Staying Safe While Traveling Abroad With Your Family
By Elisa Bernick
At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, if you’re traveling overseas with your family, you may want to think twice before advertising the fact that you’re Americans. I’m not saying you should necessarily lie and tell everybody you're from Toronto (although I have done that once or twice), but it’s prudent to be sensitive to the political and social attitudes of your chosen destination. Staying safe abroad means educating yourselves about your surroundings, taking commonsense precautions, and avoiding unwarranted attention. In other words, leave that American flag sweatshirt in the hotel room until you’re sure it won’t invite jeers or worse.
Maintain a Low Profile
The American government and its international presence and policies are extremely unpopular in many parts of the world. By extension, all Americans are suspect. Try not to take hostile or suspicious attitudes personally. Be friendly and pleasant whenever possible and avoid overtly political discussions with strangers. Perhaps your low-key presence will go some way to softening the attitudes of those around you. Having kids along immediately makes you more approachable since being a parent gives you something in common. Try not to look like tourists and don’t wave your money around. Act as if you know where you’re going, dress as much like the locals as possible, and resist the impulse to carry a camera slung around your neck. When you’re traveling, it’s much safer to blend in rather than to draw attention to yourselves. Squeaky wheels abroad are more likely to get fleeced, than greased.
Protect Your Kids Without Stifling Them
One of the toughest things about traveling with younger children is observing basic safety rules without being overly protective. There are commonsense 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? 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, what should you do? 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 is going to 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 easily: 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 beside ourselves with panic. There’s almost nothing worse than realizing how ultimately powerless you are to prevent bad things from happening sometimes. And it’s very difficult 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 number, and an address in your kids’ pocket in case someone gets lost. In the event that 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. And then go over all the safety rules with them yet again.
Empower Your Children Rather Than Scaring Them
Regarding safety and older kids, it’s important to trust your own instincts and to teach kids to trust theirs. Sometimes you don’t know why, but you just “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 special 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 are going to be encountering a lot of 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 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 alone after tutoring, she ran around the neighborhood to buy tortillas, and she often went alone to the papelaria several blocks away to buy school supplies. We wanted to help her have realistic expectations about the world and to 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 completely sure there was a problem. She knew to shout loudly 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 and they’re going to eventually have to learn to negotiate their own paths through the world. 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—Finding the Balance
Being open to meeting people and new situations while also being protective of 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 commonsense, 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, learn from it, but don’t let an isolated moment of ugliness destroy your family’s remarkable adventure.
Elisa Bernick is the author of the The Family Sabbatical Handbook: The Budget Guide to Living Abroad With Your Children, a detailed nuts and bolts guide about the how's and why's of living abroad with your children for an extended period. Topics include financing the adventure, schooling, language immersion vs. bilingual education, health care abroad, legal concerns, homesickness, choosing a location and much more. The book includes interviews with 15 other families experiencing similar adventures in Europe, China, and South and Central America. An indispensable guide.
Elisa is an award-winning broadcast journalist and writer. Her work has appeared on NPR, PBS, broadcast and cable television networks, and in Simple Living, Parents Magazine, and Minnesota Parent among other publications.