So your teenager has the travel bug. Maybe they want to travel abroad to study, develop a second language, or volunteer with a service organization. These excursions are becoming incredibly popular with teens that want to spread their wings of independence and see the world on their own.
“I just found it was such an eye opening experience. You learn so much, not just about the language and the culture, but also about yourself,” says Tirzah Kelman, a 16-year-old Calgary student. “You are forced to be so dependent on yourself and trust yourself,” she says, about a Spanish exchange program she took last year with the Alberta Teacher’s Association.
“Depending on the length of stay, these trips typically cost between $2,000 and $5,000. The decision to send your child on an international excursion isn’t one to take lightly,” says John Foster, a program director with SPI Abroad.
And as a parent, you may be overcome with worry: ‘What if she got separated from the group? What if she got sick or lost her passport, what then?’ “It’s totally normal for parents to have these feelings,” says Foster. “Reputable tour companies allow many opportunities for pre-departure questions and they’ll even connect you with other parents and kids who’ve been through the program.”
Foster also says there is no ideal personality for traveling abroad - sometimes quiet and shy kids will come out of their shell, while extroverts and risk-takers can get themselves into trouble.
Here are some good ways to evaluate your child’s readiness for international travel before you bid them “Bon Voyage!”
Assess their commitment. If your teen approaches you about the idea of traveling abroad on their own, it’s a good indicator that they have a strong interest in such an adventure. If this is your idea and you have to push or sell the trip to them, it’s best to wait until they’re ready. According to parenting expert Julie Freedman-Smith, “It’s also a good idea to have your child be financially committed to the trip in some way - perhaps they can earn money to put toward the cost of the trip and/or spending money. If they do the work, then you know they’re committed and realize they can’t just come home on a whim.”
Their track record of trust and responsibility. Are they showing personal responsibility here at home when it comes to decision-making, behavior, keeping track of their belongings, and being respectful to adults? Will they be able to live under someone else’s roof and follow someone else’s rules? Most travel programs have a contract or code of conduct that must be signed by both teens and parents. Go over this with your teen, ensuring they fully understand policies around drugs, alcohol, and curfews. Breaking this code of conduct is a serious offence and they could be sent home. Discuss with your teen the consequences if that should happen.
History of homesickness. How much time has your teen spent away from home? Are they comfortable with sleepovers or have they attended an overnight camp before? This can give you some indication of whether they are prone to homesickness. According to Freedman-Smith, you should not be sending your teen out of the country if they haven’t passed these milestones at home yet. Consider doing ‘dry runs’ closer to home first: a weekend away in Edmonton, Scouts trip or sports team travel, for example.
Natural curiosity and positive attitude. When she traveled to Spain, Kelman had a hard time adjusting to the eating schedule. Her biggest meal of the day was at 2:30pm and supper was a light snack at 10pm. Is your teen open-minded and willing to accept a new culture and different foods, and are they open to new experiences? Are they are able to overcome difficult situations and work through solutions without getting angry and frustrated? International travel can be fun and exciting, but it can also be trying at times and, no doubt, there will be bumps along the way. A teen’s ability to deal with these challenges can improve their experience.
Academic motivation. If your teen is attending an academic or language program abroad, it’s wise to make sure they will enjoy the ‘school’ environment. Are they motivated to improve? Do they have a genuine interest in the subject matter? If the answer is no, they will likely be bored and unhappy. Encourage them to use their second language skills now, even if they aren’t perfect.
Level of support and safety. Traveling with friends, classmates, and other people that your teen is familiar with can certainly enhance the experience and provide comfort. Go over personal safety rules with your teen, and make sure they know who is a ‘safe’ person they can contact if they get into an uncomfortable situation. Ensure they have numbers of tour/school officials programmed into their phone. Most reputable tour companies have program directors on the ground in the host city and are available to your teen should they need help.
Communication with home. This may be a challenging one for many parents! “We actually discourage constant communication with home because it does breed homesickness and detracts from the immersion experience,” says Foster. Get your teen an international SIM card to keep costs down and agree with them on how often you will communicate. But don’t ‘helicopter’ from afar - if they’re mature enough to go on this trip without you, then step back and let them enjoy it!
As for Tirzah Kelman, she had the trip of a lifetime in Spain and is already dreaming about her next travel destination. “I loved it, it was so much fun. Meeting different people and getting to see such a different way of life was super cool!”
Michelle is a freelance writer based in Calgary, and a mom of three. She writes for numerous publications, and explores the challenges of parenting tweens and teens on her personal blog, michelleschurman.com.
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