxious child

If you know of something that would help alleviate your child’s anxieties, ask for it.

For example:

  • Ask to be seated in a quiet section of a restaurant.
  • Book seats in a theatre near an exit.
  • Get TSA precheck or Global Entry so you can go through airport security more quickly.
  • Inform flight attendants if your child has a fear of flying.
  • If you’re visiting theme parks, ask if children with special needs can get special accommodations that allow them to skip some long lines. 

You may need to bring documentation from a doctor that your child requires accommodations, so plan ahead. 

19. Keep expectations in check

Be realistic about what your anxious child can handle, especially if it’s the first time you’re traveling away from home.

When traveling with an anxious child, you might not get to see and do all the things you’d hoped to do. However, your next vacation can still be a fun adventure!

And if this trip doesn’t actually go well, that’s OK. You’ll learn a lot about what to do differently when it’s time for the next trip. 

Focus on enjoying the time with your child, rather than ticking off a bucket list of sight-seeing destinations.

Final thoughts on how to travel with an anxious child

If you’re the parent of a child with anxiety, you know that just getting through the day in a familiar environment can cause a meltdown.

However, even (perhaps especially) anxious kids benefit from travel and new experiences!

It’s so important for anxious kids to go outside of their comfort zone in ways that can help them learn to overcome anxieties. 

With a lot of preparation, planning, and patience, you can have an incredible experience traveling with your anxious kid.

I hope these ideas for traveling with an anxious child help you plan your upcoming trip! You might also want to check out some of my favorite hacks for traveling with kids.

If you have any additional helpful travel anxiety tips, please reach out and share them with me!

Please note, I’m just a mom writing about traveling with anxious kids based on my family’s experiences. I am not a mental health professional.

These tips may or may not be helpful to your family and your child in particular.  

You should discuss all concerns with a professional therapist or doctor before making any travel plans, especially if you have a special needs child, a child with autism, a child who needs to take anti-anxiety medication, or a child who suffers from panic attacks or severe anxiety disorders. 

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