How to prepare tweens for their first overnight trip without you

By Lisa Bendall on June 13, 2013
School overnight trips, boy scout retreats, choir tours, soccer tournaments: Often, your child’s fi rst opportunity to travel without you pops up around tweenhood. For parents or kids with anxiety issues, that separation can be a major stress. Here’s what to do:

Predict the future

Children feel less anxious when they know what to expect. Review the itinerary with your child. Ask what’s likely to happen on the trip, what is most looked forward to and how a problem might be handled, like getting separated from the group. “That exercise gives control,” says Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt, a psychologist at the University of Ottawa.

Make a list, check it twice

Help your kid create a list of what to pack, and other trip requirements like buying a fl ashlight or uniform shirt. This, too, will help your child prepare and feel in control. The packing list can include familiar objects to help connect with home, like a teddy bear.

Get the goods on getting in touch

Provide a cell phone and exchange text messages before bed. Kids should be reminded that in an emergency, teachers will phone parents. Kids will also likely be allowed to call home if they’re truly distressed and need reassurance. “A lot of times parents don’t want to mention that, because they’re worried their kids will be so anxious they’ll be calling home every night,” Dr. Vaillancourt says. But she points out that for most kids, that’s not likely to happen once they see no other students are on the phone with their folks.

Remind kids about their buddies

Your child will be travelling with a pack of kids who may worry about missing home, getting lost or hating what’s served for breakfast. Remind your child that there are friends to talk to, if needed.

Cite a few safety tips

Don’t forget to pack the safety must-haves, like a list of emergency phone numbers. Remember that in a dynamic outside the classroom, bullying can become a risk. Tell organizers in advance if there are any classmates that don’t mix well with your kid, so they can keep an eye on them. “If you know that Jessica bugs your daughter at school, it’s not going to get any better on a class trip. But teachers can’t change what they don’t know,” says Dr. Vaillancourt.

Manage your anxiety

“Parents need to manage their anxiety, because it’s contagious,” says Dr. Vaillancourt. “The kid’s anxiety feeds upon their anxiety.” Get the reassurances you need by asking organizers questions, such as how to reach the group in an emergency or if the chaperones have had background checks. However, don’t feel you have to force a brave face. “Parents can’t be so stoic that the child feels it’s unnatural to be anxious,” Dr. Vaillancourt notes. “But you don’t want the child to be nervous about something they don’t need to be nervous about.”

When it's anxiety disorder:

  • If your child seems hugely distressed by the idea of separation, then it may be best to skip the trip.
  • Forcing the issue could cause more harm than good, says Tracy Vaillancourt, a University of Ottawa psychologist.
  • “A lot of times, parents get really frustrated by their child’s anxiety because they don’t recognize it as a true mental health issue.” Sure, a trip away from Mom and Dad can be a positive experience, and a chance to build independence. But in cases of extreme anxiety, it may not be appropriate.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, July 2013

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