By Carla Olivo, USMC spouse

You may be familiar with the term PCS: Perfect Chaos & Stress. The person who came up with that probably experienced a military move with a toddler. Whether you are on your own or have your spouse with you, it may not matter. A two-year-old in a tantrum can neutralize a herd of adults in a matter of minutes. Here are some ideas for helping your littlest military brats cope with a PCS.

Take Your Time

Rushing around can even put adults on edge. Why set an unrealistic, ambitious travel schedule which will stress the entire family? You know your own child. If they do well riding in a car for a good stretch, then, by all means, drive as far and as long as you can.

But if you know your kids start to get antsy and pick fights with each other after two to three hours, schedule regular breaks. Get everyone out of the car to stretch their legs and use the restroom. Provide a surprise snack or activity. My kids loved bubbles when they were toddlers, so we often took ten minutes for bubble play at the rest stop. You can keep a good pace by trading spots as one parent plays bubbles while the other uses the restroom. If you can take your time, do it. Chances are your household goods will not arrive on time anyway!

Be Flexible with your Military Brats

Many mil-spouses are planners. We map out our trip; plan stops, meals, and overnight accommodations. And then Murphy arrives! You blow a tire. The interstate jams. You drive directly into bad weather. Your toddler in diapers has a blowout. It happens. Hopefully not all in the same trip!

Be flexible and try to take it all in stride. I know it’s easier said than done, especially after the stress of having your life packed into boxes. But the little ones will take their cues from you and if you lose it, so will they. So chill and think about that glass of wine you can have later at the hotel!

If projectile vomiting has made further travel impossible, throw the plan away and head for the nearest hotel to stop for the night. As Scarlet once said, “Tomorrow is another day!”

Turn the Trip into a Mini Vacation

An itchy toddler can make a long trip pure hell for everyone in the car. With a little prior planning, you can avoid suffering through a toddler trapped in a car seat with too much energy. Find all those places along your route where your military brats can get out and really play. Many restaurants have playgrounds or a game area for kids. Parks and playgrounds are great places to let kids burn energy.

When stopping overnight, book a hotel with an indoor swimming pool. If you really have time to spare, plan a side trip to the local zoo or children’s museum. Plan an overnight stop with friends along your route. Having other kids to play with for a brief bit helps relieve the tension which can build between siblings stuck on a long road trip. It’s also nice to stay in someone’s home rather than a hotel room, and cheaper too!

Have Christmas in July

Ok, maybe not Christmas and perhaps it’s still June, but you get the idea. Stock up on small, inexpensive toys which you can bring out to distract a bored toddler. If you are traveling by plane, small hand-held gadgets are easy to carry on as are DVD players with their favorite movie.

Car rides are easier because you actually have room to play board games while on the road with slightly older kids. I usually pick up a few games at the local consignment store before we PCS. A new game can hold their attention for quite a while. I Spy and other seeking games such as finding license plates from all fifty states or naming the artist for songs on the radio are great for older kids.

Picture books can keep the attention of a toddler for long periods in a car seat. A new-to-them doll or stuffed animal can also help the time pass. Divvy out toys and snacks one at a time to keep the surprises coming!

Avoid a lot of Naps on a Road Trip with a Toddler

Yes, when the little ones drift off to sleep, it is nice! What parent doesn’t love a few quiet, peaceful hours on the road? To not have to hear “Are we there yet?” for the hundredth time is a small victory. But beware! Too much napping could result in an energetic toddler right at the exact wrong moment!

You’ve just checked into the hotel after a full day of driving, and all you and your spouse want to do is relax and get a little shut-eye. And lo and behold, you have a bright-eyed toddler ready to go! Nooo! Space out those naps in the car and have a cutoff time where, from that point on, you keep the kids awake. It is definitely more work, keeping kids busy while they are strapped into a car seat. But later in the day, when all you want to do is relax rather than entertain, it will be worth it.

Don’t Be so Hard on Yourself or Your Spouse

My husband and I never bicker as much as we do when we are trapped with the kids on a long car ride. So take a breath, count to ten, do whatever it takes to avoid a parental meltdown. A road trip following the often painful, stressful PCS process can just amplify emotions both for the adults and the kids. Toddlers stuck in a car seat for hours on end will probably be cranky. Resign yourself to the fact that there will be a few tears and some whining on a long trip. It may not be just the littles who experience a tantrum. Emotions run high for teenagers who’ve just left all their friends. Mil-spouses having to recreate family life in a strange, unknown location have shed a few tears on the road. I’ve sought refuge in a hotel bathroom on occasion when I just couldn’t stand one more minute of the tension.

Military life is full of ups and downs. No matter how well you plan, there will be hurdles to get through, sometimes with everyone on edge. A road trip with a toddler is ambitious to say the least. Take a breath. Allow for extra time. Be willing to ditch your carefully made plans. New adventures await! After a good night’s sleep, everyone starts fresh and tomorrow is indeed another, brand new day.

Carla Olivo has garnered numerous TV industry awards including the Associated Press award for Spot News Reporting, News Writing, and Documentary Reporting. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, a retired USMC Lt. Colonel and their two children.
Carla Olivo

PCSgrades Director of Strategic Communications