Many of you are probably gearing up for summer vacations which may include traveling with friends and family. You have waited all year for this time off and likely have invested this brief period when you will spend a lot of money with equally high expectations. Vacations make you…. relax, rejuvenate, reconnect, explore, right? All of these possibilities exist in our fantasy of the perfect vacation. Yet travels with children can throw a wrench in the works for parents who may find themselves frustrated and vowing never to take another vacation again. Is there a better way?
While you may have fond memories of your own family vacations as a child or a young single adult, traveling with a group of people of varying ages, skills and interests (aka a family) is a complex task. Furthermore, as your children develop, each year the cast of characters on the vacation is slightly different. Where a child may be easy going at seven or eight, that same child may be self- conscious and surly at 13.
A vacation is a break in routine and thereby creates a number of challenges in the name of change. For children with varying levels of flexibility, changes in routine can trigger tantrums, sleeplessness or other behavioral challenges. Some children (and adults) don’t handle different sleep patterns, unfamiliar foods, or the absence of preferred activities well. Travel also increases expectations for good behavior and limits options for escape into preferred activities. While travel with extended family can be fun, it can also be stressful when others may judge or try to interfere with your parenting efforts.
View “Vacationing” as a Set of Skills
Since vacations are out of the norm or routine, they likely involve skills that are less often practiced. Don’t assume that your child will be tuned in to expectations in these outings—some kids don’t pick up on expectations in situations on their own. Skills such as eating at a fancy restaurant , airplane travel, going on a tour with a tour guide, or sleeping with the family in a motel room can all be practiced in advance, in smaller steps. Talking through your expectations in advance is important.
Set a Realistic Pace
Young kids often can’t handle a full day of activity. It is easy for kids to become dehydrated or cranky when meals don’t occur at expected times. Other family members may not share your idea of what makes something a vacation. Teenagers who have very busy school schedules may seek a total “veg-out” experience, yet parents may want them to take full advantage of the opportunities travel provides. In our family, we compromised that everyone would participate in one outing a day, without complaint, and then there would be options for free time later in the day. My husband and I used the free time to explore a bit on our own (once the kids were old enough to supervise themselves).
Have Plan B in Mind
Use your imagination (and executive functions) to anticipate challenges in advance. Internet sources like TripAdvisor can help you anticipate conditions on the ground and help you identify resources and alternatives in the moment. Your children may enjoy doing some of this research themselves and it may help them to become invested in the trip if they plan a “virtual” outing. It is amazing what you can find on the Internet. A young teen I know was freaking out about traveling by train alone in Germany and was worried she would not know how to buy a ticket at the train station. It was actually possible to find a website that showed the exact ticket machine in the station so that she could review it in advance.
Set Realistic Goals for Extended Family Gatherings
Vacations with extended family can be memorable both for joyful memories and for some rather unpleasant interactions. It is important to be sure that your family members have an escape hatch—and you might need to be creative to avoid offending extended family. If you can’t have a separate living space, try to create a separate daily ritual or routine. When planning an extended family vacation, be realistic—if your child does not handle strange people and places with composure, don’t commit to a two- week vacation with grandparents and cousins. Maybe a long weekend is all your family can handle or maybe you need to stay in a nearby hotel.
And for that inevitable moment when you can’t imagine why you thought a vacation was a good idea…
On a long ago vacation, we were traveling in the UK and my daughter saw a white plush cat at a gift shop in the small Scottish town where we were staying. Being conscientious parents, we told our daughter we could not just purchase something to buy something. Fast forward to a few minutes later when she was sobbing in the rain with her face pressed against the glass of the butcher shop where I was trying to purchase dinner ingredients. The butcher looked at me like “crazy American” (or at least I felt so). As you will note in the accompanying picture, we did wind up purchasing the cat once she calmed down. Were we weak? Maybe, but sometimes you just have to cave. My daughter did not grow up to be a materialistic person for purchasing unnecessary gifts on vacation. Sometimes it is important to acknowledge a child’s need for control in a situation when he or she has limited choices.
While I would not say that I have always found vacations to be restful, they have usually been fulfilling in some manner. Check out this article for the advantages of travel. And research has found that the greatest happiness accrues from the planning stage of a vacation, no matter how the vacation actually goes!