How to have a happy family holiday

Family holidays can be fantastic, but the disrupted schedules, travelling, and the crash and burn from all the excitement can also be a recipe for tears and tantrums. So how can you manage holidays to maximise the joy and minimise the tears? Clinical Psychologist (and mother!) Dr Laura Markham shares her ideas…

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  1. Give small children plenty of warning about travel and upcoming events…so they feel less pushed around and frightened of the unknown. Before travelling, you could make a little book to show them what will happen each day. (“Then we leave for Grandma’s, where you’ll be able to play with all your cousins.”) It doesn’t have to be fancy – print out photos, and stick them in a notebook. 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.
  1. Chat to your children about the social behaviour 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 quiet voices and we don’t run. Why do you think that is?”
“What do you when Auntie Jane wants to hug you hello?” (Don’t force them to hug if they don’t want to, but teach them to offer a friendly handshake instead.)
“What if you don’t like the dinner that’s served?”
“The aeroplane is like a flying village with everyone close together, so there are special rules to be safe and considerate. It can be hard to stay in your seat…what do you think you could do on the plane if you get bored?”

  1. Keep children in their usual routine 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.

  1. If you’re flying, plan to arrive early…enough that they have chance to ‘run’ a bit in the airport hallway after sitting still in the car and before sitting still on the plane. Make sure to change nappies and use the toilet just before boarding. If you use overnight nappies (more absorbent), you might get lucky and avoid changes on the flight. Bring small wrapped ‘presents’ – books, treats, lip balm, puzzles and simple crafts – for each child. Kids can look forward to getting one as soon as they’ve buckled up their seat belts, and several more whenever you need a distraction mid-flight. Be sure to bring bottles, sugar-free lollipops or something else to suck on during take-off and landing.
  1. 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 holiday. Kids tend to get stressed with travel and routine changes, so plan to do less. You’ll all enjoy it more.

  1. 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!

  1. 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. Do the same at nighttime, while reading some favourite books from home.
  1. Go easy on the treats.

Many tantrums originate from hunger. And all parents recognise 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 meltdown while the adults are negotiating where to go to dinner.

  1. Play with your child

Holidays are a perfect opportunity to turn off your phone and see what an inspired parent you are when you have a chance to relax. 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.

  1. 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 share childcare 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 holiday you’ll always remember.

By Dr. Laura Markham, founder of and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life


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