How to Get Your Kids to Behave on Holiday

We’ve been travelling overseas since our kids were just a few weeks old. Whether it was road trips to Italy or flights to Australia, they’ve been travelling their entire lives. Our eldest is now old enough to leave home (how did that happen?) so these recommendations have been thoroughly tried and tested over the years with our own three kids. Here’s our tips on how to get your kids to behave on holiday.

Why do my kids “lose their shit” (on holiday)?

I recently read a facebook post from a parent who wrote

I'm never taking my kids on holiday alone again. One of them lost their shit and it ruined it entirely.

Maybe in order to understand how to prevent challenging behaviour, we first need to understand why kids “lose their shit”. In my opinion there are two reasons:

  1. Unmet need (on their part).
  2. Unrealistic expectation (from your part).

Children are not naughty or bad, their behaviour is a reflection of how they’re internalising what’s happening to them.  However we also need to be aware as parents, that HOW we parent has a causation effect with how our kids behave.

Understand How Different Parenting Styles affect Kids

There is an undisputed link between the way parents’ parent and the behaviour of the child. It is currently thought that 49% of a child’s behaviour is down to genetics and 51% environmental. Parenting style largely determines the type of environment a child is present in and therefore really affects behaviour.

In 1967, developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind, identified three initial parenting styles: authoritative, authoritarian and permissive parenting. This research was further defined in 1983 by Maccoby and Martin who expanded the parenting style ‘permissive parenting’ (also known as indulgent parenting) into two types to include neglectful parenting now remodelled as uninvolved parenting.

  • Authoritarian
  • Authoritative
  • Permissive
  • Uninvolved

The Authoritarian parenting style demands high standards, parents might be highly critical and use stern discipline and employ punishment to control children’s behaviour. They are not interested in negotiating and their focus is on blind obedience using reasons such as “Because I said so“ as justification for demands. These parents are unresponsive to their children’s (emotional) needs and are generally not nurturing.

Authoritative parents have high expectations for achievement and maturity but they are also emotionally warm and responsive. These parents set rules and enforce boundaries by having open discussion and using reasoning. They are affectionate and supportive and encourage independence. This parenting style is also known as a Democratic Parenting Style.

Permissive parents set very few rules and boundaries and they are reluctant to enforce rules. These parents are warm and indulgent but they do not like to say no or disappoint their children.

Uninvolved parents do not set firm boundaries or have high standards. They are indifferent to their children’s needs and uninvolved in their lives. These uninvolved parents tend to have mental health issues themselves or have suffered from abuse or neglect when they were kids.

The way parents’ parent greatly affects behaviour and taking that into consideration here are our tips on how to get your kids to behave on holiday.

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Age appropriate decision-making: Get your Kids to Behave on Holiday

Along time ago I spent five years studying child psychology. I walked away with a higher national diploma in childhood and youth studies and an undergraduate degree in social work. It hasn’t made parenting any easier but it has given me an in-depth comprehension in trying to understand the thought processes behind children’s behaviour.

I guess for this reason, I have always treated my children like intelligent human beings. I haven’t treated them like mini adults but certainly like young people who are capable of rational behaviour and communication if given the tools to do so.

For that reason I have always allowed them to make age appropriate decisions. It started out as very small children (less than a year old) by giving them a choice in what they wore and has increased exponentially to having a decision in where we travel, how we travel, what we do, what clothes they buy, what we eat etc.

Giving children choices and making them part of decisions empowers them. It makes them feel worthy, entrusted and valued and their behaviour will reflect this.

Set Out Your Expectations

I’m always clear about whatever it is we’re doing so they’re aware of the expectations upon them. There’s a big difference between the way they’re allowed to behave in a 10 acre park in comparison to the way they’re allowed to behave in a shopping mall. Once children understand the difference and expectations of them, it is much easier for them to ‘follow the rules’ and behave appropriately.

For example, my kids are now aged 9-16 years so they would have been part of the decision-making process of going on a road trip. I would probably remind them that the trip will last X amount of time and we’d be stopping off at X amount of places. I don’t really need to run through how I expect them to behave now because they’re aware we’ll be in the car for a long time but I always try to end what I say with a question. “Do you have any questions guys?” “Do you understand what we’ll be doing?” “Is there anything you want to ask?”. That way you’re giving the control back to them and making sure they’ve understood.

For kids over the age of 5: “Today we’re off to Geneva, the car journey will last an hour and you can play with your toys in the car whilst we’re driving. Whilst we’re in the city we’ll be visiting the museum and having a look around, we might go on the mini-train and after that we’ll get some food”. “I expect you to do some walking but you’re great at that, right?!”. Of course smaller kids will need prompts throughout the day “We’re going to go into the restaurant now. It’s nice in there and I expect you to sit still and eat nicely, ok?”

For much younger kids I would probably say “We’re going in the car for a long time. Can you choose three toys that you’d like to play with in the car?”. Younger children don’t have as long memories so the need to repeat expectations positively is going to be key.

Actions Have Consequences

I am a firm believer that kids should know about consequences. All actions have consequences. I’m not suggesting that consequences should mean threats but let kids know what will happen.

  • I’m going to be really angry if you do that because I’ve asked you not to and I’ve explained why.
  • We can only ride our bikes in this lane because if we were in the other lane, we’d hit another bike and that would cause damage and injury.
  • If you go too close to the edge, you might fall and die and we would definitely not want that!
  • We can’t cross the road yet because the man isn’t green and the traffic will hit us.
  • We don’t throw food because it’s ungrateful, wasteful and somebody will have to clean up the mess.
  • If you don’t pick up your toys off the floor somebody will trip on them and they’ll get broken.
  • If we don’t put the cover on the sandpit when it rains, the rain will wash all the sand away.
  • We can’t afford to do that this month because then we’d have no money left for food. But maybe we can save and do it next month?

Stay Away From Threats & Empty Threats

Threats are negative and in the long run they damage relationships. Two examples of threats would be:  “If you don’t do this we’re not going to do this”, “We’ll only do that if you’re good”. 

Empty threats are even worse because a child will never think you’re credible. They’ll always know your threats don’t mean anything and they won’t take you seriously or believe you. Because of that a child is unlikely to ever do as they’re asked to do.

Discipline over Punishment: How to get your Kids to Behave on Holiday

Punishment is harsh for everyone and seldom works. Punishment is punitive. It serves to humiliate and is unhelpful in behaviour modification. Punishment tends to create angry children.

Discipline is constructive and has a purpose.  Discipline would be explaining why the behaviour is not appreciated and setting out how the behaviour can be modified.  Children need discipline in their lives and it needs to be moderate and appropriate.

An example would be:

  • Stop speaking to your brother like that. Go and stand in the corner and face the wall until you’ve learned your lesson. <- Punishment
  • Let’s just stop here and talk about how we’re speaking to each other. I don’t like the hurtful way we’re speaking to each other. How can we change it? What should we say instead? Let’s practice that. <- Discipline

Another example would be:

  • Stop hitting him with that stick. In fact, just give me the stick you’re not going to have it again. <- Punishment
  • If you hit him with the stick, it’s going to really hurt him and that’s not kind. Let’s see what else we can do with the stick that won’t hurt people. <- Discipline

Good discipline happens here and now and then it’s finished. Good discipline should be constructive and then forgotten about. Don’t bring up other occasions when your kids were misbehaving, don’t drag the punishment out or carry on being bitter about it all day.

Should you take things away from your kids? The answer for me is maybe. Should you take your teens phone away from them? No probably not, but should you turn the internet off for repeated bad behaviour or remove the charging cable, then yes I think so. But here, I’m talking about repeated behaviour where you’ve repeatedly demonstrated other behaviours/models.

Be Realistic About Your Expectations

You must be realistic in your expectations of the child. This is one of the biggest reason for kids losing their shit, in my opinion.

Is what you’re asking age appropriate? Is it relevant? Does it last too long? Are there no positive rewards for their good behaviour?  Is your child exceptionally tired or ill?

Expecting a toddler to sit still and be quiet for any more than 20-30 minutes is going to be unrealistic whereas a teenager would be more than capable of sitting still for a few hours.

If You Say Something, Mean It or Shut Up

One of my pet hates is parents who say things just because they think they’re meant to. Mean what you say or just don’t bother saying it.

A parent on an airplane shushing their child or a parent in a restaurant telling their child they mustn’t climb on the table and NOT following it up is pointless. It’s done for effect not for purpose.

Don’t climb on the table because

  1. Your shoes are dirty
  2. We eat our food off there
  3. We don’t climb on furniture
  4. It might get broken or damaged
  5. You’ll knock something over

I would expect a child to be distracted, removed, disciplined and entertained in some other way so that they don’t climb on the table.

Be Consistent In Your Approach

Be consistent in your parenting approach. Set out a framework of rules and as much as possible stick to them in the short-term. All frameworks need adapting the older your child gets but a loose framework should suffice until they leave home.

Our framework is modelled loosely on morals:  respect, gratitude and being self-aware.

For example:

  1. Treat others with kindness, even if they don’t treat you the same way. It’s a great reflection of your wonderful personality.
  2. Take your shoes off at the door – this way the dirt stays in one place and we don’t have to spend ages cleaning.
  3. Be careful when you get out of the car not to hit the car next to us. We’d hate to come back to a dented car so don’t do it to others.
  4. Share and be inclusive. It’s a horrible feeling when you’re excluded.
  5. Tidy up after yourself that way others don’t have to (we’re still working on this one).
  6. Try not to retaliate when someone is nasty, it only escalates the situation (still working on this too).
  7. Apologise when we’re wrong and acknowledge that we were wrong.

We have lots of rules that fit into that model.

  1. No shouting over people
  2. No climbing on the furniture
  3. Don’t take the last of anything without asking first
  4. Put your clothes in the dirty clothes basket

We put in a lot of effort when our kids were young so now they don’t need constant reminding of the rules, in fact our eldest daughter doesn’t think we have any rules now, she thinks we have a moral code. Go figure.

The point I’m trying to make is that if you’re consistent in your approach to rules, then your kids will know them and they just need to be reinforced for holiday mode. Different place, Same rules.

Teach Mindfulness: How to get your kids to Behave on Holiday

Mindfulness isn’t just about being present it’s about kick starting an understanding of emotional intelligence. Teaching children mindfulness can be daunting but it will make them super aware of their own behaviour and interactions with others.

There is an emerging body of research indicating that mindfulness can help our children improve their abilities to pay attention, to calm down and to make better decisions.  It gives them skills to develop their awareness of inner and outer experiences, to recognise their thoughts,  to understand how emotions manifest in their bodies and to provide tools for impulse control.

If you’re really struggling with your child’s behaviour, I can also suggest practicing gratitude yourself. Before you go to bed every night, quietly think to yourself, what did my kid/s do well today? How were they good? Maybe make a note of it so you don’t forget.

I have friends with gratitude jars and it’s good to go through and share with your kid too – although not always practical to taking on the road/holiday. “Hey remember this day when we went to X and you were kind and did X“.

At the end of the day you want your child to feel confident, happy, praised, loved because those positive emotions elicit good behaviour.

Negotiate with Your Child

In the long run bribery doesn’t work so it’s really is best to learn to negotiate. Negotiating is a great skill for kids to learn and practice. It gives them the ability to make decisions and feel like they’re in control and let’s face it, we negotiate our entire lives so it’s a worthy skill.

When children feel included and listened to, amazing things happen. Negotiating is not indulgent but it is time-consuming especially with more than one child and patience is a must.

Negotiating is not a “If you do this, we’ll do this“. I would see that more as a threat to be retracted later. Negotiation for us is more like:

We don’t want to go to that museum

  • “Ok, so what would you like to do instead?” Child’s response. “We do have time to do both so how about we do that and then we go to the museum after? Does that sound fair?”
  • “We don’t have time to do both today so we’ll either need to find something else that we can do together or maybe we could do what you want to do tomorrow?”
  • “How about we visit the museum but only stay an hour? I’ll set the alarm on my phone so we know when it’s time to leave”.

Reward the Positives

This might sound obvious but how many parents miss the little things that their kids do?  If you’re present in your child’s life you’ll notice the good and nice things they do.

I don’t reward good behaviour with anything other than a smile and verbal praise.

That was a nice thing to do” or “nicely said”. Sometimes I high-five and say “nice job” or “you were really great there“. It’s an emotional investment in seeing the good in a child and I promise it has great rewards for everyone.

I am not really a fan of reward charts or marbles in a jar etc but I can see the benefits for some children. My fear would be that some parents might take away the rewards or some children would feel unmotivated by seeing how little they had achieved. I also don’t think that children learn anything from those types of incentives.

Very occasionally I will say to the kids “Hey you’ve been so well-behaved today. I know it was really hard for you and I’m grateful for that. How do you fancy stopping off and buying some ice cream on our way home?” or “I’m so impressed with how you behaved today because that wasn’t easy. Shall we go to park later?”.  This is called a ‘token reward system’ and it means you sporadically reward with no real pattern. It’s very effective in increasing positive behaviour and showing your child that you’ve noticed them and acknowledged them.

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Pick Your Battles, Win Your Fights

Not every battle is worth fighting. Not every bad behaviour is worth disciplining. Not only would it be very negative but it would be SO time-consuming.

Sometimes a gentle reminder of a raised eyebrow or a ‘ahemm’ fake cough is enough.

Every parent should decide what they’re prepared to accept and what they want to challenge. What will you definitely not tolerate?

Model Behaviour: How to get Kids to Behave on Holiday

Do as I say, not as I do? Utter Bullshit. Children learn from imitation and from copying your example.

James Baldwin said, ‘Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.’ You cannot teach children to behave in a positive way if you cannot live and follow the same rule.’

If you speak to your children with impatience and hostility they will return that model. Your child’s behaviour will more than likely be a reflection of you so if you don’t like what you see, maybe look closer within?

Teach and Acknowledge Emotions

We started out teaching our kids with very basic emotions of happy, sad, angry, scared and frustrated and have worked on from there.  Now my kids are much older and they can identify very quickly and verbalise how they’re feeling and this makes our lives much easier.

Being aware of their own emotions also helps them empathise with other’s emotions and thus behaviour. Behaviour is an outward exhibitor or an internal dilemma. If you can help your child identify and acknowledge his emotions, you can also teach that they’re not permanent, they rapidly change and how to deal with those negative emotions.

  • You look sad. Are you sad?”
  • “The words you’re using make me think you’re frustrated. Are you ok?”
  • “What’s up darling? Do you want to talk about it”

A small question or an acknowledgement of how they’re feeling is a positive investment in mental health and we all know how good it feels when we realise somebody has noticed us.

Understand Escalation

Every child has a lead up behaviour to escalation… If you can learn to identify that behaviour or patterns of behaviour, you can prevent escalation.

Nobody wants a child having a full-blown tantrum on the floor or a teenager screaming that they hate you. The more children you have, the more difficult this does become but identifying those behaviours is essential in preventing escalation.

Avoid Emotional Blackmail

Your child’s behaviour isn’t necessarily about you, so don’t make it about you. Emotional blackmail is incredibly damaging and has a long-lasting effect on children’s esteem.

What is emotional blackmail? When parents use fear, obligation and guilt to manipulate their children.

  • You’re behaving just like this to punish/irritate me.
  • Look at what you’re doing to me. What have I done to deserve this.
  • Your behaviour is making me ill. I’m a nervous wreck.
  • If you don’t do this I’ll be very sad and I’ll cry.

Stay Away from the N Word

I hate the word naughty. It’s not constructive, it’s negative, it doesn’t help promote good behaviour and it doesn’t help change behaviour. You’re far more likely to have a belligerent child, turn around and shout “NO I’M NOT!” at you.

Being positive with a child that’s behaving badly is tough. But you’re the adult and that is your role and being positive makes the situation a lot easier to manage and a lot less prone to deteriorating into WWIII.

  • I’m finding your behaviour really challenging and…. “
  • “Hey come on, let’s not behave like that let’s talk about it…”
  • “I’m sensing that you’re not happy so how can I help?

Ask For Help

If you’re really struggling with your child’s behaviour and you feel like nothing you do is working, please find help. When our cars breakdown, we find help in a mechanic. When our fridges don’t work we call an engineer. If our tooth breaks, we visit a dentist. Parenting doesn’t come easily to most people, so don’t struggle, find a professional (not a friend) to help.

I am a HUGE fan of the Triple P, Positive Parenting Program and they run classes and groups almost everywhere. It’s definitely a worthwhile investment.

If classes are not your thing, there’s a course available in print called Parent Effectiveness Training which I haven’t studied as much as Triple P but it does look good. The psychologist behind it, Thomas Gordon, also offers free parent resources for you to download.

There is also a brilliant program curently being used in the UK entitled HENRY which takes a holistic view of parenting and family. This program also has great results and they offer classes.

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How can I get my child to behave on holiday? Some tips from a family who've been travelling for 15 years.

Where will your next holiday be?

We’ve been travelling as a family for over 15 years – although I didn’t start blogging until just a few years’ ago. Where will your next holiday be? Can we inspire you?

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