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How to Survive a Family Vacation

June 2016

Hurray! Summer vacation is here, and you are psyched about your upcoming family vacation! Aren’t you? Or, like many families, are you hoping for the best but secretly dreading the hours and hours of family togetherness?

Travel time together for a family vacation can sometimes just pull the family apart and un-do all of the shared (or still anticipated) enjoyment of your vacation activities. Why is it that a typical car trip to the store or the school is just fine for your child, but as soon as you start out on a multi-hour car adventure, your child is bored, hot, and hungry all within the first fifteen minutes?

The key to successful family travel is planning ahead. Here is a checklist of things to remember to prepare ahead of time:

  • Pack multiple snacks and drinks that you know your child likes
  • Decide who is going to sit where long before the time of your departure and share this information with everyone so that you can get all arguments out of the way ahead of time. You may need to schedule “shifts” of who gets to sit where – I would recommend writing them down so nobody forgets what you all agreed to.
  • Plan to eat a full meal just before you leave the house, or in the car as you are starting out
  • Make sure everyone visits the bathroom before getting in the car
  • Bring a blanket or pillow or stuffed animal that your child likes to snuggle with
  • Dress your child in layers, or be sure to bring extra sweatshirts in the cabin
  • Pack games, books, or electronics that can help keep your child(ren) occupied. Anything with headphones or ear buds is great at keeping conflict at a minimum.

On the road, get mentally prepared for all of the possible problems that might crop up, consult with your parenting partner, and make sure that you are in agreement about how to address behavior.

  • To deal with irritating, attention-getting behavior and conflict between your children due to boredom, consider bringing along a treat that comes in very small pieces (like dried fruit, yogurt-covered raisins, or small candies like M&M’s or Skittles). For every 10 minutes they can go without whining, complaining, fighting or arguing, give them one treat. You will be amazed at how far a small treat will go to make your car ride pleasant.
  • Plan activities to engage anyone in the car who cannot seem to find a way to entertain him or herself. Some road games include: finding all of the letters of the alphabet in road signs (if competition is a problem for your kids, make this a team effort to get to “z”), “20 Questions”, and naming desserts by each letter of the alphabet (or animals, cities, people’s names, etc.). Books on tape, CD, or electronic device are fabulous ways to get and engage everyone’s attention – and they help keep the driver awake (my personal secret for long drives).
  • Know ahead of time that you will need to stop many times for potty breaks so that you don’t get irritated about it when it needs to happen. Be sure to give everyone a “heads up” warning a few minutes before you stop, so that they can get their bladders thinking about whether or not they need to pee. You may decide that it is a requirement for everyone to at least try to use the bathroom. Then – swallow your annoyance and embrace the opportunity to stretch your legs! Encourage your kids to do a little exercise and stretching along with you. Potty breaks can be fun . . . really!
  • If there is a conflict in the back seat – try this as an “in the car Time-Out”: Require all members of the conflict to sit on their hands (yes, I did say they have to sit on their hands) and be completely silent for three minutes. If the conflict is really serious, you may have to pull over on the side of the road and have your child take a break outside of the car until he/she calms down (with appropriate supervision, of course). The rules of this Time Out or Re-Set or whatever you want to call it are the same as at home – use minimal words to give directions only (no lectures), adopt a neutral “I-don’t-care-how-long-this-takes” attitude, and follow through on requiring that your child achieves calmness for the amount of time that you have specified before getting back in the car and continuing on with your journey. Note that if your child just doesn’t like driving in the car and wouldn’t mind sitting on the side of the road in Time-Out, then this consequence will not work.

Most families do not have the kinds of idyllic family vacations that we fantasize about. If we are lucky, we get moments of family togetherness and fun that we cherish forever, sandwiched between the mundane ordinariness of whining and squabbling. Don’t be discouraged if this is your family – you will almost always have some wonderful moments to remember. The more prepared you are, the better the chances that you will all remember this vacation with the joy of shared family memories that keeps you all looking forward to your next vacation together.

Dr. Teri Bullis, Ph.D., BCBAI believe that every parent I’ve ever worked with loves their child and is doing the very best that they can. But while parenting is the toughest job anyone will ever have, children don’t come with a “how to” manual. I can provide those “how to” directions, tailored for your unique child and family situation.

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