Tips for Traveling with Teens During the Holidays: Teens with an Emotional or Behavioral Diagnosis

In just over a week from now, families all over the country will pack up their suitcases and visit relatives near and far. They’ll take a break from the hustle and bustle of the workaday world to spend time with the people closest to them during this season of gratitude, giving, and too much delicious food. But before they get to the good part – all that family and food – they have to run the gauntlet: busy highways and airports are in their future. If they don’t plan well, their nice trip could turn very stressful very quickly.

The joy of traveling over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house for the winter holidays would be much easier to find if we all got to make the trip on a fairy book sleigh through a snowy pastoral scene of actual rivers and woods.

But alas, what most of us experience is the gauntlet: some variation of planes, trains, and automobiles. Complete with all the lines, lobbies, waiting lists, and other obstacles that separate us from our various destinations.

That’s travel in the 21st century. At the best of times, it can go smoothly, but it doesn’t take much to throw things off-kilter. Especially for families traveling with teenagers. And for teenagers living with an emotional, behavioral, or alcohol/substance use disorder, holiday travel presents a unique set of challenges.

Don’t worry, though: if your teen is in recovery or living with a diagnosed mood or behavioral disorder and you plan to travel this year, we can help. There are several practical steps you can take to ensure your family travel goes as smoothly as possible. It will take a little effort on the front end, but we promise that effort will pay off.

Ready for our tips?

Here we go.

Five Essential Travel Tips: Focus on Teens with Behavioral and Emotional Disorders

  1. Planning. The most important thing you can do is come up with a rock-solid plan. With a good plan – contingencies accounted for – you can overcome almost any obstacle the travel deities throw your way. Here’s what we advise:
    • Do not overextend. Avoid trying to pack too much travel into one day. This is not your summer backpacking trip around Europe. It’s not a contest to see how far you can get in 24 hours. For example, if your trip has a long flight followed by a longish drive, try to break them up, and not do both on the same day.
    • Make the big picture decisions – flights, days of travel, etc. – then get your teen in on the planning. Give them ownership of the itinerary when possible. Begin the conversation about how the trip might interact with their diagnosis: anticipate triggers and potential challenge areas so they’re not a surprise if they come up.
    • Avoid unstructured downtime: always have something at hand to keep them comfortable and occupied.
    • Leave way too early and allot far too much time for everything. If you’re going to the airport, go early. If you’re driving, get up on the sun and hit the road before everyone else. We can’t stress this enough, so we’ll say it again: leave way too early and allot far too much time for everything. Here’s a simple equation: if you think something is going to take an hour, double it. Plan on it taking two hours, no matter how sure you are it won’t take that long. In the event of unforeseen problems or delays, you’ll be glad you did.
  2. Preview and review the schedule. This starts during the phase of planning when you involve your teen. Previewing and reviewing should continue until the moment you leave and throughout the trip. Teens with some behavioral or developmental disorders may have trouble with the unknown, and may have specific problems handling unexpected transitions. Anticipating these moments and working to mitigate their emotional impact on your teen can make all the difference. With that in mind, here are some things to cover during your trip preview/review:
    • Identify places where things could go wrong. Traffic on the way to the airport, security lines at the airport, weather delays – think of everything. At first, just identify these potential problem areas.
    • Review the possible SNAFUs with your teen, and let them weigh in on potential triggers, areas where boredom and frustration could exacerbate symptoms or lead to disruptive acting out.
    • Identify the practical coping mechanisms your teen has at their disposal to handle the problem areas you identify together. If you know how to do it, roleplay situations and possible reactions to make sure the skills are appropriate and ready for action.
    • If your teen has a therapist or psychiatrist, have their phone number at hand in case of an emergency.
  3. Food, Water, Medication. This item really belongs in the planning phase, but it’s big enough to merit its own section, so here we are. For families traveling with teens with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, this would take an entire article to cover. However, families with teens on medication for mood, behavioral, or substance use disorders need to pay special attention here, too. Here’s what we advise:
    • Food. If you’re driving, pack plenty of healthy snacks, and plan your meal stops ahead of time. If you’re flying, there’s good news: food in airports has improved dramatically over the past ten years. Many airports now have websites with lists of the food options available at each terminal. And many of the restaurants also post their menus online. In an ideal world, you arrive at the airport way too early, get through security with plenty of time to spare, and have a sit-down meal before getting on the plane. If that doesn’t happen, plan on:
      • Bringing plenty of healthy snacks.
      • Prepare and bring on-the-go meals you know your teen likes
      • If you can go full Martha Stewart, prepare individual baggies of snacks for your teens, tailored to their tastes.
    • Water. As much as we loathe single-use plastic bottles of water, buy plenty as soon as you get to your gate, and keep your kids hydrated the whole trip. We’d love to tell you to have each teen bring their own big bottle of water, but TSA will not allow it.
    • Medication. Always have as much spare or extra medication as you can. Essential tip: split the medication between checked bags and carry on bags. In your carry-on bags, bring spares that can last for the entire trip. If your checked bags get lost or delayed, this will save hours of effort and anxiety replacing medication once you arrive at your destination.
  4. Entertainment. The best way to fill the hours not dominated by standing in line is to keep your teen occupied with their favorite hobby, activity, or form of entertainment. Here’s what we advise:
    • We advocate books, drawing, and creativity first. This may not be your first thought, but consider simple crafts, too. These can work perfectly, even for cynical teens: think friendship bracelets, knitting, or other similar, portable ways to pass the time.
    • Audiobooks and podcasts come in second to books and creative activities. Whether educational or escapists, audiobooks and podcasts re a great way to pass the time.
    • Movies and tv shows are obviously a kid favorite, and will win the day almost every single time. For long road trips in the car, tablets are perfect. The same goes for plane trips: while many planes have video screens in the seatbacks, having a tablet, phone, or laptop means teens can be assured of having their favorite video selections at their fingertips.
    • You must have power. As in the devices must be charged in order to fulfill their function. Relying on finding an open electrical outlet at a busy airport is iffy, so the best bet is to bring a portable charging dock (or two) of your own
  5. Connection. First, last, and always, look for chances to connect with your teen. Busy holiday travel may not seem like the most likely time to make honest connections with your teen, but consider these points:
    • The in-between times. When a flight gets delayed, an airplane has to sit on the tarmac because of weather, or traffic stops your road trip in its tracks, make the most of it. Engage your teen in conversation. Try to talk before going to your devices.
    • In airports, play the people-watching game: where are all these people going and what’s their story? In cars, all the classics can still be fun. I Spy, 20 Questions, counting license plates from different states, and singing songs all work. Get unabashedly corny, and you may be surprised when you find your teen still loves to laugh, sing, and play games. Try to talk before disappearing into your electronic devices.
    • Try to talk before breaking out the phones and tablets. Did we already say that? Yes: we’ve now said it three times – in slightly different ways – in hopes you’ll try. If conversation doesn’t work, break out a deck of cards. After all, everyone needs to know how to play at least one card game aside from “Go Fish.”

You Set the Tone, You Can Make It Memorable

Holiday travel can be tough even under the best circumstances. Traveling with a teen can add another layer to the challenges. And traveling with a teen with an emotional, behavioral, or alcohol/substance use disorder creates special demands on families.

A note here: we include teens with alcohol and substance use disorders on this list because fatigue, frustration, the unknown, and missing meals can all act as triggers and elicit the patterns of thought common to addiction. We don’t think your teen is about to run off and try to drink or do drugs at any moment during your trip.  Our goal is to avoid their triggers – or be ready for them – the same way we want you to avoid triggers for teens with emotional or behavioral disorders.

With that said, things like healthy food and spare or extra medication need to be considered first and foremost, of course. Things like leaving plenty of time for the unexpected can make the trip much easier – and less stressful – for everyone. We spent time on the brass tacks of your trip planning above. But what we really want you to pay attention to is item number five on our list: connection. Inevitably, there will be unstructured downtime during your trip. Take advantage of those moments to seek a connection with your teen. You never know. While you probably expect time at grandmother’s house to be the highlight of your holiday trip, that game of cards you play with your teenager, sitting on the floor of a busy airport terminal, might just be the thing that allows you to reconnect and open a new chapter in your relationship.