We are just back from a week’s holidays to the snowfields and I thought I’d share with you some reflections and ideas that might make your next trip smoother and more enjoyable. Some of the things below I managed to do, and they really helped! And other things I didn’t do, but will be reminding myself to do before we go on our next trip! 😉
So here’s my 6 steps to a fun and connected family holiday …
Disclaimer: The photos you see here represent some of the highlights of the trip. Please do not be under the impression that the whole trip was this fun, connected and wonderful! We had lots of challenging and stressful moments and periods of uncomfortable disconnection! But the ideas in this article helped to keep bring us back into connection and make it an overall enjoyable trip!
1. Offload uncomfortable feelings and fill your own cup in the lead up
In the lead up to going on holidays, we can be so busy planning and packing that we don’t take the time to prepare ourselves emotionally for the trip. More often than not, we might be feeling that we are “really needing a holiday”, our stress levels might be up and our cups may be empty. Given that holidays can actually be a time of new challenges and extra stress, it can help to really prepare ourselves for them by making sure that we’ve had some listening time to offload any stress or uncomfortable feelings we are holding on to in the lead up, and also some time to fill our cups by doing things that we find enjoyable and nourishing. This will get us off to the best start for a fun and connected holiday with our loved ones! For me personally, I had my regular listening partnership phone call (where I take turns with a partner to have uninterrupted time letting all our thoughts and feelings out, while the other listens empathically without judgement or advice), a good brisk walk, a relaxing bath and visited my osteopath in the days before we left.
2. Role play any parts you feel might be challenging
I love role play for preparing kids for new and challenging situations. I suggest doing it for a few days before you leave. Grab some dolls or soft toys, cardboard boxes, sticky tape, textas/markers, pieces of fabric and anything else you need to set up a pretend version of what you might encounter. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just a good enough representation, and sometimes the worse the representation, the funnier it can be (I recall using a piece of string and 50c piece to role play a stethoscope for an upcoming doctors visit once, with great effect!). Once we’re set up, we can invite our kids to play through the situation with us in a light and playful way. As well as being lots of fun, it can help kids to become familiar with the situation, release any mild fears or apprehension through laughter, and work through any other uncomfortable feelings that arise.
I’m disappointed to say that didn’t do any with my son this time around. I was so enjoying looking back on the photos of our last trip to the snow three years ago (with rose coloured glasses!) and reminiscing about how wonderful it was, that I didn’t anticipate my son’s discomfort around being in the snow and going skiing. I really wish I had because it could have made this part of our holiday a lot easier and more successful! In our case, I would have suggested trying all our ski gear on at home, made some cardboard skis and stuck them onto some boots to move about in, perhaps formed some kind of snow slope using white fabric, made snow balls out of crumpled up paper, and cobbled together some kind of chair lift. I can only imagine how much this could have helped my son, and how much fun we could have had doing it!
3. Be prepared for your children’s positive emotions
This might seem obvious and unnecessary. We want our kids to be happy about and enjoy going on holiday, right? But kids’ excitement can feel and look very similar to stress and agitation. In fact, there might even be an element of apprehension or nervousness mixed in with these more enjoyable feelings. Excitement can be loud and it can be active. If your child is anything like mine, it might look like running around the house yelling and squealing when you are trying to finish packing and get on the road. Or talking incessantly and kicking the seat in front when you finally get on your way.
Either way, joy and excitement can sometimes be uncomfortable for us adults; when we are in a hurry and just wanting to get on the road, or when we are stressed and wanting peace and quiet. And sometimes we are just plain uncomfortable with our kids’ expression of positive emotions. And this might particularly be the case if our parents were uncomfortable with us expressing joy and excitement. We might have grown up with the idea that children should be seen and not heard, or at least quiet and self-controlled. So we might cringe, or become irritated or angry, when our kids are being big and loud and expressive, even if it is out of happiness.
It can really help to recognize that we are feeling uncomfortable, and to pause what we are doing and acknowledge our own feelings with empathy. On our recent trip, it was really supportive for my husband and I to share with each other how challenging we were both finding our son’s excitement/agitation, as well as how we were really wanting to be with him (accepting, relaxed and loving). Next, it helps to slow down and become present with our children, observe them and try to mirror their expression. This might look like acknowledging their feelings, by saying “You look really excited!”, with an excited look on your face. It might be playfully joining them in their excitement, running around the house with them, yelling “Woo hoo! We are going on holidays! Yipee!”.
4. Be prepared for your children’s uncomfortable emotions
Holidays can bring up lots of uncomfortable feelings for kids (and parents – more about that below – which can in itself be a source of stress for children). Long trips can mean boredom, tiredness and disconnection. A change in routine and environment can be unsettling for kids. And holidays often involve getting out of our comfort zones; eating different foods, sleeping somewhere different, not having our usual things around us, doing new things and meeting new people. While these things can often be a source of fun and enjoyment, they can also bring discomfort for some children (and adults!).
When we are able to accept children just as they are, acknowledge their feelings, offer loving attention and listen as they release those feelings through crying, tantruming and raging, they are usually more relaxed, content, easy-going and confident afterwards. So when our child is unhappy, reluctant or uncooperative, rather than trying to push on, adhere to our plans and “have fun”, it can really help to stop and make the space and time to connect with our children and listen to their feelings (and our own). Heidi Grainger Russell shares a beautiful account of listening to her son’s feelings on holidays here: http://www.handinhandparenting.org/2016/02/why-your-child-acts-up-on-vacation/
When we are on holidays, it can sometimes feel extra challenging to respond in a patient and loving way to our children’s uncomfortable feelings. So it can help to bring awareness to what is blocking us, to notice what we are feeling and telling ourselves. For example, we might notice that we are feeling frustrated and having thoughts that our children’s feelings are getting in the way of our ‘fun family holiday’. Or we might be feeling embarrassed and thinking that other people (especially other family members) are judging us for our children’s expression of sadness, fear or anger. And our own uncomfortable feelings can make it very difficult to be present and empathise with our children.
Again, if we are finding it difficult to listen to and accept our children just as they are, we can offer ourselves empathy and compassion for our own discomfort. We might also choose to reframe any beliefs that are getting in the way of us listening. For example, we can choose to focus on our children’s uncomfortable feelings as an opportunity to reconnect with our children, and reassure ourselves that their uncomfortable feelings are better out than in and that supporting their release is likely to lead to an easier and much more enjoyable holiday for all!
5. Plan to reconnect after periods of disconnection
A sense of disconnection can be a major cause of our children’s unenjoyable behaviour, and that fun physical play can be a great way to reconnect with them. So once you have kids, rest stops aren’t just for toilets, food and stretching one’s legs. They are a really valuable opportunity to reconnect after a long stretch of driving (or being in a bus, train, plane or ferry!). Running or skipping around a park together, holding hands, doing big jumps, chasing, and any other fun physical activities your child enjoys can be fantastic for reconnecting at rest stops. (I must say that the need for this was more obvious when my son was younger, and this involves a bit more awareness now that my son is old enough to spend a lot of the trip on the iPad.) This connection might also open things up for your child to share his more uncomfortable feelings with you, so be prepared for that too.
I also find that some of my everyday cues for attachment play are specific to our home and daily routine. So when we are staying somewhere different I need to be really conscious of looking for ways to play and connect with my son. Pillows are something that are usually available, and can be great for fun and connecting pillow fights. I often take balloons along with me too (I forgot this time, but fortunately found some in my bathroom bag!), and they can be great when waiting at airports as well. We play a game where we bat the balloons to each other like tennis, or another where we cooperatively try to keep the balloon in the air. It can lead to lots of laughter and connection, and there’s not so much risk of anything getting broken! Socks and nappies can also make great play missiles, leading to a hilarious fast-paced game. And I find that all these games can be just as great for reconnecting with our partners as they are with our kids.
6. Find ways to support yourself with uncomfortable feelings while you’re away
Family holidays can bring up lots of uncomfortable feelings for parents too. And when the kids are always around, it can be difficult to find a private moment to debrief with your partner or phone a friend. I’d recommend taking along your journal so that you can let your feelings flow out on the page and help you to return to a state of calm if you’ve been triggered. You might also want to arrange for a listening partner to be available to respond to “emergency texts” with empathy and support. Finally, physical activity can help to shift an uncomfortable feeling state if you are feeling stuck and unable to budge it with journaling or a listening partner isn’t available. A quick brisk walk of even just 10 minutes can be enough to shift the way you are feeling about your family and your holiday and get you back on track!