Vacations with young kids are not relaxing

When I was a kid, I took an annual summer vacation with my parents and two older siblings to Long Beach Island. Here’s a snapshot of our car trip down and back: my brother blasts Bruce Springsteen on his Walkman in an effort to drown out the showtunes playing on the car stereo. When my sister inevitably starts belting out Evita songs too loudly, my brother yells at her. My sister yells in response. I, the youngest, whine every 5 minutes about having to sit in the nausea-inducing rear-facing seat.

Sound relaxing to you?

If you’re looking for a low-stress vacation, you likely won’t find it if you’re traveling with young kids. Vacations with young kids are not relaxing.

Moreover, if you’re someone who’s prone to anxiety, vacations can actually be more anxiety-provoking than routine weeks at home. When we’re away from home, we don’t have control over every minute of our day. We can’t predict what tomorrow will bring, and therefore can’t prepare for it.

When patients are anticipating family vacations with their kids, I often spend time helping them “cope ahead” for what might be a stressful experience. Below I share some advice I often give patients for coping with family vacations (you’ll notice that some of it is the same advice I give for coping with the summertime more generally; see my June 26th post for more on that):

  1. Manage expectations. If you are traveling with young children (and without a nanny or other outside help), you are not going to be able to read a 450-page novel. Nor will you be able to enjoy a leisurely sunset meal on the beach or sip mai tais with your partner or sleep late. Go into the vacation expecting chaos, early mornings, and a schedule that (as always) is dictated by the needs of your kids.
  2. Carve out as much time for yourself as you can. Can you schedule some “me time” into your trip? Even if it’s a quick walk alone outside or trip to see a great summer movie, it will help rejuvenate you (in time to deal with the next family squabble).
  3. Establish a routine when you can. Whenever possible, create a routine for yourself, even if it is an artificial one. It can be very anxiety-provoking to wake up in the morning and look forward to a completely unstructured day. Try setting a schedule for yourself each night before bed. It doesn’t have to be an hour-by-hour schedule, but it should provide you with enough structure so that you feel like you have a plan for the next day.
  4. Plan ahead as much as possible to minimize stress. Back in the days when I traveled to LBI with my family, there was no internet to educate us about restaurants and attractions. We had to get to LBI and then “wing it.” And “winging it” could be stressful, when my two siblings and I all wanted to eat different things and see different sites. Now, thanks to the internet, you can plan out your meals and destinations ahead of time. At the very least, you can get a sense of the options available to you, which will make it easier to make decisions in the moment.
  5. Be willing to take a vacation from control. It may help to think of your summer vacation as a “vacation from control.” It is very easy to control every aspect of your life (and your partner’s and kids’ lives) when you’re at home, on familiar turf, and some/all members of your family are at work/camp. But as soon as you leave home, daily activities, meals, and bedtimes become harder to negotiate. While you should set as much of a routine for yourself as you can (see tip #3), you simply won’t be able to run as tight a ship as you do at home. Accept your circumstances, remembering that you will be returning to your regularly scheduled life soon enough!
  6. Be willing to take a vacation from caring so much about things. I recently wrote a whole piece about this for Scary Mommy.

I just got back from a beach vacation with my 3 and 6 year-old, and let me tell you, managing my expectations (that is, continually reminding myself that vacations with young kids are not relaxing), deliberately caring less about things, and setting a tentative daily routine for myself really helped me. I hope these strategies will help you, too.




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I’m Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco, Ph.D., aka DrCBTMom. combines the expert advice of a self-help book with the warmth and readability of a mommy blog.
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