How to keep your family vacation from becoming an oxymoron

We are now in the midst of family vacation season. School is out for most, the weather is warm and inviting, and almost everyone's workplace is in their slow season. Many families choose to vacation in family groups consisting of parents and grown kids, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins, and/or in-laws. While these can be a lot of fun, there are potential problematic issues and downsides that can be anticipated and planned for. The following are more commonly occurring ones that can be headed off before they have the chance to ruin your family vacation.

Avoid the "this is the way it is done" trap

Just because your extended family has a long tradition of sharing vacations does not mean that this year's plans should be made using an old blueprint. Start planning early and include everyone in the where, what, and how long. Have a frank discussion about expectations and make sure everyone has ample opportunity to weigh in. Then look for compromises as it is unlikely everyone will have the same vision of what a perfect vacation would look like. Stress that this discussion is just a first step in planning the vacation location, size and layout of any shared space or to perhaps decide that separate spaces would work best for some of your clan.

This conversation will be impacted by past family vacation experiences and how satisfying/unsatisfying they were for everyone. This experience can be very useful in identifying and planning for any glitches or problems that put a damper on past trips and could be factoring into reluctance on the part of some family members to do this again.

Discuss space and boundaries upfront

Extended family vacations usually require that the group as a whole share community areas such as the kitchen, recreation room, porch, deck, and most likely, even bathrooms. Therefore other than sleeping/intimate time, the group will likely be spending their time together. The potential for stress caused by lack of privacy, overload, and increased noise/activity is definitely more likely.

Talk about how you will use this shared space before heading out for your vacation. You can assign areas for the kids to play, and/or for adults to find some quiet time for reading or using their personal devices. You may want to have a bathroom schedule so that the line doesn't form every day at the same time with people fuming because they can't get in. Sign up for shower times with the understanding that if someone needs to get in quickly, everyone will be flexible as long as no one takes advantage of this.

Parents may have very different parenting styles and if there will be kids from different family units, it would be useful to discuss expectations for bedtimes, mealtimes, nap times, and how discipline and order will be handled among the adults. Definitely give everyone the opportunity to discuss their needs and expectations in order to avoid misunderstandings and conflict later on.

Schedule time apart for healthy breaks

Even the closest family can get on each other's nerves when living together in the same house for a week-- especially when there are lots of kids involved. Consider planning a "date time" for each couple to get away for a few hours to do their own thing. Things like swimming, walking the beach, sightseeing, or sitting on the beach with a drink and talking after the kids go down for bed. It can really ease tension for each couple to squeeze in a few hours of alone time, especially when the kids are back at the house sleeping and fewer adults are needed to supervise. Consider grouping the kids up according to age and sex, choosing activities that are of greatest interest and are most appropriate for each. Also consider the budgets of those family members who may not be able to afford what others can, or who may be more financially well off than everyone else. Don't push activities or venues on anyone else as they may simply not be able to afford it but are uncomfortable spelling this out. In other words, don't feel like you have to do everything together, in fact, make sure you do not.

Have the money talk beforehand and throughout if needed

How will you split overall costs--straight down the middle, or prorated depending on the size of your little group/family unit? How will you divvy up checks if you decide that the whole group will go out for a meal together? If some individuals have special food needs/concerns/allergies, will they bring their own food and opt out of paying into the larger pot for food expenses? Will breakfast be on your own or will the house agree on a variety of choices and have those available to everyone, with the cost shared equally?

All of these questions and any others you can think of should be asked and addressed before you leave for your vacation. Bad feelings over how money is handled are common for extended families who vacation together.

Spell out how shared responsibilities will be divided and handled

Create schedules for meals and assign responsibility for who will take the lead in planning, preparation, and clean up. Take turns by signing up for different days and getting input from each other on menus so that everyone's tastes or food issues are known. Plan free? nights when you can split up and go out for a more intimate meal with your nuclear family.

Discuss general house clean up and maintenance. Will you clean bathrooms, sweep or vacuum the floors or do laundry during this vacation? How will you handle kitchen clean-up for snacks and meals other than dinner? If necessary, create a chore chart for anything that benefits the group as a whole, and emphasize that everyone is responsible for their own mess. If everyone is willing to do their part, it will go a lot more smoothly and help everyone avoid tense moments and bad feelings.

The keys to creating happy and harmonious family vacations are planning well in advance, open and clear communication, and establishing clear boundaries and upfront expectations. If you do this, the opportunity for misunderstandings and hurt feelings is greatly minimized. It's a vacation, so the last thing you want or need is drama and upset.


Toni Coleman, LCSW
Phone: 703-847-1768


Copyright 2008 Antoinette Coleman. All rights reserved.

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