07/15/2010 08:52 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

5 Tips for Surviving Family Vacations

Just as family vacations are part of summer, spending the holidays with extended family can get pretty hot. I'm not talking about the outside temperature and sunscreen won't help. I'm about talking family heat, you know, those old embers that flare up every summer when all the kindling comes together?

It can start like this: You pack up the car with kids, pets, snacks and whatever else is indispensable for a long drive to Grandma's (the cousin's, your brother's etc). Halfway there, the AC breaks. Your headache begins. By the time you get to your destination, the kids are covered with gooey sweets, the dog's slobbered on the gifts, and you're fit to be tied. Your crew explodes from the car and lands in the midst of greetings.

Maybe you're still a little dazed when your mom (dad, sibling, whomever) starts in, "Hi, How was the drive?" immediately followed by, "OMG, look at those kids! What were you thinking when you let them eat candy the whole way?" and then "Why didn't you call to say you'd be so late?"

Ugh. It's begun. Again.

Why is it that family members have the uncanny ability to puff us up, and then burst the bubble -- and all in 30 seconds or less? Or maybe, more accurately, the question is why we puff up for them, and then feel deflated when our expectations fall short of reality.

If so, then the answer has to be about us (not them) -- on what we can do -- so that our experience with (extended) family is more comfortable and constructive for everyone. After all, summer is a time of growth, and family vacations are nothing if not fertile fields for the heart and mind.

Here are a few strategies to help reduce the heat:

Families can function like tight webs of energy and emotion. The more members involved the more tangled the ties. Strange as it seems, we're drawn to each other despite having been burned. Maybe it's because we have those childhood visions of magical bonfires when everything felt perfect, or maybe because we hope our children will treasure memories of today.

As I spend time this summer with extended family, I can't help but wonder whether we also have some deep primeval urge to find safety close to the flames, or the desire to channel such pure energy for good purposes.

But then, I think maybe the urge toward family vacations has simpler roots. Maybe it's just oh so tempting to play with fire.