Are We There Yet: Surviving The Family Vacation

With Summer upon us you’re looking forward to getting away for a family vacation. Everyone is hot and cranky. Your children have changed their mantra from “we don’t want to go to school” to “we’re bored.” As parents, we look forward to summer vacation as the time for our family to enjoy each other’s company, but it doesn’t always seem to work out that way.

Advance planning can help you to stress-proof your family travels so that you can have the most fun and relaxing experience possible.

“A vacation with the family, while intended to give everyone a break and some relaxation, can be a stressful event in itself. Several factorsthe actual travel, unfamiliar surroundings, and perhaps a different language and culture all can increase everyone’s stress levels. If all family members are dealing with their own stresses related to the different surroundings and lack of familiarity, the potential is heightened for conflicts among family members,” according to Michael Flora, President and CEO of the Ben Gordon Center.

“Summer vacation seems the least likely time for stress. Summer brings prolonged sunshine, informal attire, outdoor fun, freedom, and a break in the year’s routine. Children are off from school, at play, and maybe at camp.

Most adults take some time off from work during summer and spend at least part of it out-of-town,” said Flora.

Although vacations can be relaxing and refreshing escapes, they also can be stressful. Stress is our reaction to pressures, demands, and change. Change requires us to adapt. If you think of change as throwing you off balance, you will understand why good changes can be stressful. According to Flora, lack of communication is one factor which can greatly increase family vacation stress. “It’s important to discuss the trip in advance and talk about what everyone is expecting in terms of activity vs. quiet time, time spent alone, and the degree to which your days are planned or scheduled in advance. You should discuss your expectations of the vacation as well. One family member, for example, may crave activity and diversion while others want to simply rest. Finally, people often get caught in the trap of unrealistic expectations while on vacation- for example, that anxiety and stress over work related problems will magically disappear, or that a conflict-ridden relationship will work itself out on vacation. Financial issues are often a source of stress for families on holiday. If you’re on a budget, also discuss how you’ll handle things such as impulse purchases and restaurant meals,” said Flora.

If you are traveling with young children, it is important not to overload your schedule and to allow plenty of time for spontaneous activity. Location is not as important as the way your time is spent. It is also important to remember the trip is also part of the vacation, not just the destination.

“Kid-friendly” can be what you make it. It’s perfectly possible to have a relaxing city holiday with children, visiting parks and zoos and taking leisurely walks. It’s also possible to turn a tropical paradise into a tense and stressful place if your days are overscheduled and you’re constantly tired and quarreling. Children can become stressed by a vacation just as adults can, although they may show their stress in different ways. It’s not surprising then that when children are in an unfamiliar environment and confronted daily with new experiences, that they may experience stress. Since many children are not able to recognize or verbally convey their feelings of stress, their stress may manifest itself in their behavior. For example, children may behave in a way that is inappropriate for their age, or they may appear to be moody or temperamental. “We all have visions of our childhood family vacations,” said Flora, “where we pile up in the family station wagon, a car sick dog on our lap, no air conditioning and someone has to go to the restroom for the 15th time. And a rousing game of car Bingo. It’s a wonder we’re here to tell the tale.”

Recognizing that everyone in the family will experience some form of stress on the vacation will help. Stress is a part of life and can even affect us positively. An ideal vacation is one in which the “good” stresses (i.e. dealing with unfamiliar cultures, increased contact with family members) are not outweighed by the “bad” stresses (arguments, tiredness, resentment).

Family Vacation Survival Rules

  • Accept others’ wishes and be prepared to compromise. Everyone should have some opportunity to do things as he/she wants. In most families, this means compromises on everyone’s part. Recognize that you may have to take part in some activities that wouldn’t be your first choices, for the sake of group harmony
  • Give yourself plenty of time for the trip. Rushing to catch a plane or train only increases everyone’s stress level and leads to conflicts. This is especially true when traveling with very young children who are likely to require more breaks and cause unpredictable interruptions.
  • Don’t overextend your schedule. Very few people can do a “whirlwind tour” of five cities in seven days and remain relaxed, and trying to do so would be unthinkable for a family with young children. Likewise, don’t try to fill your days with too many commitments and activities. Leave time to see where your whims and moods take you.
  • Communicate without being confrontational with other family members. Don’t sulk and act resentful if it seems that nothing is “going your way.” Kindly mention to the others that you’re feeling disappointed that you haven’t been able to see or do whatever it is you feel is important to you. Suppressed anger and resentment can easily ruin your dream vacation.
  • Be sure to bring activities for yourself as well as the kids during long waits or car rides.
  • Be realistic about your expectations. If your children misbehave at home, they’re not going to behave perfectly just because you’re on vacation. Interpersonal differences and conflicts won’t magically disappear.Relax and have fun without expecting the very state of being on vacation to “cure” any difficulties or problems you may be facing back home.

Reenter the real world gradually. Instead of returning late the night before going back to work, arrive home a day or two earlier. Give yourself time to adjust and catch up with unpacking, mail, and shopping before resuming work. You will do a better job if you return refreshed.

Every family at some point may need assistance when they are not able to cope with the stress and challenges facing family members.

The Ben Gordon Center is a skilled provider in marital and family counseling.