Plan Ahead of Time
- Know your limits. If your kids haven’t made the two-hour trip to Grandma’s house yet without screaming the whole way, this may not be the best summer for that cross-country trip to Yellowstone.
- Take a practice run. If you haven’t had a family excursion that’s more than a jaunt across town, take a short day or weekend trip to get your kids used to time in the car. It will also give them a chance to practice any special “car rules” for behavior.
- Let kids know what to expect ahead of time. Let kids know if there any special car rules or changes from the norm for a long trip. Role play these rules on the way home from school or on an errand run. Let them know about how long the trip will take, how often you’ll be stopping, what they can do to entertain themselves and how you’ll handle bathroom breaks.
- Know your route. Do some research ahead of time to scout out possible places to stop to stretch, take bathroom breaks and for meals. Have a smartphone maps app – and a road atlas in case there’s not good reception – at the ready to help you find a good place to stop when the inevitable “But I have to go now!” comes from the backseat. Another option is traveling through the night, so kids sleep the whole time. However, sleep in a car is usually not as deep and less restful, so be prepared that kids may do well on the trip but be cranky the next day.
- Be prepared. While no one wants to over-pack, there are just some extra items that can prove invaluable on the road. Think extra diapers, baby wipes for spills and messes, extra travel cups, refills for snack cups, ibuprofen or acetaminophen (for the kids and adults), motion sickness medication, insurance cards, a map or atlas, and of course, plastic sacks, towels and extra sets of clothes in case of car sickness or accidents.
- Have your kids pack their own activity bags. Give each of your kids a similarly sized tote bag or backpack and let them fill it with their favorite things. Your kids will appreciate having some control over part of the trip, and it’s one less thing for you to do to get ready. However, if you have younger children, you may want to guide their choices or limit the number of items they can put in the bag – this may not be a good time to pack that tambourine or 50 Matchbox cars!
- Don’t forget yourself. You don’t need to entertain the kids the entire trip. If you’re a passenger too, bring your own way to escape – like books or magazines. It’s also a great time to get caught up on some tasks like meal planning, paying bills, or updating the family calendar, for example.
Find Fun on the Road
- Keep them occupied. Many parents rave about books, audiobooks and DVDs – but don’t be afraid to get creative. Kids can stay busy for hours wrapping toys or creating sculptures out of aluminum foil. Pipe cleaners, Post-It notes and other basic craft supplies can hold their attention, too. Bringing a dry erase board (with washable markers, of course) reduces the need to bring sheets and sheets of paper and can be the center of lots of different activities. If you do go the DVD route or have tablets or video games, set limits on screen time, especially if this is the first long trip. Watching a screen in the car can cause headaches or tummy troubles for some kids.
- Pass the time together with games. Games can involve the whole family and get your kids involved in watching the scenery around them – things like license plate bingo or using highway signs to play the alphabet game. There are always classics like Twenty Questions or Name That Tune. Or, hand over the road atlas to the kids and let them quiz you on states and capitals.
- Never underestimate the power of snacks. Use snack cups, or use plastic storage bags to pre-portion out your kids’ favorite car-friendly snacks. Throw in some special treats for some tasty surprises.
- Speaking of surprises…hit the dollar store to find fun items that you can pull out when you feel a meltdown coming. The new sticker sheet or coloring book can provide a distraction. However, don’t give the surprises after your child has started whining or throwing a fit – this tells them that this behavior is rewarded, and they’ll start back up later when they want a new surprise.
- Get musical. Younger kids will love singing their favorite songs with the family. But if you can’t stomach the thought of 30 miles of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” or even the latest Disney theme song they love, put together your own fun, kid-safe playlist ahead of the trip that will keep everyone in the family happy. Or if they’re set on listening to their own music, consider headphones – just look for a set that has limits on how loud your kid can crank it up.
Put Your Focus on the Kids
- Let the kids have a say. Giving kids the chance to have a little bit of control can help keep crankiness at bay. Let them pick their snack, which radio station you’ll listen to or where you’ll eat. When kids can make some of their own choices, they’re less likely to engage you in a power struggle.
- Don’t forget the best way to keep kids happy on a long journey. Set aside time each day for some one-on-one attention for each of your children. If your vehicle allows, sit next to them for a stretch of the trip and read books or do puzzles. Find time at the hotel or after a lunch break. When kids get consistent positive attention, they are less likely to act out in negative ways, like hitting their brother or tossing their water bottle out the window.