Our First Time RVing with a Teenager

Mom and daughter laughing while eating s'mores.

Nine months ago, my husband Roland and I made the decision to take our family on the road. Ever since, we’ve been living full-time in our Jayco Jay Flight RV with our two daughters, Ariel, age 13, and Victory, age 5, along with our pup Noel. Transitioning to our 27-foot home has been an amazing journey for us. 

But traveling with a teenager is harder than we initially thought. Roland and I had been planning this family dream for more than eight years, putting RVs on our dream boards, researching RV types and van conversions, overlanding vehicles and the freedom lifestyle. We had dreams of homeschooling our girls next to flowing rivers, sitting on the edge of cliffs to watch the sunset, and finding all the coolest towns from coast to coast. We knew in our hearts that our kids would be just as excited as we were. What kid doesn’t want to get a hands-on education on the beach while their peers are stuck in a classroom? And while our youngest daughter was ecstatic about all the adventures to be had, our oldest daughter was having a harder time getting used to the idea. 

Ariel wanted to feel like she had some kind of control over her life, which we hadn’t given her much space to do. Not because we didn’t care, but because as grown adults who had experienced the daily grind for too long, we’d forgotten how the perspective of a teenager can be vastly different than that of a grownup. In her mind, she was never going to see her friends again, and traveling with her family was “sooooo lame.” All Roland and I could see was what an incredible experience we would share as a family. Add in a dash of healthy teenage rebellion and attitude, and our sweet teenage daughter was suddenly saying hurtful words to us that were totally out of character for her. 

Knowing what we know now, if I could go back, I would have spent more time considering her heart and need for stability, trying to understand her point of view better. But in that moment, our immediate thoughts were to discipline her for her hurtful words and ground her. She absolutely needed some tough love and a guiding hand, but taking away her means of communicating with her friends just made the situation even harder than they had been. What she truly needed from us was understanding, grace, mercy and a whole lot of reassurance. 

At a time in a young person’s life when social relationships are taking center stage, all Ariel wanted was to see her best friends, and laugh and talk with them like she would at home. She wasn’t interested in the hiking adventures, new restaurants, cliff jumping and offbeat attractions her parents were planning on exposing her to. She felt like her feelings were going unrecognized and ignored––which I think is such a common dynamic between parents and teen kids. 

So Ariel and I sat down to talk about what we could’ve done to help her transition a little easier. Together, we came up with five tips for parents, and five tips for teens about the best way to go on RV trips with young adults.  

Tips for Parents:

  1. Involve your teen in the research. Allow them to get involved in the fun parts, like making the list of all the places, parks and restaurants you want to visit. This helps teens get excited about all the places they want to see and gives them a voice in family travel plans. Take their focus of what they can’t control, and give them something they can. Teens crave control over some part of their world. Today, we’re in the Everglades because it was at the top of Ariel’s list.

  2. Build a dream board! Whatever you call them––vision boards, collages––this is such a fun group activity. Find pictures of the kinds of places you want to go and print them or cut them out of magazines. Then paste them onto a board so your family has a visual you can share of all the types of experiences that are important to you. Hang it up where your teen can see it every day. It will serve as a constant reminder of how fun and awesome your adventure is going to be. On our dream board, Ariel put up pictures of Lake Tahoe, the Florida Everglades and Italy.

  3. Level set expectations. This may not be as easy as you thought it would be, and that’s okay! Have patience and trust that it will all come together as it should. Even if your teenager is grumpy or aloof, they can still be making memories they’ll cherish for years to come, they just don’t always show it. Do your best and keep a cool head. As the parent, it can be difficult not to get too frustrated when your teen acts out or gives you push back, but you’ve got this.

  4. Encourage creativity. Having a creative outlet is so important for teenagers, who often have big feelings that can feel overwhelming. Encourage your teen to find their unique creative outlet, whatever it is. Ariel loves to sing and play the guitar, and most recently, she’s been writing. She’s actually co-authoring a book that will be published in March. Travel often gives us the time and the space to reveal talents we have that we may have overlooked, and it’s the perfect time for teens to indulge their self-expression. 

  5. Double up on understanding. Being a teen is already hard, even before uprooting their world to travel. Extend an extra dose of grace to them if they struggle with processing it at first. So many families stop RVing when their kids are teenagers, but remind yourself that it’s okay if they don’t immediately embrace your trips together. We have found that a “My way or the highway” approach to parenting rarely gets us the desired result. It seems to be a recipe for teen rebellion. Give them space to cool down when they’re emotional, help them process and anticipate how much fun you’re going to have together and encourage them to pursue their creative outlet. All feelings, good or bad, pass eventually, and then you can get back to the business of dreaming big together.

A teenage girl practicing the guitar.

Ariel:

As a teen who travels full-time with my mom, dad, baby sister and our dog, I know how hard it can be to make the adjustment to spending so much time in a small space with family. Here are my top five magic tips that helped me the most, especially in the first few months of life on the road. 

Tips for Teenagers:

  1. Check your mindset. Your mind and emotions are powerful things. When you first find out you’re leaving your friends behind to travel with your family, you might start to see your parents as the enemy. (I know I did.) But what they really want is to give you a chance to experience more of life. Pushing them away doesn’t make them hear you any clearer. Try to empathize with where they’re coming from. Sit down and talk to them about your feelings. Sit down with a journal and write out your thoughts and emotions. It will help you process your frustrations, as well as keep a record of the good days you do have, and all the adventures you encounter along the way. 

  2. Find a hobby. Hobbies are amazing things. They can help the most bored and grumpy of people find joy in a simple activity. They can be a great tool to help express your feelings or share your adventures with friends and families in your own unique way. For instance, you could try writing songs or stories, or collect interesting flowers or leaves you find on your travels. Most national parks have a passport book you can get that holds stamps or stickers for every national park you visit, giving you a souvenir you can show off to friends. I love scrapbooking and writing as ways to help me remember the experiences I’ve had for years to come. Trying out new hobbies can help give you a sense of yourself, and you may discover talents you never knew you had. 

  3. Make a list of all the places you want to go. Try doing research on amusement parks or national parks you might want to see. If you have specific interests, see if there are cool places near where you’re headed. For instance, if you’re into music, see if there are any cool historic studios around. If you love animals, check out nearby animal preserves or rescues. Let your parents know what you find so they can plan to visit some of the places on your list. We’re currently in the Everglades because it was at the top of my list, and I’m so excited to be here. 

  4. Make your own space. As a teenager, you know you love your family and everything, but sometimes you just need a little breathing room. And that's okay! Everyone needs a little time and space to themselves. (Teenagers might need even more than others.) But how in the world can you get personal space living in such close quarters? 

    Sometimes I like to sit alone in our car when my family goes into a store or a coffee shop. I’ll listen to music, text my friends or just close my eyes and rest for awhile. Another thing you can try is scheduling with your family so that everybody gets a little bit of alone time for themselves. It’s such an easy way to keep from bickering over personal space and focus on having more fun and adventures together.

  5. Share the fun with friends! Just because you’re away from home doesn't mean that you have to isolate yourself from your friends. So tell them about your adventures. They want to hear all about them. I talk to my best friend every night. Right now, I’m helping her plan her quinceañera, and next year, I’ll be at her rehearsals when we visit home again. you won’t be away from your friends forever. Even your parents have friends back home they miss, too. But while you’re away, share your adventures with your buddies and let them fill you in on all the gossip from home. Sometimes a good text thread or phone call is all it takes to make you feel like your friends are right there with you. 

The Thomas Family travels in a 2005 Jayco Jay Flight.