How Your Brain Morphs Stressful Family Vacations Into Pleasant Memories

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In 2015, my husband and I traveled to Washington, D.C., for our annual family vacation with our energetic son, who was then 8. There were no mishaps or disasters, but my husband and I spent most of our time bickering and stressed out.


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Maybe it was the fact that we two born-and-raised Floridians were out of our element visiting 30-degree Washington in December. It could have been that we planned hours of walking, sightseeing and museum-hopping with no downtime. It went exactly as planned but it wasn't exactly fun.

But as we sat in the airport awaiting our flight back to the Florida sunshine, all we could talk about was how we couldn't wait to go on another vacation.


We somehow had transformed a stressful experience into a great memory. How do parents do this to ourselves?

"We have two 'selves,'" explained Dr. Omar Sultan Haque, a Harvard University psychiatrist and social scientist. "The experiencing self and the remembered self. In the midst of vacation stresses, we may be stressed and annoyed by family and children and the indignities of bureaucratic travel, but the remembered self easily turns nausea into nostalgia."


Even though we think of vacation as a time to relax and recharge, traveling with children comes with a certain level of difficulty. It takes stamina, financial commitment and time.

The memories, however, are typically positive because of the value we infuse into the experience. "We tend to think of these kinds of experiences on the pleasure/pain level, but really, giving a child the gift of a vacation is more on the meaning/moral plane," Dr. Haque said. The uninterrupted time together ideally allows for sharing new experiences, great conversations and laughter. These are the moments that have parents planning the next trip.


Still, most parents would love to enjoy more of the vacation in the moment rather than wait for the remembered self to kick in. Some small changes go a long way.

"Kids like sameness, security and feeling safe," said Dr. Suanne Kowal-Connelly, a pediatrician in Freeport, N.Y. "Sometimes trips feel rushed and scary. The plane or car is claustrophobic, parents are typically exhausted and cranky, and the accommodations are beautiful, but they aren't home."


Dr. Kowal-Connelly suggested mitigating major stressors before the trip begins. "Plan flight or travel more in tune with your kids' biological clocks," she said. A red-eye might be cheaper, but is it worth the chaos of a tired toddler?

Additionally, make it a point to give children undivided attention while traveling. Plan games that you can do together as a family while on your flight or in the car.


[Read more about better family vacations in our guide, How to Travel With Children.]

Just as you think ahead to pack snacks to help keep your kids' moods stable, you can also anticipate ways to keep your own equilibrium balanced. If you are determined to have the perfect family vacation, you may feel a disproportionate level of distress when things go wrong.


"One way to bring expectations down to a reasonable level is to consider how we think and talk about the trip ahead of time," said Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College. "If parents position a vacation as 'the best trip ever,' then they are setting expectations really high and it won't take much to be disappointed."


Small hiccups like bad weather, an afternoon temper tantrum or an unplanned museum closure can be a letdown, but if expectations are reasonable, bouncing back by finding something else to do or regrouping for some much-needed nap time can make all the difference.

Realistic expectations also mean evaluating how much activity children can manage. Too many activities can make children anxious and edgy, leading to meltdowns. "Plan age-appropriate activities, and only choose one or two per day," Dr. Saltz said. "Children and parents have shorter fuses when overtired, which can lead to arguing or temper tantrums."


It's important to think about each family member's interests and tolerance for the activities planned. Sleeping in a hammock under a palm tree may sound idyllic to one family member and agonizingly boring to another.

Dr. Haque suggested "planned letting go": leaving unplanned hours in each day to make room for downtime. Vacation is, in the end, about decompression from daily life, and overplanning causes exhaustion, which can make it difficult to deal with one another at the end of the day. "Create space for spontaneity, exploration of new surroundings, and improvisation with family and friends," he said.


When it comes to vacationing with older children, parents often expect that their preteens and teenagers will put down their devices, disconnect from their friends and their home lives, and fully immerse themselves in the experience. "Children don't morph into new people just because the family is on vacation," Dr. Saltz said. "Set some boundaries before the vacation begins," she suggested. "Understand that older children need to be able to connect with their friends and that they're going to want time on their phones."

If you set limits on your kids' screen time, remember to put down your phone, too. Get into the water with your kids rather than sit in a chair and scroll through social media. And consider reversing the roles when it comes to taking photos. "Sometimes, posing for constant photos can be tiresome for kids, so switch roles and let them take some photos of you," Dr. Kowal-Connelly said.

Consider going through pictures after the fact, though. "Photos are a step removed from the shared experience," Dr. Saltz said. "Talking about the experiences and sharing feelings verbally and without distraction is powerful."

The next time my family visits Washington, we'll pick a warmer month for starters. Rather than conducting another forced march through the endless Smithsonian museums and trudging to every last monument, maybe we'll hop on one of those double-decker tour buses or let our son choose an activity. It could be that the best memories come from those spontaneous moments between the lines of our itineraries, and next time, that's what I'm planning.



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