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Give Peace a Chance: Tips for Traveling with Teens

Getting along with a moody teenager is challenging enough within the familiar confines of home, what to do when you take the act on the road?

I remember the first vacation I took as a mother. It was Thanksgiving 1993, and my husband and I were traveling from Georgia to Virginia to celebrate the holidays with family. Our daughter, who was four months old and a dead ringer for the Gerber baby, made nary a peep during the almost two-hour long flight.

As we disembarked the plane, our fellow passengers slapped us on the back and offered congratulations and effusive praise. “Your baby is so good!” was the common refrain.

A few years later, my son joined our brood. Family trips, while definitely more exciting, were never quite as easy as that very first one.

Today, my kids are teens--practically adults. Back when they were babies, I would have told you that traveling with them now would be a breeze. Clearly, I was clueless…

Teenagers are known for having strong opinions, wild mood fluctuations, and the ability to argue even the most formidable of opponents under the table. They like to sleep late, value personal space and privacy above all else, and frequently prefer the company of friends to that of family.

Sound like great traveling companions? Actually, they are. You just have to channel the Boy Scouts prior to leaving on vacation and--Be Prepared!

Teens like to have their say, so give them a voice. Before we take a trip, everyone in my family researches the destination and comes up with an activity they want the family to do. Each of us gets to pick at least one thing to share, and the agreement is that everyone will take part.

On a recent trip to Paris, my son, who is studying French, was most excited about visiting the Eiffel Tower so he selected that as his choice. My daughter, a lover of all things related to fashion, chose an off the beaten path design museum. Both kids felt a heightened sense of ownership, and were perhaps a bit more engaged, because these stops were “theirs.”

The more things change, the more some things should stay the same. Believe it or not, teens are at times sentimental. And, as much as they crave change, they also enjoy, and find comfort in, that which is familiar.

Vacations offer a great opportunity to create new, and revisit old, family traditions. My family, for example, tries to go horseback riding on almost every trip we take. It wasn’t our intention for horseback riding to become a regular vacation activity, but after doing so on a couple of trips, it became one. My kids fondly recount rides from the past and view this as something “we” do.

Technology, it turns out, is your friend. Most parents hate the fact that their teens seem to be plugged in 24/7.  And while vacation is the perfect time for everyone in the family to disconnect, having access to a mobile device, an MP3 player and a computer with Internet can actually make teens feel more engaged, and help them get through rough moments on the vacations.

My 17-year-old uses Google Maps to plot out the restaurants and sights that she would like us to visit. She utilizes websites such as TripAdvisor and Travel Channel to find places she thinks we would enjoy. She is very good at this, and considers it her vacation-related job.

My son, who is 14, likes to tune us out during long car and plane rides by tuning in to his favorite music. We might be in cramped quarters, but he is still able to detach a bit.

Understanding is key. The teenage years are largely about the search for, and ultimate realization of, independence. Not surprisingly, the desire to have some freedom isn’t diminished when teenagers go on vacation. If anything, their quest for independence increases.

When possible, allow older teens to spend some time alone during your trip. The period of separation will be good for everyone. Time away can be spent around the hotel’s pool, exploring nearby shops, or, if the budget allows, in a separate room at night. Additionally, many resorts and cruise lines offer teen specific side trips, activities and lounges.

Forgive and forget. At some point during the trip (several points, probably) fights will happen. Tempers will flare, eyes will roll, and feelings will be hurt.  Ignoring bad behavior is never advisable, but vacation is a good time to forgive moodiness and move on. 

The older children get, the fewer opportunities there are for the family to travel together as a unit. It’s a bit easier to put the occasional meltdown in perspective when remembering that the moments are fleeting.  

And given how challenging it can be to live with teenagers, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing…

Suzette Valle April 19, 2011 at 07:26 PM
Love this insightful post, Jennifer! We took our teenage brood to Europe two years ago and while it was trying at times, it was an unforgettable experience. We allowed them to go off on their own a couple of times -- with the global phones we traded in for our regular ones just for this trip. Glad to see others have the same ups and downs with their teens.
Jennifer Armour April 19, 2011 at 07:57 PM
Oh yes, lots of ups and definitely some downs--great description of life with teens, Suzette! I keep reminding myself that developmentally, their behavior (and their need to separate) makes perfect sense.

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