Double Take: Trips abroad often inadvisable in high school

Monday, February 4, 2013

Dear Dr. Wes and Katie: My high school student wants to go on a senior trip out of the United States. This isn’t exactly sponsored by the school, but adults from the school are going. I have heard some negative things about these trips in the past, and it bothers me that I won’t be there to see it for myself. What do you recommend?

Katie: The first time I read your question, I couldn’t shake the lingering suspicion that it was written by my mother regarding her concerns about my upcoming trip to Europe. Though Wes and my mom deny it was she, you’re far from the only parent who has reservations about letting her child hop across the border (or ocean).

The gift of travel is invaluable, but just like a laptop and similar graduation gifts, it should come with a set of safety instructions. Even with the most dependable chaperones, traveling abroad can be dangerous. Teenagers should only be allowed to go if they’re responsible enough to stick near an adult at all times and obey the rules — both the program’s and their parents’.

In the past, some students have been sent home for violating guidelines set down by their group leaders. Unfortunately, not all chaperones rule with an iron fist, which is like taking the hammer away from a Whac-a-Mole machine: Trouble is sure to pop up.

The rumors surrounding these nonschool-sponsored programs’ drug and alcohol use — among other activities that tend to raise parents’ blood pressure — certainly don’t calm any nerves, particularly as many stories are true. I don’t know which program your senior wants to travel with, but the one I’m signed up for gives the group leader (a teacher) the responsibility to make many of the rules, including nightly curfew and whether students can drink wine and beer where it’s legal.

Before making any payments, ask the group leader about such policies, as he or she will be taking over your job as guardian for the duration of the trip. I’ve known my leader for several years, and my parents are confident in his ability to keep us safe. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t be leaving city limits, let alone the country.

Dr. Wes: Sitting in my chair, I’ve heard all those stories over the years, and I agree that you should be concerned. Some parents take the position that kids are prone to trouble wherever they are, so it doesn’t matter if it’s here or there. Others see their teens at or very near 18 and imbue them with all sorts of trust. I work with a lot of college kids, and if “trust” means showing good judgment while partying, I’d stick with what Katie suggests — rules and consequences.

I’ve never taken a group of kids out of the country, but I did large camps for teens before I got into the psychology business. I know what it takes to organize an activity like this — how wonderful it can be, and how horribly wrong it can go. Other countries have different customs and expectations. Some are more lax, others far more strict. Getting arrested “over there” will be less fun in every way, and adjudication expensive and difficult. Even within the United States, rules vary on things like substance use, the age of consent for sex and consequences for public disturbance.

I’m not trying to add to your anxiety. In fact, I hope your teen gets to go on this trip for all the right reasons. But Katie is spot on about how to judge this activity and why. If competent, organized and reasonable strict adults are overseeing a fairly small group of teens, things will go better. If the adults see the teens as autonomous peers just because they’re legally young adults, I’d vote no.

Travel abroad is a great experience, but if this situation doesn’t seem right to you, save it for college, where those experiences are often far richer and more rewarding.

— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens” and “Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens.” Learn about his new practice Family Psychological Services at Katie Guyot is a Free State High School senior. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.