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Ways to Prepare for a Family Vacation

I recently returned from a vacation, feeling exhausted. While I had benefited from a bit of extra sleep, the warmth of the sun, and was able to get away from my computer for the span of a week, I was struck by how intense a trip it had been.

Vacations are wonderful, but when we dream of sandy beaches, amusement parks, or sight-seeing adventures, we often forget what a stress travel can be, especially for kids. As parents gear up for March Break travels, it seems like an opportune time to highlight the small but consistent minefields faced on vacation that may trigger some unanticipated meltdowns. Some of these, if not all of them, may be unavoidable at various times during a trip. The goal then for parents is to set expectations realistically, and to acknowledge the impact of these stressors.

Change in Daily Routines

Kids really do better when they know what to expect and they know what is coming next. Our day to day routines at home may become tedious, but they allow us as parents to keep all the moving parts working together, in a consistent way. When that routine goes out the window, or when plans for the day are up in the air, it can be a daunting task to get everyone moving and out the door. Kids tend to have very strong feelings about what they want to do; on vacation, everyone is likely going to want to do different things. The “open-endedness” of vacation, in addition to a lack of predictability, also opens us up to a host of opposition, disagreement, and disappointment.

What you can do:

  • Discuss ahead of time what types of activities, visits and adventures your kids are hoping for as a part of their holiday. Discuss how you will come up with a plan to cover each one in some way during your trip;
  • Use calendars with pictures to show the main events of each day;
  • For kids who have not yet grasped the language and concepts related to time (i.e., today, tomorrow, later in the week), use visual schedules to explain what will be happening, in order;
  • If the day is feeling too “open-ended”, use mealtimes as a marker for sections of the day (i.e., after breakfast, after lunch, after dinner) to delineate the passage of time.

Changes in Sleep

Vacations always seem like the perfect time to stay up late and sleep in. It works so great for adults, but not so great for kids. Those extra few hours past bedtime watching that fireworks show will probably result in a dreadful bedtime. Tomorrow may be a tough day, too, as the lack of a consistent sleep schedule catches up with us. Skipping naps, taking naps in the car, or stroller instead of bed, also may mean that your typically easy-going child isn’t so easy-going anymore. Sleep has a tremendous impact on a child’s mood, his ability to regulate his behaviour, and his ability to tolerate “stress”.

What you can do:

  • Don’t minimize the importance of sleep when scheduling your time. Everyone suffers if exhaustion is on the menu;
  • Keeping bedtimes and wake up times as consistent as possible over the course of vacation is ideal. Unfortunately, it may not be entirely realistic. Providing quiet time/down-time into the day may help to buffer this;
  • Keep in mind that getting back into a consistent sleep routine after vacation may be quite a struggle.

Sensory Overload

Keep in mind the impact of the sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and spaces that you will encounter. Our brains are processing all of these forms of stimulation, and for many children, it may be too much to take in. The stimulation inherent to a busy restaurant – the music, the chatter, the closeness of tables, the smells and sounds – may lead to a very chaotic dinner time.

What you can do:

  • Get away from the hubbub. Find quiet spaces and try to spend time outdoors;
  • If you’ve found yourself in busy malls or amusement parks during the day, choose activities or locations for evening events that may provide a more calming environment;
  • Give your family wind down time at night before bed;
  • Pack familiar snacks for kids who may have a hard time choosing different snacks or foods in a different country or locale.

The Perils of Waiting

There is nothing like waiting for an interminably slow baggage carousel late at night to make you wish you had never booked your vacation. Air travel requires so much patience, as you navigate the “hurry-up and wait” phenomenon over and over again (i.e., customs, security, getting on the plane, getting off the plane, waiting for a taxi). Travel is a form of delayed gratification and this isn’t easy for kids or teens. It’s exhausting, particularly for kids who likely have a more skewed sense of time because they have much less experience to inform them of how long everything is going to take.

What you can do:

  • Explain what is going on and what’s about to happen;
  • Let them walk, skip, and jump safely (in the airport) around when there is no need to stand in line;
  • Pack fidget toys or Play Doh to keep their hands busy;
  • For younger children, suggest that they bring a doll or stuffed friend along on the trip. You can then reference this toy when trying to keep your child entertained during long waits (e.g., “Elmira the Bunny has never been to an airport before. Why don’t you show her the planes out the window. What does she think?”).

Pushing Kids to their Limit

In the hopes of giving our children the best time imaginable or in trying to give them “once in a lifetime” type experiences, we may over schedule them and over-program. Maybe we want to get the most out of our holiday location or our week-long stay. Maybe we think that by doing more we will get more “value” out of our trip. Regardless of the intention, with children, cramming too much in usually backfires. Everyone, including parents, ends up anxious, stressed, or frustrated. Parents can’t be present in the moment because we are so focused on the logistics, or making everything just right. But, we need to remember that the measure of a successful vacation is not in the number of sights seen or the number of rides taken. It has everything to do with the feelings that are experienced, and the good ones that linger even after you’ve arrived home.

What you can do:

  • Identify the goals for your vacation early on. Understand what you want your family to get from your time away. What is the fundamental reason for the vacation, and what, at the very least, are you striving for?
  • Ask yourself “If I was at home, would I have planned to do this much, this many days in a row?
  • Practice moderation. Incorporate a balance between play and some rest.
  • Leave time for quiet time, hang-out time, and alone time. Some children (and parents) really need to have their own time to relax and decompress, especially if they’ve experience an overly stimulating activity or event.

Wherever you find yourself this March Break, I hope that you find time to enjoy each other, to do and see new things together, and that, by the end of the week, you feel ready for the busy spring ahead.

Meredith Gillespie, Ph.D., C.Psych.

About Meredith Gillespie, Ph.D., C.Psych.

Meredith A. M. Gillespie, Ph.D., C.Psych. is a clinical psychologist with extensive experience in psychological assessment and treatment of children, youth and their families across a range of developmental and mental health conditions, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), anxiety and mood disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, disruptive behaviour disorders, adjustment disorders, learning disabilities, and parent-child relational conflict. She brings exceptional skill to the provision of care for children and families and strives to collaborate with clinicians across disciplines, to best support the complex needs of her clients.

Learn more about Meredith Gillespie, Ph.D., C.Psych.

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