Is travel good or bad for children's mental health?

 Photo: Getty Images

If you think you're doing your kids a favour by taking them on an exotic holiday, it may be time to think again.

Child psychologist Oliver James has made headlines in the UK by suggesting that taking children outside their comfort zone on holiday may be harmful to their mental health.

James has insisted that consistency is key for children at all times, particularly in today's fast-paced society. "Home-based holidays are what most children really want," he told The Telegraph, adding that five to 10-year-olds are surprisingly nostalgic and develop strong attachments to places that guarantee them a good time.

"Sitting on the same donkey, eating the same ice cream at the same cafe... These familiar places and activities are the ones that forge their happiest memories," he said.

The ideal spot? "A reasonably warm, but not too hot, beach with calm waves and ice cream nearby."

James said children's pleasures remain fairly simple until they hit their teens. So while a stroll through a Moroccan souk or the streets of Calcutta might be a thrilling adventure for you, your little ones could have a very different experience. And while teens typically embrace novelty, they too can benefit from returning to a familiar spot they can consider a refuge from everyday stresses, he said.

"Children are now under so many pressures that the associations of one particular place where they know they can return and be free from those can be very powerful and positive."

But some psychologists disagree

Australasian psychologists Carrie Barber and Dr Louise Porter disagreed that far-flung holidays can be harmful to children's mental health, saying they can have many positive benefits.


Barber, director of clinical psychology training at the University of Waikato, said James' theory appears to stem from the idea that kids like routine but she has found no evidence to suggest that travel can harm them mentally.

"It's right that children like consistency, but they would have that if they're travelling with their parents and some sense of routine is maintained. Overseas holidays can be good for children, depending on what you choose to do and how you handle things. Children rely on the adults with them to provide them with the sense of security they need."

Like going to the circus or watching a scary movie, travel can be "over-stimulating" for children, she said. But learning how to deal with such situations helps them to develop confidence and resilience.

As long as parents are attuned to how their kids are feeling, there's no reason they can't enjoy holidays in unfamiliar places, she said.

"If a child is getting anxious and a parent takes the time to interpret what can seem like a chaotic environment, they will realise they can handle it."

Some children with autism or who have difficulties with change could find it harder travelling to unknown destinations, but their parents are likely to already be aware of this, she said.

Like Barber, Porter stressed that children derive a sense of security from their parents, not their location.

"To link a bit of disruption to children's routine, even if it did happen as a result of holidays, to mental health is a stretch. Children will not become mentally ill from going on holiday to anywhere," she said.

Porter, a child psychologist at Small Poppies International in Queensland, Australia, also believes travel broadens children's horizons, making them more open-minded.

"My own experience is that having children learn that they are a citizen of the world and can go anywhere because people everywhere are kind can only help in the 21st century. It breaks down stereotypes about people of other races before these have time to harden during childhood. It has to be good for the world to have more cosmopolitan thinkers."

The only real downside to taking kids overseas in her view is that they may not what to come back.

"The advantage of international travel is that children get to experience the best of the world. The disadvantage... is that children get to experience the best of the world. By which I mean that the local theme parks and zoos and galleries might seem tame in comparison.

"Potentially, children who travel internationally a lot during childhood could become jaded and not appreciative of smaller things. But again that will have to do with what sort of travelling they do."

Corinne Court, who recently took her three children on a trip to Europe, said her kids always have and always will travel with her. Her eldest daughter, now 15, backpacked with her through Vietnam aged nine and through Cambodia and Thailand aged 11.

"She has had amazing experiences and we've built wonderful memories. She has learned so much about other cultures, tried things she wouldn't normally try and seen beautiful places. I cannot see any reason why travel would be damaging to a child."

- Stuff