As a child psychologist, the topic of vacationing with extended family members comes up quite a bit this time of year, and family relations and dynamics can certainly be complex. Packing into a beach house, trekking around Europe, going on a cruise or visiting a theme park with in-laws, aunts and uncles, grandparents or siblings can be adventurous and fun, but for others, it can be extremely challenging. As one parent recently told me, “Don’t get me wrong, I love my family, but shoving 14 of us into a beach house in Bethany Beach for a week never ends well.”
So, if you’re planning on vacationing with extended family, here are some tips to consider.:
Plan your accommodations in advance and be considerate. If you are planning to pack into one big beach house, be mindful that there will likely be many competing needs given the different aged children and adults in the house. This is why it’s always important to communicate about the accommodation logistics in advance. Are you planning to eat all meals together, and if so, who will prepare the meals and clean up? Are you a messy person? If so, you may need to clean up after yourself more than you are accustomed to. Likewise, if you are an extremely organized person that needs things to be a certain way, you may need to lighten up and go with the flow. How about sleeping arrangements? Grabbing the best room at the beach house for yourself and your children because you got there first is probably not going to be received well by others. Also, be mindful of the noise level.
Keep in mind that a week at the beach altogether can be too long for some. Benjamin Franklin once said, “House guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” So, maybe staying for a shorter week or renting something nearby may be a better option.
Figure out who’s paying for what before the trip. Even if the patriarch – or another family member – is generously paying for the cruise, beach house or hotel for everyone, be mindful that there will likely be additional expenses. Thus, agreeing on who’s paying for the food and drinks or other expenses is something to do before you travel, to avoid problems. If you are splitting expenses as a family, it’s always best to be crystal clear on the contributions and breakdown of things. Money, or disagreements about it can lead to tension and even more serious problems. And pay on time what you’ve agreed to contribute.
Give the grandparents a break. If you’re travelling with grandparents, discuss your expectations of them before you go. Certainly some grandparents enjoy watching their grandchildren while parents get out, but not all do. Also, grandparents may be up for some of the activities or excursions, but they may not have the energy, or interest, in doing all the things.
Separation is a good thing. Vacationing with your larger extended family doesn’t mean that everyone needs to remain together the entire time. Breaking up the pack and venturing out for different activities or excursions should help to keep spirits high. Even within your nuclear family, one-to-one time is important for kids with their parents.
Avoid complex and emotionally laden subjects. Politics, money and religion have long been considered three topics to stay away from during social events, and I would add, during a larger extended family vacation. You may feel justified in arguing your positive or negative views on President Trump, but how wise is that? Similarly, bragging about your new promotion or the nice things you own, especially if you have more than others, probably isn’t a good idea either. You may wish to pray before every meal with your family, but it’s presumptuous to think that everyone else should do as you do. You may also not approve of drinking alcohol socially in the presence of children or exposing your 8-year-old to a PG-13 movie, but your sister in law may be perfectly fine with doing both. I recommend being careful with voicing an opposing position or view of any kind with a family member when it comes to sensitive topics in the heat of the moment. Communicate in advance topics that matter to you.
Practice kindness. Research has shown that being kind to others pays back in dividends when it comes to your outlook on life and personal happiness. So, if there are dishes in the sink or garbage that needs to be taken out at the beach house, don’t wait to be asked. If there are grandparents on the vacation, maybe you could treat them to a date night out. A client of mine and his wife recently gave their first-class seats to their pre-teen nieces who they rarely get the see, and the girls had the experience of a lifetime. Kind gestures and offerings of any size can go a long way toward making your family members feel appreciated and loved.
Cherish the moment. There’s no right or wrong way to have a larger extended family vacation, but focusing on the good over the bad is the way to go. Sure, there are likely things you don’t like about certain family members, but no family is perfect, and the love you have and share is what matters most. Your family won’t be around forever, and nor will you, so don’t sweat the small stuff – create great memories and have fun!
Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice. He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America and several other outlets. He can be reached at 703 723-2999, and is located at 44095 Pipeline Plaza, Suite 240, Ashburn.