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5 tips to help you survive and actually enjoy a road trip with kids

Memorial Day road trips are a yearly tradition for many families. How do you avoid meltdowns? Here are 5 tips for better trips.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

The car is a fascinating place to spend family time. And long weekends often mean driving. So how can you make it awesome? It's all about expectations.

1. Raise your expectations for a good experience:

A little optimism goes a long way. Talking about the trip — not just the destination — in a positive way will help your kids and you. Ask your kids what they're looking forward to about the drive, and talk about what you know will be fun. Try a few new traditions or remind them of old ones. Grab some fun from your library in the form of DVDs or audio books, a book someone can read aloud for parts of the drive, or even an old-fashioned atlas. Most importantly, recognize that there will be good moments!

Related: 40 must-see places to take kids before they're grown

2. Lower your expectations for perfection:

If you're like me, you prepare for a car journey like you may have to invade Normandy along the way. At the beginning of one Memorial Day weekend road trip, my 3-year-old son looked at the pile of stuff I'd packed and burst into tears. "What's wrong?" I asked. He wailed, "I don't want to move! I love our house!" Hmmm. Overpack much?

It's easy to believe that we can prep ourselves into the perfect experience. Prevent every possible frustration with the right combination of snacks, screens and stuff. Take it from this mom of four, it ain't so. Not with one kid in the car, not with seven (yes, yes I have) and not even if you're driving alone. Though I've heard that helps.

3. Raise your expectations for your kids.

Communication is the key for getting the behavior you want. It's not a guarantee, I know, but it does up the odds considerably. Over the course of a few days leading up to the trip, ask them some questions:

  • What do you remember about our last couple of road trips?
  • What do you think went well?
  • What could we do better?
  • How can you help to make it great?

Incorporate those ideas anywhere you can, and let them know:

  • How long your drive is likely to take
  • Who picks the media and when — music, movies, devices, games, books
  • Who sits where and if they'll switch
  • How often you're hoping to stop
  • What you'll do about bickering
  • That home rules are still true — no hitting, grabbing stuff out of someone's hands, etc.
  • How they can help to make it a smooth, safe trip
  • That you have a fail-proof response to bickering in the car,* so they better not try it

4. Lower your expectations for yourself!

It's so easy to believe that your road trip will look like a Hallmark commercial, that it will be all sing-alongs and rainbows. That's not real life, and it's got nothing to do with your parenting. Don't expect that you'll plan it out perfectly, and don't believe that a better parent would be able to make it 400 miles without ever losing their cool. It's not just the kids who melt down on a long trip, it's the adults, too.

5. Get your kids involved in the planning.

Have them help pack the snack cooler, pick some movies to download if you're doing that. Have them plan some games or pick the route. These are fun responsibilities, and help everyone be accountable for creating an enjoyable experience.

Get your kids to step up, and let yourself step back a bit. You'll all have a better experience! Happy travels.

*Here's that fail-proof trick to prevent bickering in the car!

Dr. Debi Gilboa is a Pittsburgh-area family physician, mother of four boys and author of multiple books including "Get the Behavior You Want, Without Being the Parent You Hate!".