THE BLOG
07/09/2010 01:18 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Perfect Family Vacation - Why We Are Not There Yet

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Family vacations have long been the subject of sitcoms and PG comedies, each following more or less the same predictable plotline: hopeful parents force resistant children into some mobile form of a bonding opportunity. They then undergo several slapstick disasters before everyone simultaneously recognizes the importance of family and enjoys a Brady Bunch-style, fun-in-the-sun finale.

We all wish the best for our family vacation, but often the stress of trying to make everyone happy and the pressure to make each moment perfect can lead to a less than wonderful excursion. The problems we hope will magically melt away when we finally have time to be with our loved ones unfortunately do not tend to jet in the face of jet lag. Coupled with the minor discomforts and distractions that can accompany travel, people may find themselves more stressed, irritable and less attuned to the wants and needs of those close to them.

So how do we avoid the typical pitfalls that take us away from the perfect family vacation we've always imagined? Here are some tips that can truly help us to slow down and enjoy every moment of our journey:

Be considerate, not catering

While it is important to factor in the interests and feelings of your children when planning a vacation, it's important not to plan your vacation around your kids. When considering where to go and what to do to, think about what will make it an experience in which you feel good. Going to a place that's primarily kid-centered, such as the latest theme park, may not be the ideal spot for you to relax or enjoy a more meaningful excursion. A day spent in long lines, in large crowds or centered around fast-paced activities may take away from time in which you are making real contact with your kids and may lend itself to more practical than personal interactions. On the flip side, if you are feeling good and slowed down, your natural enthusiasm will rub off on those around you. Kids tend to feel at ease when they sense their parents are feeling good in themselves and not when they are frantically trying to show them a good time.

Don't force "family time"

No matter what age your children are, it is important to acknowledge and support their independence. Our kids may come from us, but we are each completely unique, and it's valuable to acknowledge our separateness Just because you enjoyed a certain activity as a child doesn't not mean your child will enjoy that same activity. Trying to force a connection by demanding time from your kids rarely results in the quality of time that you desire.

When traveling, you offer your kids the best chance to be happy by observing who they are independently of you and by paying attention to what lights them up. Trying to force a certain reaction from your children or trying to get them to like you isn't offering them what they need. In fact, it can actually feel very draining to a child. Instead, when you spend time with your children, your focus should be on feeling happy in yourself and being available and attuned anytime they express their wants and needs. By having respect for yourself and your child as separate individuals, you will be able to discover the activities and interests that the two of you genuinely share.

Try not to lose it, but if you do, say you're sorry

A friend of mine recently told me the story of when his now grown son was 10 years old, and they went on a camping trip. My friend's face was joyful as he recounted the fun of the activities they had shared: catching fish, taking adventure hikes and cooking meals over a fire. Yet when I asked his son about the experience, the strongest memory of his trip was his dad losing his temper and yelling at him for his clumsiness when helping pitch the tent. Sadly, these drastic differences between a child's perception and a parent's are not uncommon. Human beings are designed to remember what scares them as a means of avoiding future danger. Unfortunately what this often means for children is that out of five days of warm interactions and fun activities, what they are far more likely to remember is a single outburst that their parents have long forgotten.

Even for the most mild-mannered of parents, it's rare for them to never "lose it" with their children. However, when parents do act out, it's important for them to see the situation from their child's point of view. What may seem like a minor incident, snapping at your kid to hurry up in a long line or yelling at him to knock it off when he gets wild in the backseat of the car, may seem like no big deal, but what did it feel like to the child? Perhaps it caught him off guard to see his much bigger parent, who he usually goes to for safety, lose his or her cool.

When you feel provoked by your children, it's important not to deal with them in the heat of the moment but to wait until you have calmed down. This can involve taking a walk or even counting backwards from 100. Once calm, you are less likely to say things you regret. You will be better able to understand what's really upsetting your child and to not act on preconceived notions about his behavior.

After you have lost it and ruptured your attunement with your child, it is possible to repair the damage and reestablish the trust and good feelings that have been interrupted. Come back to the child when you are in a calm state and tell him you are sorry for hurting him and didn't like that you got upset. Then, welcome the child to talk about how he felt from the interaction. The child can then better understand the interaction and make sense out of what really happened. He will be less likely to take it upon himself, seeing himself as bad or at fault, and he will be less likely to carry an image of you as frightening.

Live in the moment

Very few people I know don't become slightly cranky in the course of enduring a long drive or an airport security line. The typical example of a child calling from the backseat "Are we there yet?" is just one of the many small occurrences that can get on your nerves and make you less than good company. When the goal is just to get there, you are much more likely to become irritable in the transition.

Instead of thinking of these times as merely gateways to your vacation, it's best to think of them as even more time to have fun with your family. You can control the mood of the moment by staying calm and attuned to your kids. If a child picks up on any tension, whether between her parents or toward her, she is much more likely to feel tense herself, resulting in complaints, silliness, rebellion and more fits. Try to enjoy your family in every moment, wherever you are and whatever the circumstance. Don't set a bad example by complaining about any discomforts or frustrations. Help your child see each situation as a valuable experience by taking that attitude yourself.

Make time to be together as a couple

Not many people travel like celebrities with an entourage of nannies who can take their kids off to the beach anytime they'd like some alone time. However, making time to spend with your partner is a very important part of taking a vacation. Asking other relatives for help babysitting while you go for a walk or letting your kids enjoy the adventure of sitting at their own table in the restaurant can give you and your partner a chance to be together, just the two of you. However, it's not necessary to get away from your children in order to share time as a couple. Kids benefit from seeing their parents happy and taking pleasure in each other's company.

Don't project your past experiences onto your family's vacation

While it's valuable to take time to think about what you yourself did and didn't like about your family vacations growing up, it's important not to project your childhood vacation misery onto your life today and then try to overcompensate in your current family. Your goal should be to resolve how you can make your vacation different without taking your actions to opposite extremes. For example, just because your parents refused to spend money on souvenirs for you, doesn't mean you have to buy your kids everything they desire. In the same sense, just because you were overindulged as a child, doesn't mean you should assume your own kids are spoiled and refuse to buy them anything.

As much as you may want to give your child a better childhood than you had, you must accept the reality that your kids are not you. You should therefore be aware of overreactions you have today that may in fact reflect on your own past experiences. You can do this by asking yourself, "Does this remind me of situations I was in as child?" and "How am I acting as a result?" The more insight you have into yourself, the more attuned you are likely to be to your children. And the more you allow yourself to feel happy and be present, the closer everyone in your family gets to sharing the perfect family vacation.

To read more about parenting from Dr. Lisa Firestone visit PsychAlive.org - Alive to Parenting

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