How travel improves children’s mental health

Whilst writing a post on the benefits of family travel we realised that there was so much more to say about one benefit in particular: the positive impact that travel has on the health and well-being of our children. We feel this is a vitally important benefit, especially in this day and age when our lives are so busy and we may not be able to give our kids the focus they need.

In recent years we’ve noticed mounting media attention regarding the increase in mental health issues, particularly in children, and – probably like most parents – are feeling a little concerned by it. According to the Mental Health Foundation, mental health problems affect about 1 in 10 children and young people; a worrying increase from 30 years ago.

The Mental Health Foundation also goes on to say ‘The emotional well-being of children is just as important as their physical health. Good mental health allows children and young people to develop the resilience to cope with whatever life throws at them and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults’.

This is ultimately what we want for our kids right??… Well that and for them to look after us in our old age..!

New parents are routinely bombarded with information about looking after the physical health and well-being of their children, but not so much about their mental health. Ed and I have tried our best to make sure our boys eat healthy foods (most of the time) and get out and exercise regularly, but when it came to their mental health we felt a little clueless.

Their healthy diet did occasionally include ice cream!
Their healthy diet did occasionally include ice cream!

Luckily for us, a good mum friend and former primary school teacher, Sarah, recognised the problem of increasing mental health issues in children and decided to retrain as a Relax Kids coach.  She now works with children, helping them to develop their emotional well-being and resilience. We were chatting with Sarah about her work recently, and got on to the topic of how travel can have a positive impact on children’s mental well-being.

And the great news is that most (if not all) of the key skills beneficial to helping keep a child’s mind healthy can be acquired through travel. Yay!

Travelling can help children (and adults alike) to become more mindful. Mindfulness is essentially focusing your attention on what is happening in the present moment. Children are naturally mindful, and we as adults can learn from their ability to investigate and be inquisitive. New experiences and places provide wonderful opportunities to remind one another of the importance of stopping and becoming aware of our surroundings, using all 5 senses; sight, sound, touch, smell, taste.

Our boys are always stopping to look at things in detail, like a tiny trail of ants marching across a pathway, prodding something unfamiliar or noticing and commenting on unfamiliar smells. These little things would have gone unnoticed by us, or perhaps we would have noticed but dismissed them without giving them much thought because we have so many other things to think about. But travelling with kids brings us back to basics; to become more mindful again.

Our boys stopping to inspect some ants at work
Our boys stopping to inspect some ants at work

One of the most important lessons children learn whilst travelling is building positive relationships with family. A strong, happy family gives them a sense of comfort and confidence. With this sense of comfort comes increased self-esteem and in turn greater brain development. In the early years we would see huge developmental leaps in our kids during our travels, whether it be their language or the ability to self-settle in a new bed in unfamiliar accommodation.

The boys getting comfortable with their new bed for the next 2 nights in Unawatuna
The boys getting comfortable with their new bed for the next 2 nights in Unawatuna

Over time, the kids just take travelling in their stride and every day is an adventure. We love how they question things like ‘Why is it so much hotter in Sri Lanka than England?’ or ‘What is the difference between a crocodile and an alligator?’ or ‘Will that lion eat me?’

Sarah introduced us to psychologist Martin Seligman’s concept of the ‘PERMA’ model. He says that there are five core elements of well-being and happiness, which can help people reach a life of fulfilment, happiness, and meaning. We’d never heard of Seligman or PERMA before, but having the model explained to us, it made a lot of sense and we felt that each of the core elements related in some way to our family travels. The five elements are:

Positive Emotion

Quite simply, it is important to try to focus on the positives. Of course we have highs and lows in our lives, but focusing on the positives throughout is key. Pleasure and enjoyment are important ‘positive emotions’. If a child attempts a complex task and completes it, they will feel a sense of joy and satisfaction. They learn perseverance which is an important life skill. Travelling presents so many opportunities to learn new skills or try new things, whether it be going on a long hike without asking to be carried or learning to swim / improving their swimming strokes.

Our 3.5 year old manage a 7km hike around Petra, Jordan without being carried
Our 3.5 year old manage a 7km hike around Petra, Jordan without being carried

Engagement

It is important to find an activity that needs our full engagement. If we enjoy doing something – we become fully immersed in it, whether it be sport, or board games, cooking or travel. Being fully immersed and engaged in something you enjoy is hugely beneficial for a healthy mind. Travel for our family ticks the box of doing something we all enjoy. We even throw sport, board games and cooking into the mix when travelling as we enjoy all of those too.

We grabbed a Monopoly set from our guest house and had a leisurely breakfast @ Bedspace Cafe in Unawatuna
We grabbed a Monopoly set from our guest house and had a leisurely breakfast @ Bedspace Cafe in Unawatuna

Relationships

Humans are social animals and we thrive with strong social interaction. Spending quality time together when travelling as a family helps strengthen relationships with the kids because they see that we enjoy spending time with them which in turn gives them great comfort. We have a much stronger bond when travelling together as we face and deal with challenges as a team such as working out the right train (and getting on it!), packing up our bags on a transit day and finding somewhere to eat that we will all enjoy.

All packed up and ready to catch our train to Galle. Getting on a packed Sri Lankan train is no mean feat and requires teamwork!
All packed up and ready to catch our train to Galle. Getting on a packed Sri Lankan train is no mean feat and requires teamwork!

Meaning

Travelling gives kids (and adults) a greater understanding of the world by giving it more meaning, which in turn helps them to identify their place in it and so making them feel comfortable in their surroundings. This is important to living a life of happiness and fulfilment.

Accomplishment

Having goals and ambition in life can help us to achieve things that can give us a sense of accomplishment. By opening ourselves up to new experiences through travel, we push ourselves to achieve new things. It may be taking that bucket list bungee jump, taking that first flight with your toddler that you have been dreading or learning the basics of a new language to help with your travels. There are so many goals you can set yourself when travelling, but make sure they are realistic and achievable.

Martin Seligman's PERMA model
Martin Seligman’s PERMA model

Nowadays we often lead such busy lives and it is easy to overlook the importance of these elements. As we have mentioned already, the daily routine can mean our attention is not as focused on the kids as it could be. Too much routine means the brain stops experiencing new things, which is vital for healthy brain development.

This is not to say that routine is not good for kids. Routines can help reduce stress because kids know where they are with a routine, and know what to expect – and let’s be honest, as parents don’t we all strive for a good sleep routine?! But occasionally breaking the routine to try something new can be highly beneficial.

We hope this post has given you food for thought and helped highlight the benefits of family travel for the health and well-being of your children.

If you want to find out more on this subject, you can contact Sarah through her Facebook page.

Happiness Classes for Kids by relaxkids.com
Happiness Classes for Kids by relaxkids.com
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