I have a lot of personal tips on staying sane on family vacation. Here is one: don’t actually try to sleep four people in a four-man tent. Unless you enjoy the heat and weight of a 60-pound child on you, with mosquito’s buzzing around and sand up your…sleeping bag.
And that is my point, you see: my husband loves it. Likewise, for each family, different things work and don’t work to help keep people sane. Those things have to be discovered for each family, I think, by study, trial and error.
Try as I might, however, I have never found enough tips to keep me completely sane on a family vacation. Interestingly enough, it is not the big things that cause a family to break down. Flat tires, lost wallets, injured children…no problem. Try agreeing on a radio station, tolerating another squabble over the plumpest chicken leg or losing the hairbrush again…now that’s something to make any member lose it completely: from the 2-year-old to the 62-year-old.
What I have noticed over 20 years of clinical work and a decade of family life, is that it does help, when it comes maintaining sanity, for the whole family to reach an understanding. And that understanding is that it is not going to be realistically possible for all family members to act calm and mature throughout the whole vacation. Tensions will rise. So my favorite tip for staying as happy as possible is this: try to all take turns losing it.
Taking turns losing it means that parents and children agree, tacitly or through discussion, that when one family member seems to be having difficulty, the other family members will not judge, criticize, punish or otherwise act negatively to that person.
Instead, they will pay no heed to the agitation, or try to soothe, problem-solve and try to be helpful. Children are naturally good at taking turns melting down; getting the whole family to operate this way takes work.
Here’s how you do it. Mom, who got no sleep because she was being slept on, can’t find the hairbrush. She starts to raise her voice, “If we can’t put things where they belong, I’m not going to spend my entire vacation searching for something.”
Dad says, “Chill out, it’s just a brush, it’s a vacation. Bed-head is allowed.”
This response could make Mom realize she’s being foolish. Unless she has a fabulous sense of humor which can survive anything, feeling foolish will probably do little to improve her mood. To truly let her take her turn being foolish, Dad should say, “We need to start putting things away better. Kids – look for that brush. Now! Mom, let me get you another cup of coffee.”
Here’s another. Dad discovers that the map has become soggy and he is no longer able to discern which fork in the road to take. He shouts, “Kids! Quiet!”
Mom does not say, “It’s not the end of the world, Dear, just pull into that gas station and get the directions, Geez.”
Again, could make Dad feel foolish. Instead, Mom should stop being what Johnny Cash calls a “big-mouthed woman.” She should be quiet. Or she should tell the children to “Shhhhh, Dad needs to concentrate.”
Another. Little Sally’s Popsicle has broken and she insists that you walk another two miles to replace it. You are tired. There is just no way this is going to happen. If you want to let Sally take her turn being foolish, don’t say “Sally, I’ve gotten you everything you wanted this week, for once, just once, you are going to have to deal with not getting every little thing you want.”
This is going to make her cry much harder. She now has no Popsicle and a mean Mommy. Say, “Sally, I’m sorry I can’t do this for you now. I’ll make it up to you. Trust me.” Sally may need to act foolish for another five minutes or so. Just let her take her turn while you rest in your chair, trying to recover from not having slept.
Taking turns and allowing each member to be comfortably grumpy, disgruntled, agitated, upset or angry is a great way for a family to manage the inevitable: it is completely impossible to have a vacation free of tension, and no family member can consistently manage that tension with complete maturity and calm.
So that’s my tip: Discuss beforehand taking turns being there for each other. Learn to tolerate agitation with as much kindness and forgiveness as possible. Tension is contagious. Prepare yourself not to “catch” the tension so that you can take care of the person who is filled to the brim with it, and train your family to do the same.