It was a five-week dream getaway: a week each in London, Paris and New York City, plus two stops in China. But for Mississauga, Ont., mom Asil, it sounded more like a nightmare. That’s because the trip was for her then 16-year-old son, Aiden.
The teen was taking part in an educational trip organized by Mei International Academy, which specializes in taking students overseas to learn on location. In Jordan’s case, he was taking a business course and visiting, among other venues, stock exchanges all over the world. “Initially, I was excited and thought this would be a wonderful experience for him,” recalls Asil. “But I was also really frightened—he’s my only child—so I wasn’t sure what to do.”
Asil’s dilemma is becoming more common among parents of 13- to 16-year-olds. Whether it’s a school trip, a short-term overseas volunteer position or even a vacation to see friends or relatives, young teens have increasing opportunities to travel far from home—without mom or dad. But how can you ensure that both you and your child are ready for his solo sojourn?
Contrary to what you might think, how far your child is travelling isn’t the biggest concern, says Peter Marshall, a psychologist based in Barrie, Ont., and author of Now I Know Why Tigers Eat Their Young: Surviving a New Generation of Teenagers (Whitecap Books). “The most important thing is the level of support the young person is going to feel.”
A school trip that includes your teen’s good friends is a great way to start this kind of travel. Vancouver-based parenting speaker and author Kathy Lynn suggests finding out which other students are participating, the supervising teachers’ levels of experience and the ratio of adults to teens. “You’d be looking for one teacher for every eight students,” she says.
Also key is your child’s temperament. If your teen is easily influenced, find out the dominant personalities in the group and make sure he is comfortable with them; you don’t want him to feel pressured to misbehave or experiment with risky behaviours.
Consider your teen’s personality as well. “A shy child on the periphery of a social group is not in a good position for that kind of trip,” says Marshall, adding that, along with not feeling like he fits in, he may be nervous about new experiences on unfamiliar turf. If your teen is on the introverted side, explore whether an older student could be recruited to mentor him. And, if possible, test the travel waters first with weekend trips to family friends or relatives in nearby cities or towns.
If you decide to go ahead with the trip, Marshall suggests speaking with the organizers to find out which kids are sharing rooms and which adults are the chaperones—but do this quietly on your own so you don’t embarrass your child.
If your teen is on the fence about whether he’s ready for this type of trip, try talking it through. Think back to situations where you had to push him out of his comfort zone to try something new or difficult. How did that work out?
If he’s truly hesitant, it’s probably best to wait another year. But if he really just needs some encouragement to give travel a try, Marshall says go for it: “This kind of experience can be very productive for a child.”
It certainly was for Asil’s son, now 20. “He came back more mature and more appreciative of his home life,” she says. “I know he’s going to look back one day and say, ‘Wow, I did all this at 16 and it was a great experience.’”
Sending your teen to fly on his own to meet up with friends or relatives? Before you head to the airport, Vancouver parenting speaker Kathy Lynn advises the following:
1. Check the airline’s unaccompanied-minor policies. “The rules are all over the map,” says Lynn. Some will escort your child on and off the plane; others won’t.
2. Try to have your teen on a direct flight.
3. Make sure your child has a cellphone, earbuds, something to read, cash and a credit card. “Some flights charge for food and only take credit cards, and teens get hungry.”
4. Ensure someone is meeting your teen at the other side and that your child has that person’s cellphone number.
Freelance writer Jacqueline Kovacs is an Aurora, Ont., mom of three who believes travel is the ultimate learning experience.