How to survive vacation with kids

"Are we having fun yet?" I asked, after the 18th meltdown.

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Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

We are on “vacation” with our kids right now, and it is hell. I was so excited for a week of relaxing by the beach, but my kids are having twice as many meltdowns as usual, they’re waking up at 5am, and they’re bickering constantly over stupid shit. I give up.

Best,

Where’s the Xanax

Dear Where’s the Xanax,

I feel your pain! I’m writing from Maine, where we are visiting my parents and also very much struggling with the reality of vacationing with tiny humans. (This one also involved my daughter’s birthday, and if your kids are anything like mine, birthdays are VERY EMOTIONAL.) I think that Emily W. King, a North Carolina-based child and adolescent psychologist, summarized it perfectly in an IGTV video she made a few weeks ago: For parents of young kids, she said, vacations aren’t really vacations — they’re more like family field trips. “If you think about it as a vacation, you probably will set yourself up for feeling disappointed,” she said. So true.

Look, some kids do great on holiday. My best friend has two kids under five, and she just spent three months on the road with them — camping, Airbnb-ing, keeping them up late — and they did fine (yes, I’m jealous). But other kids (my kids!) are not built that way. Some children “have a harder time with vacation, because just temperamentally, they're the kids who have a harder time with change, and transition,” explained Claire Lerner, a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist when I called her for advice last week.

Often, the kids who struggle are ones who are prone to anxiety, because the upending of their daily routine fuels a fear of the unknown — if tomorrow isn’t going to be the way it always is, then maybe something scary is going to happen. These kids aren’t being difficult for the sake of being difficult: They’re feeling unsettled, and the way they show that is by being more emotional, clingy, demanding, and challenging. When we were in Vermont last month, my daughter woke me up every morning with “What are we doing today? We need to create a schedule RIGHT NOW GET OUT OF BED HURRY UP!”

But! There are things parents can do to make vacation more like vacation — or at least, less meltdown-y and difficult. Here are some tips I’ve gleaned from experts.

  1. Prepare your kids for what’s going to happen and when.

Kids often struggle on trips because they don’t know what’s coming next, so filling those gaps can help. “The more you can help them know what to expect — where you're going, what you're going to be doing, what the place looks like, who's going to be there — to the extent that you can do that can be very, very helpful,” Lerner said. If you’re renting a house, go on the rental website with your kids a few days before so they can see photos and get an idea of what it will look like. If you’re visiting Grandma and Grandpa, pull up pictures of them or connect with them over FaceTime before you arrive so your kids remember what they’re like. If you’re traveling with a family that your kids don’t know, try to get everyone together before the trip — or at least, describe the family and what they’re like so your kids have an idea of what to expect. “The more you can make it concrete for them, the better,” Lerner said.

Of course, you won’t always know what to expect, and that’s OK — just be honest and make some educated guesses. You might say I’m not exactly sure what will happen right when we arrive, but I bet we’ll unpack the car, and then we’ll eat lunch with Grandma and Grandpa.

  1. Coach your kids on what kind of behavior you expect.

After a year of living alone in our house during the pandemic, our kids forgot how to be polite and not eat like monsters. So before we left home to visit my parents, my husband and I talked to them about what we expect in terms of politeness and table manners. And you know what? It made a huge difference: The kids really made an effort at the the first family dinner. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen my son eat peas without using his hands.

Psychologist Laura Markham has some great suggestions for these conversations on her blog:

Role play with them in the car before you arrive, or make a game of it before you go:

"In the hotel hallways, we use inside voices and we don't run. Why do you think that is?"

"What do you when Uncle Norman wants to hug you hello?" (Don't force kids to hug if they don't want to, but teach them to offer a hearty handshake instead.)

"What if you don’t like the dinner that’s served?"

"When you want to leave the table, how do you ask?"

"The airplane is like a flying village with everyone close together, so there are special rules to be safe and considerate. Let's see if we can guess what they are... It can be hard to stay in your seat...what do you think you could do on the plane if you get bored?"

“What will you do if the cousins start arguing?”

  1. Maintain the important parts of your kids’ routines.

Part of what we (grown-ups) love about vacation is that we get to upend our normal routines and do whatever we want. Or at least we used to, before we had kids. The fact is, some kids really need certain kinds of structure to thrive. My children, for instance, need consistent bedtimes, or they get all out of whack — so even when we’re on vacation, we try to maintain the same bedtimes and bedtime routines.

Other kids may have different triggers. Some don’t fare well when they eat lots of junk food; if that’s your kid, you’ll want to be intentional about the meals you serve on trips. Some kids get really grumpy when they have too much screen time. It really depends on the kid — think about what helps your children thrive, and try to fulfill those needs while you travel.

We’ve found, too, that our kids appreciate when we make schedules every morning (by which I mean, my daughter demands it as soon as she wakes up, as I mentioned above). I emphasize to my kids that the schedule is flexible and might change (and it often does), but they love preparing for the day and what it might entail. Again, this is not something every kid will need, but my anxiety-prone kids love it.

If you’re traveling with another family, you may also want to talk with the other parents in advance about some of the structural things you’ll need to maintain. If you and your co-vacationers handle bedtimes very differently, for instance, how will you manage those differences when your kids are together? Would it also help for you to talk to your kids about these plans before you arrive? The more you can have these conversations in advance, the more in control you will feel, Lerner said — which is a win as well.

Also: If you’re traveling with others (like friends or grandparents) and you have a child who’s a bit more sensitive or challenging, it may also help to be your child’s translator and mediator. Prepare the other adults for what they might expect and how best to interact with and support your child. When we arrived at my parents’ house the other day, I explained to them that my daughter was feeling extra sensitive because of her birthday and the recent changes to her schedule. I also advised them that when she gets upset, she prefers being left alone. I wanted to give my parents a heads up about what they might expect to see from my daughter, as well as some tools to support her in her difficult moments.

  1. Feel free to let loose on other things and don’t worry too much about the consequences.

This all said, you can certainly relax your rules a bit on vacation — the ones that won’t turn your kids into monsters, anyway. If your kids are flexible sleepers, by all means, let them stay up late. And sure, why not go out for ice cream every day. Let them have more screen time than usual if they can handle it and you want the break. A lot of parents worry about setting new precedents on vacation and then being unable to rein things back in afterwards, but kids adapt, Lerner said — you just have to explain to them that the rules on vacation are different from the rules back home.

These kinds of conversations can also help when kids visit relatives who do things differently than you do. “When they go to the grandparents, and then they come home and they're like, ‘Grandma let me stay up till 10 o'clock, and we watched Frozen 50 times,’ you can be like, ‘Okay, that's awesome. But in our house, we don't watch TV after dinner. And I know that's really disappointing. And it's a little confusing, but different households have different rules. Here, we don't watch TV after six.’ They'll complain and protest and try to yank your chain to get you to change your mind — but if you stay calm and clear, they adapt,” Lerner said.

That’s the thing about kids — they are often adaptable and resilient when they are given the information and support they need. A little preparation and communication can go a long way — though, yes, your vacation may still feel more like a field trip than an exotic getaway.

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Book news: Parents magazine has run an excerpt of my book HOW TO RAISE KIDS WHO AREN’T ASSHOLES in their August issue!!! It’s all about constructive ways to manage sibling conflict — which might also be a useful read if you’re on vacation. Check it out!

Speaking of my book…. it’s out ONE WEEK FROM TODAY!!!!! I’m so excited, I can barely sleep anymore. Please pre-order it — pre-orders can make such a difference to the overall success of a book, as I’ve explained before — and please share info about the book with your friends, loved ones, parent groups and school groups!

Pre-order my book!

Don’t forget about my book launch events, too:

  • In-person outdoor launch event on July 18 at 4pm ET at the Desmond-Fish Public Library in Garrison, NY with Tracy A. Prout

  • Virtual launch event at 8pm ET on July 20 with Emily Oster, hosted by Anderson's Bookstore