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Navigating the Needs of Nomadic Adolescents

Updated: May 6

When they were young:

The Carlson kids started traveling when they were infants, sometimes just a few days old on their first road trip. By ages 4-, 9-, and 4-months-old, they all had taken their first long flight (Hawaii, Argentina, Dominican Republic)! We’ve always traveled with our kids, way before we homeschooled or gave up our residence. It was not uncommon for us to pull the kids out of school for a few weeks each winter to get out of the cold and explore Central & South Americas, the Caribbean, and Africa. Travel is nothing new to our children.

Dominican Republic 2009, Namibia 2014, & Panama 2011

When they were younger the kids were happy to head wherever Lance and I wanted to go, which usually involved sunshine, water, and palm trees. We’d play at playgrounds, meet local families, hike through nature, go wildlife-spotting, make sandcastles, splash & play in the water, visit museums & zoos, and check out local points of interest. Super simple. Super fun! Everyone enjoyed our family explorations and complaints didn’t even seem to exist.

Entering the tween years:

Our full-time travels began in 2018 when the kids were 8, 11, and 13... which still was in the "oh, cool, we'll go there" stage. At that time our travels involved US national parks & Junior Ranger programs, visits with friends & family, a three-month excursion to New Zealand, and stops back at our former "homes" to reconnect with our communities there (Wisconsin, Kauai, & Hilton Head Island). During these years, our oldest started requesting occasional solitary time, to stay home for a day and take a break from the rest of the family. This worked out fine to give him a little space while the rest of us continued with our daily adventures.

New Mexico 2016, New Zealand 2019, Florida 2019

In 2020 we had our first solid chance at exploring Europe with the kids. We were so excited to return to this continent that we hadn’t been to in nearly 2 decades... in fact, Lance often says February 2020 was one of the best months of his life. Everyone fell in love with Spanish culture & pace of life; the kids adored the big cities we visited; we landed in Andalucía’s amazing worldschooling hub; and all of us were learning and growing and finding contentment with life... everything was falling into place for a rich & rewarding nomadic lifestyle.

Then of course covid. And a slew of canceled plans. Our travel path changed and led us into multiple rural areas, which of course only deepened the effects of our limited socialization opportunities. We entered the point where our kids needed more autonomy and more interaction with their peers… and it was smack dab in the middle of some serious social restrictions. Though we were still exploring super cool areas, at ages 10, 13, and 15, the kids were isolated, bored, lonely, and quite dissatisfied (that's the kind way to say it).

Northern Spain and Northern Ireland during summer and fall of 2020

The "oh, cool, we'll go there" stage abruptly ended and our children's travel and lifestyle desires took a swift change in course. The wanted and needed more autonomy, which is a natural part of being an adolescent. Unfortunately, for them, this transition happened during the first two years of covid when autonomy was complicated.

Needs of nomadic 12-, 15-, and 17-year-olds:

Prior to covid, everyone was on board with every destination (and the whole wide world was open, so there were very few restrictions on where we feasibly could travel)… but since covid, it’s not the case. Sometimes our destinations didn’t pan out well, sometimes it was impossible to meet local families, sometimes our kids just wanted more similarities with families who “live a normal lifestyle.” In essence, our kids are mature enough to reflect on their travel experiences and scrutinize where they want/need changes. They know what they enjoy from our travels, they know what doesn’t resonate with them, and they feel comfortable pointing out the discrepancies (again, that's the kind way to say it). Ultimately, they found their voices and raised their concerns… and we listened.

So what has changed? They want more time on their own, more involvement in the decision-making, more access to their peers both online and in person, more say in the destinations we explore, fewer rural or nature areas (including beaches, oh my heart), less waking up early, fewer museums and monuments (sorry kids)… basically they want access to choices adults make on a regular basis. This is normal. This is healthy. This is essential for their path into adulthood.

We’ve had lots of family meetings and here are some of the strategies and compromises we've put into place:

  • The kids have more time to explore on their own: hang at a plaza, grab a coffee, visit a museum with a friend, go to the mall, walk to the beach to watch the sunset, etc

  • The children occasionally choose a stay-at-home-day if they're not interested in what we're exploring or just need a break

  • We’ve made socialization a core element of our travels by running and attending pop-ups (thank you hosts!!!)

  • We purchase public transport passes and let them navigate their way to/from activities if they aren't going to stay as long as the rest of us (even in large cities, with discretion)

  • The kids get more 'screen time' to stay connected with the friends from "home" and from our travels (super neat to have a kid in Mexico talking to his friend in the UK while they wait for the buddy in Hawaii to wake up so they can all play online together)

  • 90% of our upcoming destinations have been chosen by the kids – we used to sidestep large cities, but the younger kids love them and Lance & I have been pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoy them as well (we learn a ton from our kids)

  • Our kids have lined up their own solo travel by joining other families from the worldschooling circle

  • The kids search out neighborhoods and rental properties they think will be a good fit for our family and we select our accommodations based on their ideas

  • We watch for teen-friendly activities, socialization opportunities, and are floating this idea of a worldschool prom UPDATE: We ran the prom May 5, 2023 at castle in Normandy, France with 35 teens, dressed up to their own idea of "fancy," and memories to last a lifetime (pics below) UPDATE: We are now chatting about Worldschool Prom in Eastern/Central Europe in 2025

  • The 17yo has left our family unit to move in with grandparents so he can get a job, buy a car, have access to an in-person group of friends, and attend his senior year of high school

  • We approved a nose ring for the 15yo (but not one for the other nostril yet, though she whines that her head tilts to one side because it's not balanced)

  • My middle child is now 17, is doing a majority of our travel planning, and has genuine interest in visiting museums, monuments, nature preserves, etc... especially when friends are included

  • My youngest child reminds us where the worldwide Fortnite servers exist so he can play with zero ping (we weave these into our travel plans when we can)

  • AND...we keep the conversation open, we're fortunate that our kids are willing to stick up for themselves and help us find acceptable compromises

PS When they stick up for themselves it might feel like they're bucking the system, they are! Adolescents need these experiences and, as parents, we need to find a way to let them explore their autonomy while still providing a safety net so they have a soft space to land.

Meeting other teens has been a highlight of all our pop-up experiences (Kona 2021, Madison 2022, London 2022)

So yes, navigating these changing needs of adolescence is a little different for traveling families because we're not always in the position to give more freedoms especially if we're in unfamiliar surroundings. Some traveling families feel that their kids may have additional struggles due to the fact that they're traveling... but these changes are going to happen for our children regardless of the lifestyle we lead.

The important thing to remember is the challenges our teens/tweens face are universal and a normal part of growing up. Our solutions may look a bit different from those families in a more traditional setting, but just like any other family, we will find our way through this experience together.

Endnote: One of the largest benefits of being part of the worldschooling community is we can have these dialogues with other families in similar situations. Let’s keep the conversation open – how have your travels changed as your kids mature? What struggles have you faced as parents? What other solutions have your found for your children’s needs?

PS Our 18yo finished high school and graduated in June 2023. Here is another blog I wrote if you're interested: A Worldschooler's Graduation: Thoughts when Worldschooling and Traditional School Collide


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