Four Meltdown Triggers To Consider When Planning A Trip With Young Children

Is it more difficult to parent children away from home? Yes and no – but since good news never made headlines, let’s focus on the “yes”.

Four meltdown triggers to consider when planning your next family holiday.

When you’re away from home, rules can be different – which is a big deal to a kid who just spent ages learning the first set. Even where rules are the same, the shiny new context will invite them to forget and/or experiment all over again. And that’s before you wear everyone down by subjecting them to the rigors of the journey.

We parent one laid-back traveller, who rolls cheerfully with the punches, and another who seems to regard travel in much the same way as I regard a rich mud cake – he wants it, he craves it, but any more than an itty, bitty slice and he starts feeling icky. We’ve had to develop a very careful slicing technique, as it were. We’ve learned to craft our itineraries with an eye to these four meltdown triggers – and the following three solutions.

The Four Meltdown Triggers We Watch Out For When Travel Planning

1. Basic physical discomforts – as happens when you’re out of routine with eating, sleeping and going to the toilet (which is particularly a problem if you are going to be changing time zones) or if you fail to make enough time for these because of an overly hectic schedule, general holiday distractions, or unexpected changes of plan.

Minor physical discomforts also occur if you’re used to a hot climate and you’re travelling somewhere cold, if your feet and muscles are protesting against an unusual type or level of activity, or if you’re wearing clothing you’re not used to (especially new shoes or scratchy scarves).

2. Lack of rest, meaning both loss of sleep and excess stimulation.
How much is too much varies according to what each child finds the most tiring or stressful – some kids wear out quickly with rapid-fire or unpredictable transitions, others with social interaction others with lack of social interaction, some with visual stimulation or too many strange noises. Climbing a mountain can be less tiring to a rambunctious three-year-old than sitting still in a coffee shop. I’ve seen it happen.

Triggers one and two are the main triggers for babies in arms. 

Read more about tackling overstimulation (without resorting to sensory deprivation) in young travellers.

3. Boredom or overly restricted play.
Almost the opposite of the above, and just as much of a danger. This is what happens on journeys from place to place (especially by plane or bus), at museums of little interest to the child in question, in small hotel rooms with too many breakables, at the third trip to a cafe or restaurant in a single day, or at the souvenir shop.

This is a big trigger for crawlers and young toddlers. Read more about combatting boredom and restricted play, especially in kids of this age group.

4. Differences in expectations. 
This can mean variations in house rules, or differences in cause and effect. Which is to say, it might be a variation from “shoes allowed everywhere” to “shoes must be removed at door”, or a variation from “you speak, people listen and respond” to “you speak, people blink uncomprehendingly” (or “you push button, toilet flushes” to “you pull chain, toilet flushes”). It’s amazing what throws some kids off.

This is a major trigger for toddlers. Here’s what we’ve learned about helping kids manage differences in expectations.

Now we’ve divided things up like that, you can probably already see how some of these might affect your family more than they do mine, and vice versa. I know kids, for example, who will happily sit at desks and do fine motor activities, such as drawing or making crafts, for quite a while straight. These parents need not fear plane or bus trips like I do.

On the other hand, all of these triggers are bound to affect your party to some extent. There’s a sense in which we are all unique like snowflakes, and another sense in which every one-year-old is more or less the same.

The Four Meltdown Triggers and Parents

It’s not just the one-year-olds we need to worry about, of course. It’s no good drafting an itinerary that’s perfect itinerary for the kids if it’s going to make the adults grumpy.

Personally, I find it particularly hard to cope if I’m hungry or tired, and if I can’t cope, everyone suffers (ask my husband). On the other hand, I can put up with other physical discomforts, such as being too hot or too cold, relatively well (although, all other things being equal, I’d prefer to be neither). And A? Can’t be bored. He’s intolerable. Elderly or infirm members of the group have their own unique take on these triggers.

Generating Solutions

For each trigger, I see three types of solution:

1. Avoid the trigger

The easiest and most obvious type of trigger to avoid is basic physical discomfort. Most travellers will try to make sure everyone is dressed appropriately, but it’s harder when you’re on holidays (especially with young kids) to do things like find acceptable food and drink, get everyone to the toilet when they need it, or avoid walking too far (especially if you get lost).

Devices such as a generous stash of sustaining snacks, some creative toilet thinking, and a decent carrier work wonders. On a broader level, it might be a good idea to cut that historical side trip altogether, or substitute an overnight train journey for a trip by air. In some cases, we have decided to split up, so that certain family members avoid the boredom, restrictions, visual and auditory stimulation, and social interaction of souvenir shopping, leaving other family members to enjoy them to their heart’s content. (No names.)

2. Reduce the frequency of the trigger

Take dining out as an example. There’s no way our eldest can put up with the prolonged waiting and exacting standards of restaurant dining three or more times a day on top of everything else we’re throwing at him during a holiday. He can do it once. For the other meals, we either self-cater or picnic, or both.

It’s easy to put something together for breakfast in the hotel room whilst getting everyone ready, and grab some fresh fruit and bakery items, or find some street food to eat off a stick, no matter what kind of accommodation we’re living in. A self-catering apartment with a kitchen makes it all the easier. We wouldn’t want to avoid restaurant dining altogether, however, because we think enjoying the local culinary scene is half the fun, but once a day is a compromise everyone can cope with.

We can reduce the frequency of certain other triggers by using repetitive itineraries and extended activities (reduces novelty and transitions), seeking out quiet, natural settings even in the middle of cities (reduces exposure to stimulation and crowds), or seeking out free-play areas or child-led activities (reduces exposure to overly restricted play).

3. Alleviate the effects of the trigger

Some things just have to be done. In these cases, we have to try hard to make sure doing them doesn’t turn into a major problem. We can prepare kids for differences in rules ahead of time (works best from 3 or 4+), and create a series of picture-reminders to be reviewed on the iPhone each morning (works from about eighteen months).

We can acclimmatise them gently. We can generate holiday routines, and talk them patiently through each day’s options or plans, giving as much time as possible for any changes. We can let them hold on to familiar things – cuddle toys, or western dietary choices – and allow them to be extra clingy – which, for our family, includes sharing beds.

We can provide entertainment in the form of toys or games, put a child into the carrier or stroller (a one-way see-through mesh over the front of the stroller can be a big bonus here), or provide sunglasses and earphones to reduce the sensory assault.

We can bribe them. There – I said it. Bribe them.

But here’s the thing with taking option three: it’s pretty exhausting (only slightly less exhausting than option four – mounting an emergency response upon the failure of options one through three). Planning an itinerary which avoids or reduces the frequency of the trigger is usually more relaxing, and it’s nice to not push things too far.

Heaven knows – as do a number of casual passers-by who have witnessed us at inopportune moments on our trips – that we don’t always manage to avoid meltdowns, and if you have anything to add I beg you to feel not so much free as actually obliged, for my sake as much as anybody else’s.

On the whole, though, while we can vouch for the fact that some kids are easier to travel with than others, it’d be a shame to go through life avoiding our metaphorical mud cake when there’s so much you can enjoy with the right slicing.


Tricks we use when behaviour goes wrong on holiday.

More tips for travelling with young children.

Some kids hold their mud cake a little better than others - on Pulau Sibu.

Some kids hold their mud cake a little better than others.


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