How to Vacation with Your Parents

06/20/2011 02:41 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2011

All parents have one thing in common: they're getting older. So how do you spent time together and still enjoy it? The secret is you.

My father and I vacationed together on a cruise ship recently. One evening, while Dad and I said goodnight and made plans for the morning, I noticed a middle-aged woman eavesdropping. The elevator bell rang, so I kissed Dad goodbye and stepped into the elevator with her. She was already rolling her eyes. When the door closed, she said, "Parents. You gotta love 'em, but they can drive you nuts." Another time I might have agreed with her, but that night I wasn't the least bit bothered. I just smiled.

I'd be lying if I said I hadn't been nervous about the trip. But to my delight, I maintained my balance through the whole cruise (not the balance required for being on a ship, but rather my internal emotional balance). I came back relaxed and happy. To my surprise, it had very little to do with my father and a lot to do with me.

How did I get the most out of a family vacation? I've given this a lot of thought and offer it now because it's summer and a lot of extended families are about to climb in the proverbial station wagon and set off into ruin. What separates a good family vacation from a bad one?


Family systems theory, a behavioral theory first envisioned by psychiatrist Murray Bowen, maintains that changing a family is only possible if you change yourself. Then everyone else in the family system will change around you. Discomfort with change can keep us locked into our familiar roles in the family unit, even after they no longer work for us. We squash our grown-up selves into childhood molds that are oddly shaped and pinching at the edges, cursing our discomfort and blaming others for our unease.

Change is hard, but it's easiest when you initiate it yourself. Try one change, see how it works, then try another step. What have you got to lose? The only control you have over your family's dynamic is how you react to those around you.

The most important thing when traveling with your parents is to relax! You're on vacation, remember? You can take the extra time you wouldn't normally have to do things you wouldn't normally do, like:

  1. Stick to the present. A vacation is not a good time to harbor that grudge about what your mom said about your first job, or to perpetuate your conviction that she loves your sister better. It's about what she's doing in the here and now. It's also about who you are right now, every single choice you make about what to say and do.
  2. Listen more. For better or for worse, long periods of time together are a gateway to long stories and lengthy opinions. You don't have to engage and judge what you're hearing. You just have to sit back, listen and try to understand. When you accept where Dad's coming from, you're in a better position to get him to understand you. Don't we all crave a meeting of the minds with our parents?
  3. Be patient with your parents' age-related changes. It might take your mother longer to climb a staircase or to come to a decision, but without pressure from you, she can really appreciate the experience at her own pace. You may even gain some insight about how she's adapted her life to her body's changes. Even if she doesn't say it, she'll be grateful for your understanding.
  4. Be responsible for yourself, not for your parents. Your anxiety can make an already difficult situation treacherous. Unless your mom or dad has specifically asked for your help, don't feel that you have to parent them. Instead, focus on and be responsible for having your own needs met. There's a fine line between common courtesy and control, and a finer line between accommodation and self-abandonment.
  5. Balance your interests. Will it really be that difficult to watch another ball game with your dad or visit his sister Sadie? When you make him happy during the day, you'll feel more balanced when you assert your own needs at night. Set the example of respect by making room for both of you.
  6. Accept that things go wrong sometimes. Planes are late, cars break down, signals get crossed. Instead of assigning blame, be the one who backs up, fixes it and goes forward. Detours and walks in the rain might end up as some of your best memories.
  7. Keep your agenda flexible. Stay reactive to mom's interests, limitations and need for less stimulation as the week goes by. She may end up doing less but enjoying it more. That will be much more rewarding for both of you than a series of disappointing efforts to see or do as much as possible.
  8. Focus on the devilish details. One thing you can do (and should do if you're a frequent traveler and your parent is not) is to handle the travel details. Share the inside secrets of airport security lines, hotel transfers, packing and mobile communications. If Dad's relaxed when he gets there, you'll have a much better vacation.

Many well-meaning sons and daughters are used to moving quickly, accomplishing a lot and getting straight to the point -- especially when the pressures of daily living kick in. As our parents become less energetic, slower and more forgetful, we're less likely to be successful with that approach. Vacation is a time to put away your agenda, your anxiety and your idealistic outcomes, and slow down like your parents.

Don't be afraid. It's only temporary. But who knows? You might like the change.

Janice M. Van Dyck is the author of two novels about families. Her latest novel, "Finding Frances," explores the positive effect of a mother's end-of-life choices on her grown children.