We're heading out on a family vacation soon, and even though I wish I could say I'm excited, I am already dreading it. My 16-year-old son has made it clear that he wishes he could stay home with his buddies, and we are insisting that he come and be with the family. Do you have any advice for making it work so he doesn't spoil it for the rest of us by his sulking?
When we long for family togetherness and our kids start pulling away, it can be infuriating -- even heart-breaking. But sometimes, all it takes is an attitude adjustment to make things work. Here are a few tips for organizing family vacations you'll all remember fondly.
1. Come alongside your kids -- not at them. This is one of the cornerstones of my parenting approach, and it can make a world of difference in this situation. When you come at your teen, aggressively insisting that he ore she “bond” with the family, you run the risk of unleashing every possible negative response in his or her adolescent arsenal, from eye-rolling and door-slamming to outright refusal to go on the family trip. Here are some examples of what I mean:
Coming at your youngster: "We're going to the lake, and you're coming whether you like it or not. We're a family, and that's that!"
Coming alongside him: "I know you've said you don't really like the lake much anymore, and I'm guessing that you'd like to have as much time as possible with your friends this summer. I get it. But it's important to us that our family have some time to be together. Let's talk about how we could make it at least a bit more fun for everyone."
2. Involve him or her. Ask your teen to research an interesting activity or a great restaurant. Be flexible and open-minded about what they come up with; they may want to explore a cave when you'd rather be out in the sun, or eat at an Ethiopian restaurant when you'd prefer the hotel steakhouse. Your teen will be much more likely to participate in an activity he or she has personally discovered or arranged.
3. Invite him or her to bring a friend. I don't always recommend bringing a pal for your kids, but if it's a good buddy who fits in well with your family, it may help ensure that your teen is more generous about joining in your fun. If you do decide your son can bring a buddy, talk with the boys in advance about your expectations. Say something like, We're happy for Luke to come along, and we expect you guys to be part of the family activities -- coming to lunch and dinner, spending time with your brother and sister for at least an hour or so each day, and joining us for group outings. Can you agree to that?
Note: With some teens, the presence of a pal means they will be even more isolated from the family. Think carefully about what's best for your child, his or her siblings, and your group as a whole. If you think letting your teen invite a friend will cause problems, follow your instincts and say no.
4. Be friendly and light-hearted. It sounds simple, but this advice is often overlooked when it comes to parenting. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Rather than pushing your son or daughter to go hiking by laying on the guilt, be warm and welcoming, accepting an answer of “No, thanks” with grace. Your teen may get so bored that he will eventually cave in and agree to that ping pong championship after all -- especially if he's not feeling forced.
5. Adjust your expectations. It's not easy being a teen. Mood swings, peer influence, and a developmental imperative to pull away can make family vacations painful. Focus on the moments that are sweet, however brief -- building on what's going well, rather than what isn't. Let your son explore on his own. And every once in a while, let him watch a movie in the hotel room (even if it is a beautiful day) so you don't create needless power struggles.
One of the best pieces of parenting advice I ever received was, "This too shall pass." If you stay flexible and resist the urge to take your son's behavior personally, you can have a great vacation with your teen in tow. Bon Voyage!
Yours in parenting support,
Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.