As the school year comes to a close and the rays of sun begin to take on that summer feel, many families begin preparing for the much-anticipated family trip. The irony behind these family trips is that, although they are supposed to be a time of great family fun and bonding to be crafted into boundless future memories, they often devolve into family nightmares. I am always fascinated by the sight of a family walking through an amusement park with one child in tears, the other walking ahead and alone and the parents not on speaking terms. After months of trip planning, it's profoundly disappointing when these family outings lead to family feuds instead of leading to great memories.
On the other hand, families who are able to keep the peace during these trips and truly enjoy the time together are helping to craft a crucial aspect of future, lifelong happiness for their children. Like a good bottle of wine, the wonderful memories of these trips will only get better with time. These types of pleasant childhood memories are an integral part of developing satisfying family relationships in adulthood. Like I often say, unlike Vegas, what happens in childhood does not stay in childhood. This is true for negative childhood experiences but thankfully, for the good ones as well.
Considering the potential for meaningful family bonding inherent in these family trips, allow me to suggest several ways in which parents can enhance the experience.
Although cancelled reservations, traffic, long lines, changes in plans and other natural snafus that happen on any trip can be the impetus behind tense family vacations, often, the negativity begins with sibling fights. We have all been on those family road trips where, after the 20th time of hearing from the backseat, "Olivia is annoying me," Dad yells out, "that's it, I am turning around".
Let's begin with the basics.
First, children are more likely to get into fights when they are hungry or tired. Think about how agreeable you are when you are hungry or tired. In addition the grand plans about the trip, make sure you plan for the simple things like when you will take food and rest breaks. Often families feel the need to pack the day with non-stop activities.
Although this over-scheduling may help prove to parents that they are giving to their children more than they received when they were young, it may not be the best for the children. In my practice, I always remind parents that in parenting they should do what is truly best for their children instead of doing things with their children in an attempt to rectify their own childhood. This is true when it comes to family trips; sometimes less is more.
Second, children are also more likely to get into fights when there is an overall sense of tension in the air. I was recently sitting at an airport gate during a two-hour flight delay. I was amazed by the number of fights that broke out between various siblings throughout the ordeal. When parents are stressed out about traveling, that tension permeates the entire family, impacting siblings as well.
Although traveling can be demanding, especially air travel, try and keep your visible tension to a minimum. No need to let it out on a spouse or the children. All you need is for the kids to start fighting as you are trying to negotiate with a ticket agent or as you are trying to find your way out of being lost on a road trip. Their fighting will only add to your tension which in turn will make them fight even more. Stop the cycle by doing what you need in order to deal with the stress of traveling in a healthy way.
Third, during trips family rules are often neglected. Considering the change in setting and the vacation mode, parents often allow certain behaviors that would be unacceptable at home to just slide during vacations. So, if back at home you would not let the kids speak to each other in obnoxious ways, those same rules should apply to vacations as well. Family trips often distract parents and the children take advantage of that laxity. Remember that positive parenting, with a combination of love and demands, should still exist during family outings as well. However, keep in mind one thing when it comes to disciplining you children during trips. As always, make sure that when you threaten your children with a punishment, you are really willing to go through with the punishment. If your children know you are bluffing you discipline is worthless.
A few years back I was on a family trip to Disney and on the tram to Magic Kingdom, I heard a mother yelling at her child, who was hitting his younger sister, "If you don't stop hitting her, we are not going to Disney." I could just see the child thinking, after talking about going to Disney for a half a year, saving up for the trip, making all the arrangements, flying down to Orlando, we are now 2 minutes away and you are really going to call off the entire thing because I am hitting my sister? Clearly, it was a bogus threat and the child knew it. The kid went back to smacking his sister in less than 10 seconds. Only make a threat you can follow through and then stick to your guns if the misbehavior occurs.
By keeping in mind a few important parenting lessons for the road, you can create a summer of fun and bonding for your children that they will cherish for the rest of their lives.
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