What to Do When Kids Derail the Family Plans


It’s something that happens to all families. The best laid plans come unstuck. Holidays don’t deliver on their long held promise due to cranky children. The expensive day trip becomes a nightmare because someone is tired or sick. The thing that you thought would thrill your child terrifies them instead. 

When I took my son whale watching recently I envisaged us with wind in our hair, laughing and marvelling at magnificent creatures. Making memories. It didn’t happen that way.

Things slid downhill when we were encouraged to buy sea sickness tablets. I could see my son starting to pale and it had nothing to do with sickness. Only the promise of it. He paid rapt attention to the life jacket demonstration and it left him questioning the safety of the boat. As we moved outside to claim a promising spotting position at the bow of the boat, a crew member told us, “Now, you might get wet over here. Waves can come over the front. Make sure that you have something to hold onto.”

It was far too much for my risk-adverse boy. “Can we go inside, Mummy?” he pleaded. But I didn’t want to go inside. I wanted to stay outside. I wanted to feel the spray in my face and the sun against my skin. I didn’t want to miss out. I didn’t want him to miss out.

“I’ll hold you close,” I told him, hugging him to me and hoping, somewhat selfishly, that it would be enough to calm his fears. He was quiet for a while, before begging to go back inside again.  I tried reasoning. “We have paid money to be here and enjoy the whales.” He wanted to go inside. “It’s perfectly safe – I won’t let anything happen to you.” He wanted to go inside. “Sometimes it’s good to push yourself and do things you aren’t comfortable with.” He wanted to go inside. “You might miss something really special.” He wanted to go inside.

In reality, it was a very calm day. So calm that the whales themselves were too lazy to put on a show. There was no sea sickness. There were no waves as we travelled out into the open ocean. But the phantoms were very real to my son. His teeth chattering even though it was a balmy day. It was not what either of us wanted.

As we come into a season filled with holidays, adventures, flights, day-trips and family time, what can we do as parents to deal with kid-fuelled derailment? No matter what the cause? Here’s what works for me.

1. Acknowledge and respect our children’s fears and concerns. Like my son, I was a risk-adverse child and people telling me I was being silly did nothing to make the fear go away. I just stopped talking and suffered in silence. By working through fears and assessing risk together we not only support our kids, but we give them the basic tools to fight through fear in the future.

2. Talk about what to expect. In retrospect, I wished I had talked to my son about what to expect from our day out. Sometimes I forget that his understanding of the world is much narrower than my own. If I’d sat down with him beforehand and explained exactly how the day would pan out, I know he would have felt more secure.

3. Create the right conditions. Tired and hungry kids are unhappy kids. As much as possible, I try to ensure that everyone is well-rested, comfortable and well-fed before we embark on any adventure. We pack emergency snacks and drinks and extra sets of clothes in case someone gets wet (someone always gets wet). When we are flying or driving long distance with the kids, we make sure we have plenty of novel distractions to entertain them. I love the idea of giving a small present every couple of hours. Nothing fancy, but enough to keep the kids distracted.

4. Don’t build unrealistic expectations. I think it’s better to go with flow and see where we end up. Hopefully it’s in a happy place. Building fantasies that kids can crash leads to resentment, which isn’t an ideal destination.

5. Change the plans, change the tone. If everyone is completely miserable and we are getting more and more frustrated, we stop. We just stop. We then assess the situation and change our plans if necessary. Maybe it’s time to go home early. Perhaps a trip to the nearest beach is a better option than the theme park we chose. Yes, sometimes we feel like we are “wasting” money, but in reality what were we paying for when everyone was having a lousy time?

6. Don’t blame kids for being kids. Kids get whingy. Kids have limited attention spans. Kids don’t understand that the more money we spend, the better time we expect everyone to have. Kids can get a bit funny when they are outside their comfort zone. We try to make allowances for all of that.

7. Let it go. Sometimes we just have to breathe out and let it go. One day may crumble into misery for all involved, but it’s only one day. In a year’s time it will be nothing but an amusing anecdote. And there will be plenty more fun family days on the horizon.

How do you deal with kids de-railing family plans?

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Image: Robyna May