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Staying Safe While Traveling Abroad With Your Family

Common Sense Advice to Enjoying Your Family Trips

Travel safety as a family with your children involves being a bit more discrete than walking around holding a camera.
Travel safety as a family with your children should ideally be more discrete than walking around holding a camera or smartphone in comfortable tourist clothing that stands out starkly from local traditional garb.

At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, if you're traveling overseas with your family, it is often prudent to think twice before advertising that you're American during specific periods and in particular countries. I'm not saying you should necessarily lie and tell everybody you're from Toronto (although I have done that once or twice). Still, it's prudent to be sensitive to your chosen destination's political and social attitudes. Staying safe abroad means educating yourselves about your surroundings, taking commonsense precautions, and avoiding unwarranted attention. In other words, especially in recent times, leave that American flag sweatshirt in the hotel room until you're sure it won't invite jeers or worse.

Know When to Maintain a Lower Profile as an American

The American government and its international presence and policies are can be unpopular in many parts of the world, believe it or not. By extension, all Americans may be suspect. Try not to take hostile or suspicious attitudes personally. Be friendly and pleasant whenever possible and avoid overtly political discussions with strangers. Your low-key presence and demonstrated respect for locals may help soften the attitudes. Having kids along immediately makes you more approachable since being a parent is often a source of commonality. Try not to stand out as tourists when possible, and don't wave your money or electronics around, or have them protruding from khaki or sweatpants. Act as if you know where you're going, dress as much like the locals as possible. Resist the impulse to carry a camera around your neck, or take endless selfies with your smartphone, especially with selfie sticks. It's so much safer to blend in than to draw attention to yourself when traveling, not unlike it is in certain neighborhoods in any big city worldwide. Squeaky wheels abroad are more likely to get fleeced than greased.

Protect Your Kids Overseas Without Stifling Them

One of the most challenging things about traveling with younger children is observing basic safety rules without being overly protective. There are common sense ways to protect your kids without staying locked in your hotel room, afraid to let them move about. The "don't talk to strangers" rule won't work during your travels because everyone you meet will be a "stranger." Instead, teach your children to be alert to potentially dangerous or uncomfortable situations by playing the "what if" game. If you get lost, what should you do? If someone offers you food or candy, what should you do? What should you do if someone you don't know takes your hand and starts walking away with you? What should you do if someone tries to talk to you and you don't want to? Spin as many scenarios as possible and go over them frequently. If something should happen to your child and you're not around, at least you will have talked about it and given your child some idea of how to handle it.

If Your Child Gets Lost

It's a good bet, especially if you have young children, that despite your safety rules about staying close, somebody will get lost at some point during your adventure. Kids are kids, and they wander away despite your attempts at constant surveillance. During our 18-month family sabbatical in Mexico, our three-year-old was constantly wandering off. We usually spotted him quickly: the only platinum blonde head bobbing among a sea of black and brown ones. But there were a couple of times we really couldn't find him, and we were in a panic. There's almost nothing worse than realizing how powerless you are to prevent bad things from happening sometimes. And it's challenging not to imagine the worst.

Basic safety precautions include dressing young children in brightly colored clothing to help make them more visible and to allow you to describe them quickly and easily to someone else. Learn the words for articles of clothing and colors in the language of the country you're visiting. Put your kids' names, your telephone numbers, and an address in your kids' pockets in case someone gets lost. If you do lose one of your kids, try to remain calm and enlist the help of others around you. Everyone really does want to help.

Of course, it's nearly impossible to remain calm when you're child is missing, so when you do eventually find your lost son or daughter playing happily with a new puppy two doors down or inside a nearby restaurant laughing with the owner, smile and be gracious and try not to have a nervous breakdown right there. Go to a cafe, order your kids some ice cream, order a glass of wine for yourself, and do some deep breathing. Hug your kids and tell them how much you love them. Then, go over all the safety rules with them yet again.

Empower Your Children Overseas Rather Than Scaring Them

Regarding safety and older kids, it's essential to trust your instincts and teach kids to trust theirs. Sometimes, you don't know why, but you "know" that a specific situation or person doesn't feel quite right. Our bodies often sense danger before our minds can register what that danger actually is. Teach your kids to trust this feeling and to take action, even if it creates an uncomfortable or awkward situation. Your family may want to have a unique code word (ours was "banana") if you're together and someone gets a "feeling" that something isn't right. If this word is used, it means everyone gets up to leave wherever you are immediately. No questions, no discussion. Save the discussion for later when you're all feeling safe.

These conversations are important when you're traveling because your kids will encounter many unfamiliar places, people, and situations. Empower your kids with this information instead of scaring them. They may not know what something or someone is supposed to be like, and that's when these "feelings" are usually pretty accurate.

Our daughter was seven when we arrived in Mexico. Over the next year and a half, her ability to speak Spanish and her sense of independence blossomed. She had much more freedom in San Miguel than she ever did back home. She took the bus home after tutoring, ran around the neighborhood to buy tortillas, and often went to the papelaria several blocks away to buy school supplies. We wanted to help her have realistic expectations about the world and develop the tools to explore prudently without dampening her enthusiasm for exploration. So we talked about a "funny feeling" she might get in her stomach or a strange prickly sensation at her temples or behind her ears. We made it clear that she should trust her body even if she wasn't entirely sure there was a problem. She knew to loudly shout if someone was bothering her and also how to say, "Help me. This person is bothering me…" if she was in a situation where she couldn't just walk away.

We can't always protect our kids; they will eventually have to learn to negotiate their own paths. If our child did encounter a sticky situation, we wanted her to know enough to get out rather than feel paralyzed by fear, helplessness, or a lack of specific information.

Being Safe and Being Open Overseas — Finding the Balance

Being open to meeting people and new situations while protecting yourself and your family can be tricky while traveling. However, traveling safely doesn't mean walking around, fearing the worst. It comes down to educating yourselves about your travel destination, using common sense, discussing your safety concerns with your kids, and teaching everyone to be aware of their surroundings. The reality is that most families will never experience a serious safety problem while traveling. But if your family does encounter an unfortunate person or situation, talk about it and learn from it, but don't let an isolated moment of ugliness destroy your family's remarkable adventure.

More by Elisa Bernick
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Traveling with Children: Why and How
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