9 Things You Need to Know to Enjoy Family Vacations

Oh, family vacations and gatherings. Seldom are they stress-free, conflict-free and predictable. If you’re planning a family vacation anytime soon, this is a must read before you go! Equally as important as planning your itinerary, packing your clothes, and settling the house before you leave, give yourself the gift of self-care and get your mind ready for family vacations with these nine things you need to know to enjoy (and survive) family vacations.

1. Know What You Need. Before you hit the road or catch a flight, spend some time thinking about what you need to make this vacation and time away to feel restorative and replenishing. As moms, we’re often last on the list, packing for everyone and thinking of ourselves as an after thought-cramming into the suitcase whatever we can before a trip. I want you to pause, even if it’s for a few minutes, and ask yourself the following:

  • What would make this time away memorable?
  • What do I need to feel rested and restored?
  • How can I take care of myself every day on vacation, even if it’s only in small amounts of time that would make me feel good about this time away?

Here’s what I know: knowing yourself, knowing what you need, and setting your intention with small goals, is as essential on vacation as it is every day. Only you can answer that for yourself, what works for me, may not work for you. One thing I need regardless of where I travel and who I travel with is a quiet morning routine. I need to wake up before my kids, have two cups of coffee, write, do yoga, and I feel ready and grounded to meet whatever comes my way. Find what works for you!

2. Make Time for Important Conversations. Before you go on vacation you make a list of what you need, right? Well, I want you to add to your packing list this item: prioritize essential conversations with family BEFORE the visit. And this can be from the small details-like sharing your once meat-loving teenager is now a pescetarian, or your toddler who once slept through the night has night terrors at 2 a.m., or the discord between you and your cousin’s wife that started at the last gathering needs some mending. Whatever the stressor or changes that have occurred, address them directly, and share as needed. For example, if your sister-in-law is prepping for your visit and heading to the grocery store, updates in your families preferences are important, and you can always bring some of your own staples/food. If you need to smooth previous tension with a family member, do so before you visit. This allows a few things to happen: moving forward when you see one another, and addressing the conflict before you go helps to smooth out any awkwardness because finding the time to work out conflict on vacation with a lot of people around can be a challenge.

3. Be Flexible and Let Go of Expectations. I see this A LOT in the therapy room-people have expectations of others, or a vacation, or how things SHOULD go, and when things don’t go a certain way, it’s a recipe for disappointment and frustration. Having a plan is great, holding high expectations for the get-away maybe a little unrealistic. Here’s what I mean-vacations for many moms mean a change of scenery, but the same responsibilities. Everyone still has to get dressed, bathed, eat and get some sleep, and did I mention be active and entertained? How is that really different from every day at home? My point exactly, moms and dads are still parenting on vacation, regardless of where you go and with whom. So, be flexible, roll with what you can, let go of expectations or the voice in your head saying things like. ‘It should be…’ or, ‘I wish it was..’ or, ‘I thought it was supposed to go…’ Instead, set some goals, a wish list of things you want to see or places you want to go, but other people’s behaviors…be flexible, take responsibility for yourself, and keep your expectations low-I promise, if you do, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

4. Be Direct. Pack your patience when traveling with family. And be direct when you have to be. Families are like countries in and of themselves-filled with routine, personalities, traits, communication styles and approaches to problem-solving. Appreciate those differences with a compassionate lens instead of a judgemental approach to those differences. You may not agree or understand the dynamics you see, but remember, this is only one snapshot of a moment in time. And, if something is upsetting or offensive or crosses a line with your values and beliefs, do yourself a favor-be direct and share it at the moment. And if that’s not possible, wait for a time when it is ok to do so, and share that in a kind, yet direct manner. I’ll share an example from last summer: I was with my husband’s family, and my in-laws were sharing some recent news, a violent abduction of a woman (not age appropriate) to talk about with my kids around. I was direct, stopped the conversation, framed it in a way we could chat about it another time, and redirected the conversation with another topic. Don’t be afraid to use your voice, be direct, and set a limit.

5. Routine is Important, but Be Flexible. Most children thrive on routine. Makes sense, doesn’t it? When you can’t tell time-and developmentally children can learn this skill around age, having a routine provides a sense of safety, calm and expectancy for the day. Since my twins were infants, and then with each additional girl added to our family, no matter what the age or stage of development, we traveled several times a year to see family. And this meant, keeping a routine as much as possible, which was a survival strategy for all of us! And we also had to balance being flexible to other family members schedules and routines. Somethings I couldn’t compromise on, like naps when they were little-miserable for everyone when we missed them! But bedtime, I could push it a little, and ice-cream for lunch, sure why not? Be sensitive to what you can disrupt in your child’s routine and what you can be flexible on. And keep in mind other family members routines as well.

6. Group Decision Making Isn’t Always Effective. Here’s the stress with a larger group: decisions are tough. Have you heard the saying: analysis paralysis? The more ideas discussed, the more time spent trying to come to an agreement about an activity or what to eat or where to eat, can create stress and tension. Someone has to be the leader, and it’s not an easy role. And someone has to do it, yes, even on vacation. My suggestion-keep it simple and break it down like you were talking to a toddler; always offer two suggestions, ideas, and places and then vote and make a decision, you’ll thank me on that one!

7. Time Alone Is Key. When traveling with family, take the pressure off; you don’t have to spend every minute together. Years ago, when visiting with family, we had this epiphany, ‘we don’t have to do everything together.’ Living five hundred miles from my parents, when we visit one another, we want to pack in activities, bonding, and time together. And the problem was this-as my girls got older, their interests changed, they no longer napped, and wanted to be active all day. In contrast, my parents, who are older, had less tolerance for the sweltering Washington, D.C. heat and humidity.  Walking around the city for six hours was not appealing for them and they opted to stay home in the air-conditioned house. Totally ok, and completely understandable. With my parents, there was a natural shift to make this part of the trip, we take a day or two to tour the city, circle back for dinner together, and everybody wins. My point is this: read the scene, hear feedback from family members, and creating time away for min-excursions and downtime, can keep the visit going strong and positive for everyone.

8. Alcohol Removes Filters. Drinker beware: alcohol is going to take away the filter, and lessen your judgment. You’ll thank for me for this one-keep an eye on your alcohol use at family gatherings. For as long as I can remember, this is a theme that comes up time and time again in the therapy room: alcohol use at family gatherings can be a recipe for disaster. Uncle Jack has too much to drink, says something inappropriate with the kids around, Nana has a few glasses of wine and share her political views. Your brother has one too many beers and criticizes your parenting style….you name it, I’ve heard it. Be aware of your alcohol use, how it impacts others, and your relationships. And the same is true for family members who drink. Sometimes just knowing this can help you decide how to navigate family tensions.

9. Keep Perspective and Your Sense of Humor. Traveling with family and kids will keep you on your toes for sure! If you find yourself feeling irritable, upset, or aggravated, and remember-you’ll be home before you know and back into your routine and schedule. And chances are, you won’t remember all the things that annoyed you, or went wrong. You’ll remember those awesome moments watching your child laugh and long walks or having ice-cream for lunch and great conversations with those you love. And if that doesn’t work-try to keep things light focusing on the humor in these family moments. Family chaos on vacation is great material for storytelling around the holidays! And keep perspective, that perhaps one day, you’ll be the one stuck in her ways, far away from the day-to-day reality of what it’s like to anticipate the needs and caring for and raising a family. It’s a different pace for sure when you’re in the thick of it with every waking moment thinking of your children, compared to later in life, when you live away from your grown children and your grandchildren. We all bring something different to the mix, and for that, a little bit of compassion and perspective goes a long way in keeping family vacations a memorable tradition.

And after these family vacations, what we can hope to have is memories that fill our hearts, perhaps a few photos that capture the chaos and fun, and the beautiful imperfection all families have.

© Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2019

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