When is it time to let your teens travel on their own?
BY SANDRA GONSALVES
Toronto mom, Michele Presse, was caught off-guard when her 14-year-old son, Cole, said he wanted to travel alone to California. As much as she trusted him, she worried about what could go wrong on a solo trip like this—things like him getting injured, lost or mugged.
Presse and her husband had allowed Cole to go on supervised school trips to Quebec, Ottawa and New York. They were all great successes. This trip, however, was more nerve-wracking. For the first time, Cole would be travelling unsupervised to an unfamiliar airport before catching a bus to the home of one of his friends. After much discussion, and a bit of negotiating, Presse agreed to let her son go, but he had to promise to communicate with her often.
Letting your teen hit the road solo can be scary. But if your teen is pleading with you to let her travel on her own, here are some tips to keep her safe while offering you some peace of mind.
IS YOUR TEEN READY TO TRAVEL SOLO?
Toronto-based parenting expert, Jennifer Kolari, says kids who have a good relationship with their parents are more likely to be ready to take their first unaccompanied steps on a plane.
Ironically, she uses the analogy of taking a first flight to describe the process of letting go. “When they are 11 or 12, you are flying the plane and they are sitting beside you and watching you. As they get older, you gradually hand them the controls until one day you take your spot in the control tower and allow them to fly solo, knowing that you are there if they need you,” Kolari says.
That said, there are kids who can manage a solo trip at 16 and others who can barely function at 20. As we all know, kids’ personalities and organizational skills vary. According to Kolari, the safest age to send your teenager into the world alone would be about 17 or 18—the year before they head off to university.
TRUST AND CONFIDENCE
Allowing your kid to travel alone will boost his feelings of independence and increase his abilities to be responsible. In order to let go of him, however, there has to be a good amount of trust in your relationship. If your son is a compulsive liar, you may want to rethink the situation.
If he is old enough to travel, your teen should be beyond consequences, says Kolari. Outlining the penalties of his mistakes (such as drinking, spending too much money, etc.) could lead to trouble when he heads off to university. If he hasn’t been gradually exposed to freedom and given the opportunity to make good choices on his own, how can you expect him to excel at doing so?
“You want [your kids] to intrinsically change their behaviour because it’s the right thing to do,” says Kolari. If he messes up, tell him you are disappointed in him. This way, you put the responsibility of his actions back on him and give him the chance to reflect on it.
Have your teen do research before she heads off, suggests Kolari. Let her Google and draft a list of the safest spots in the town where she’s visiting.
Download a language app and read up on the culture so she knows what to expect. Another must: have her memorize emergency numbers, as 911 won’t work overseas.
Teenagers have a tendency to have a bright and, often times, unrealistic view of situations, so providing them with ugly scenarios (i.e. having a stranger offer them a ride or steal their luggage) and suggesting how they can fix them is a good safety approach.
ALCOHOL AND DRUG USE
Face it, your teen is likely going to have a drink (or many) when he’s away. It’s up to you to warn him about the dangers of drinking too much so you can minimize the consequences. Tell him to make intelligent decisions if he decides to drink—like delegating a buddy who agrees not to drink and look out for him. Also, remind him that if he does drink to do so responsibly, on a full stomach, to know his limits and to never leave his drink unattended.
Using drugs is another risk teens face when travelling without your supervision. It’s essential to warn your child about the dangers of drug use to his health and overall well-being. Getting caught with drugs in some countries can result in the death penalty. According to Harm Reduction International, a drug- focused NGO, there are 32 countries that currently impose the death penalty for drug smuggling.
“There is very little the Canadian government can do if you are caught with drugs overseas. You need to be very strict about this discussion with your kids before they go,” says Kolari.
Asking your kid to contact you daily isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it may help you sleep a bit better at night. Kolari suggests a quick text, selfie or even an emoticon (hopefully not a beer glass) to prove that she’s safe and ease your worries.
Kolari also recommends getting the phone numbers of your kid’s travelling buddies as well as the hotel or organization arranging the trip. If they miss a day of getting in touch, try not to freak out or call the authorities. The whole purpose of this adventure is to help kids become more independent and responsible. Go easy on them when you hear from them the next day, but be sure to tell them that you were worried. If you haven’t heard from them in 24 hours, it may be time to do some investigating.
Despite Presse’s worries about allowing Cole to travel on his own, she says her son returned to Toronto happy, tanned, more mature and far more responsible than he was before he left. For Cole, the chance to travel alone sent him on a journey to independence.
STILL NOT SURE ABOUT SENDING YOUR TEEN TO CANCUN FOR A WEEKLONG PARTY?
Why not choose a destination where your teen can build self-esteem and character, boost confidence and give back to the local or global community instead of playing beer pong by the pool?
“Our kids suffer from ‘affluenza’ (overexposure to wealth and privilege) so it’s good for them to see how lucky they are,” Kolari says, as she advises parents to send their teens on trips that enhance leadership skills, empathy and compassion.
If your teen is interested in the environment and preservation, the organization seaturtles.org offers specialized tours to assist in leatherback turtle conservation or green turtle research in Costa Rica.
For more intense volunteer opportunities, teens can choose from faith-based excursions to the Caribbean and Asia at theroadlesstraveled.com where they can replant coral reefs in Bonaire or build orphanages in the Himalayas or visit metowe.com for trips to Ecuador where they can explore the culture of indigenous peoples, learn about women’s rights, help communities build essential facilities or visit the Amazon rainforest to examine plant medicines.
No matter where they go, encourage your teen to keep a journal and take lots of photos because trips like these can create life-changing memories.