Self-regulation

hotel bed

Behold, James and Margot after a long day of car travel.

I’d much rather tiptoe around these slumbering cuties than tame the two whiny, cantankerous monsters they’d have ended up without access to a hotel room.

When kids are in school, they follow a routine that meets most kids’ needs for sleep, food, quiet activity, and active play. Travel can turn that routine on its head.

It’s amazing how well some kids self-regulate when routines are disrupted. Some examples:

  • an infant falls asleep in a stroller or baby sling
  • a toddler stands on his head in an airport lounge
  • a tween pulls a granola bar out of her carryon bag

Other kids, among them reluctant travelers like James, need help staying regulated. When dysregulated, they’re unhappy, defiant, and impulsive. As a result, they might not accept what they need most when they most need it. The most frustrating example for me is refusing to sleep when overtired.

Advance planning is the best way to support kids’ self-regulation during travel. Work around kids’ sleep and meal schedules, and what times of day they’re most active. A typical school day is a good guide.

Travelers can’t always avoid disruption. When it happens, plan to help your child recover. Make naps seem like the day’s main event. Keep physical demands to a minimum, hoping for a zone-out in the stroller or car. If they’re up too late, it’s always best to put them to sleep early the next night, rather than to place all your hopes on sleeping late.

If your child is dysregulated, your job is to to recognize it and help him compensate. Watch out for drowsiness or fussiness, or — just as likely — wildness and lack of focus. Then, help your child to meet expectations but don’t expect his best behavior. These aren’t the times your child will try a new food, skip a meal, kiss an elderly relative, tolerate a broken iPad. Think Goldfish crackers, a well-loved movie or book, and a comfort item like a stuffed toy or blanket.

Some trips are so short, or so full of changes, that there’s not enough time for your child to self-regulate during the trip. Our best, calmest trips are at least a week long, staying in the same place the whole time. If we return to the same place the following year, James adjusts quicker and might actually try something he’d refused to try the year before.

Further reading: Jessie Hewitson on traveling to the same place every year.

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