By Maureen McElroy
If you are planning a vacation this spring or summer, a family road trip is likely in the car(d)s. Aside from providing a much-needed break, did you know that a car ride, whether across the country or just across town, can provide the backdrop for your child getting his greatest psychological needs met? Here’s how you can help ensure that your next road trip provides what therapists and authors Dr. Betty Lou Bettner and Dr. Amy Lew call the “Crucial Cs”: to Connect, to be Capable, to Count and to have Courage.
Road trips can offer precious moments for connecting with children. This is a great time for young and old to put their screens away and to play classic car games such as the name game, 20 questions, who am I? and the alphabet game. (Descriptions of these games can be found at tripsavvy.com.)
Looking out the window of a car provides kids (and adults) with opportunities for discovery, daydreaming and contemplation. This kind of time is critical for stimulating thought and creativity in young minds. Your child will come up with questions about the world around her and you can respond with the kind of thoughtful attention that isn’t as easy during a hectic day at home. Even teens are more conversational in the car than at home. Perhaps the car is more “neutral territory” than the house. Perhaps when they are in the front passenger seat, they feel more like adults. Or maybe they feel more comfortable, as they don’t have to be staring into their parents’ faces. Whatever the reason, parents can take advantage of this phenomenon and make a point to enjoy their teens during this time.
Going for a drive broadens your children’s horizons. Within a short distance, kids can experience rural, urban and suburban settings, as well as a diversity of architecture. A child will notice these differences and will ask questions. Natural landscapes also provide opportunities for curiosity and exploration. Ever since her first child was 18 months old, a mother from suburban Maryland took her children on an annual visit to Oklahoma to visit a relative. Along the way, she and her husband purposely stopped at a variety of locales: sculpture gardens, botanical gardens, swamps, beaches, caves and historical sites. Her family was surprised when an audiobook about slavery that they were listening to in the car happened to take place exactly where they were driving, bringing the book to life. This mother is convinced that her children grew in many ways and increased their understanding of people, nature, art and history during family road trips. Children can also learn useful practical skills such as how to squeegee car windows, how to pump gas and how to check the oil and tire pressure. During a long trip, a family might learn to meditate with apps such as Calm and Headspace. (Just be sure the driver stays focused on driving!)
Being able to do things for others is one of the best ways for children to maintain good mental health and goes a long way toward decreasing unwanted behavior. Involve a small child by asking her to be the safety monitor, making it her task to remind family members to buckle up. Ask an older child if he might take on the task of packing snacks or a picnic lunch for the family. Involve a teen by requesting her help with navigation, planning stops and identifying attractions. Allow each child to share their choice of audiobook with the rest of the family.
The Latin root of the word “courage” means “heart.” How do we give our children heart on a road trip? By showing our faith in them. For example, trust that even small children can manage a long trip. Given proper breaks and age-appropriate activities, children will generally rise to the occasion. “Catch” your children doing good things! For example, you might say to your 5-year-old, “Thank you for giving us plenty of warning that you were going to need to go to the bathroom.” Express appreciation when you witness a spirit of cooperation in the backseat; don’t wait to engage until there’s an argument.
Keep a positive attitude and show a creative spirit, and children will often follow. One Washington, D.C.-area dad recalls imitating the voice of Grover from “Sesame Street” to keep his toddlers entertained during a two-hour delay in New England. Elizabeth, a mom from Northern Virginia, remembers giving voice to a stuffed animal, known as Little Kitty, which was taken on a 3,000-mile trip her family took. She did this in an effort to distract her children, ages 4 and 6. Little Kitty engaged the children in all kinds of conversations, and for years after that, the children would ask their mom to break into her “Little Kitty” persona! Recognize improvement. For example, if you make an annual trip to visit relatives, you might tell your 9-year-old that you remember a few years ago she was not yet reading, and you appreciate that you can now ask her to keep an eye out for landmarks and street signs because of her new skills.
Whether you take a day trip to a park or a multiday adventure, know that there are important ways that a family road trip can meet critical needs of your child. In the process, some of your own psychological needs might be met, too! And in the words of that brave mother who drove more than 2,400 miles round trip to Oklahoma with her children every summer: “In the journey was the joy!”
Maureen McElroy LCMFT (maureenmcelroy.com) is a Certified Parent Educator with The Parent Encouragement Program (pepparent.org), which offers online classes, webinars and on-demand videos for parents of children ages 2 ½-18. She is also a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who sees individuals, couples and families in her Bethesda, Md. practice.
Originally posted on Washington Parent Magazine
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