Family Vacation Survival Guide

Children love vacations.  Not because they get to go to Disney World or some other place they’ve idealized in their minds, but because of a much richer treasure.  Usually, parents are more relaxed, more fun, more emotionally available. It’s common for kids to say that their favorite summer memory is something free and simple, like lying on a blanket looking at the stars with the family. These simple, sweet pleasures are the golden experiences that shape rich childhood memories.
Kids also love vacations with extended family.  They follow the older cousins around like puppies, and forge lifelong bonds with the kids their own age.  These visits often shape their memories of grandparents and provide a sense of heritage.

But vacation can also be stressful.  Kids often stay up late, get disconnected from parents, and melt down from the overload. I call it Family Vacation Stress Syndrome. (Of course, parents often experience their own version, whether from extended family tensions or logistical pressures. So the first rule for a restful vacation is to find a way to come to peace with your own issues!)

Even if it’s just your own family, on a vacation you’ve all looked forward to, the disrupted schedules, traveling, and the crash and burn from all the excitement can easily be a recipe for tears and tantrums at least as you all adjust. How can parents manage life during vacations to maximize the joy and minimize the tears?

1. Give kids plenty of warning about travel and upcoming events so they feel less pushed around and frightened of the unknown. Before traveling, you might make a little book to show them what will happen each day. (“Then we leave for Grandma’s, where you’ll get to play with all the cousins.”) It doesn’t have to be fancy — glue photos to loose-leaf paper, and put them in a 3-ring binder. Many kids love to draw a picture of what will be happening each day to add to your book.  This helps them both enjoy the anticipation and conquer any fears. And seeing smiling faces in advance helps them warm up more quickly to relatives they don’t see often.

2. Coach your kids about the social behavior you expect. 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?” 
  • “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?”


3. Keep kids on their usual schedule as much as possible. Kids need the security of familiar routines. They’re stressed by unfamiliar events and what feels to them like chaotic unpredictability.  Do what you can to keep them on schedule and be patient when they get hyped-up or irritable.

4. If you’re flying with kids, plan to arrive early enough that they get to “run” a bit in the airport hallway after sitting still in the car and before sitting still on the plane.  DON’T pre-board — your child will just have to sit longer in his seat.  Make sure to change diapers and use the bathroom just before boarding.  If you use overnight diapers (more absorbent), you might get lucky and avoid diaper changes on the flight.  Bring small wrapped “presents” – books, treats, chapstick, puzzles, simple crafts – for each child.  Kids can look forward to getting one as soon as they’ve buckled their seat belts, and several more whenever you need a distraction mid-flight.  Blue painter’s tape always comes in handy, too — you can  make a tic-tac-toe board on the tray table,  use it for crafts, tape up blankets around his seat to make a cozy fort, and even make a hopscotch board in the airport while you’re waiting.  Be sure to bring bottles, sugar-free lollipops or something else to suck on during take-off and landing if your child isn’t nursing.

5. Plan no more than one event per day.  What you want to avoid, of course, is racing around before you leave, getting stressed out by a busy trip that includes lots of meltdowns, and returning home in need of a vacation.  Kids tend to get cranky and stressed with travel and schedule changes, so plan to do less.  You’ll all enjoy it more.

6. Have age-appropriate expectations. A four year old can’t be expected to sit quietly while you enjoy a fancy dinner.  If you’re doing a lot of visiting with adults, be sure the kids have something to occupy them. If they can read, buy them a new book for the occasion, one they can’t wait to get into. If they’re too young to stay absorbed in a book, bring a dvd. Even if you usually have dinner as a family, vacations are a great time to feed kids early so adults can enjoy a chance to talk at dinner.  Remember, you need to recharge your own batteries, too!

7. Snuggle with your child every morning before getting out of bed.  It’s very grounding for kids to connect with you and review how the day is expected to unfold — even if it will be a lot like yesterday.

8. Schedule in some quiet decompression time every night.  Bring some favorite, comforting, books from home.

9. Make sure you have nightly quiet time after lights out to lie with your child and listen to her chat about the day.  Ask about their favorite thing today, the worst thing, and what they’re looking forward to tomorrow.This is when you’ll hear about minor conflicts or insecurities that your child is working to handle with the other kids. Don’t feel you have to jump in and “solve” the problem — your child mostly needs a chance to be heard and have her feelings acknowledged, so she can figure out how to advocate for herself.

10. Consider bringing some version of Blackout curtains with you on vacation to keep your child asleep longer in the morning — and to help your child settle on those summer evenings when the light stays so long.

11. White noise machines can be invaluable, both to keep kids sleeping longer in the morning, and to block out the sound of adults and older kids carousing so little ones can settle down.


12. Physical Activity- Be sure your schedule includes plenty of visits to the playground or other opportunities for the kids to get wild.

13. Down time.  Kids need downtime, just to chill out, snuggle, and do whatever relaxes them. If they don’t get it, they can’t really be blamed for melting down when the over-stimulation gets to them. 
What does your child do at home to relax?  Draw?  Play with her imaginary friend?  His little figurines?  Make sure every day includes a little downtime with your child’s favorite activity to help him regroup.

14. Soothing activities for little ones that work for most kids:

  • Sand play – Put some sand in a lasagna pan on the deck, add small figurines, vehicles, and a strong spoon for digging.
  • Water play – At the beach or lake, of course.  But even on a back deck with a spaghetti pot of water.  For variety, add ice cubes, paint brushes, sponges, plastic water pitchers. Toddlers love to “paint” the deck or wash the picnic table.
  • Bubbles.  You’ll have to help the little ones, but all kids love bubbles.  You can easily make your own bubble mix (Add 3 Tbsp of Glycerine and 2/3 cup of dish soap — Joy & Dawn are best — to a gallon of water.)  Any twig with a loop of yarn can be used as a bubble wand.
  • Clay- If you’re in a rented space on vacation, limit clay to a tray, pan, or outside.  But clay, sculpey or playdoh is a wonderful, tactile way for kids to knead and pound out the stresses that inevitably accompany all new experiences.


15. Watch your kids’ food intake in the midst of too many treats and hyped-up schedules.  Many tantrums originate from hunger. And all parents recognize the sugar high that sends kids bouncing off walls and then crashing into tears. If necessary, speak with grandparents in advance about limiting treats. And carry small protein-rich snacks with you so your child doesn’t have a melt-down while the adults are negotiating where to go to dinner.

16. Time with you.  Your kids may be chasing the older cousins, but they still want, and need, time with you.  This is a perfect opportunity to turn off your cell phone and see what an inspired parent you are when you have a chance to relax and revel in just being alive.  Just want to lie under the umbrella with your magazine? Make that your reward after you spend five minutes in the water with your child. You’ll be amazed how much more alive — and connected to your child — you feel after a five minute water fight.  And how much more cooperative your child is when you say it’s time to go home.

17. Look at this vacation as a chance to recharge and reconnect your family.

  Don’t try to work on vacation — this is family time.  Forgo organized evenings in favor of family board games and keep your focus on connecting fun rather than sight-seeing or structured activities.

18. The most important tip, as always in parenting, is to manage yourself so you can stay calm.
  Remember that traveling can be stressful for everyone, and your kids depend on you not only to regulate their environment, but also to help them regulate their moods. Make sure you take this opportunity to trade off child care responsibilities with other adults, if possible, so you get a chance to replenish your own spirits.  You’re never too old to have a summer vacation you’ll always remember.

Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.