by Phyllis L. Neumann, MS, MFT

Summer is the time when many families plan their vacations, but family vacations can often lead to family misery even under the best of conditions. Being together for long periods of time can often bring out tension and fighting. The good news is that there are things you can do to help you and your family have a really great time.

Watch out for:

Unrealistic expectations. Many families can take only one vacation a year. This tends to create pressure to make the most of the time available. Trying to jam vacation time into a couple of weeks of fun can often create stress just the opposite of what you want.

Pre-trip anxieties. Just getting on the road can often be a major undertaking. There may be so much apprehension and excitement leading up to the trip that fights often break out even before you leave the house.

Getting there and back. One of the biggest pitfalls of pre-planned vacations is to race to your destination as quickly as possible so that you make the most of the time you're there. Very often, by the time you reach your goal, there's so much stress that parents are barely speaking to each other and kids are screaming and hitting each other.

Forced activities. Sometimes one dominant family member insists on an activity and drags the rest of the family along kicking and screaming. This can lead to moodiness or sabotage and a guaranteed bad time for all.

Luckily, there are things you can do to avoid all this:

Know your vacation goal. Is it more important to be together or to see the sights? Sometimes just playing a game or taking a walk together can be more fun than maintaining an exhausting schedule or taking in every available activity.

Keep your plans flexible. Things can always go wrong and very often do. There's always a chance something, or someone, will rain on your parade. Have alternate plans in mind in case problems arise. Better yet, just take things one day at a time.

Make frequent stops along the way. Spending long periods of time cramped in a tight car can be hard on everyone's nerves. Children, especially, tend to get bored, restless and irritable. Try integrating your road trip with your vacation don't just make traveling a means to an end. Plan for frequent stops along the way, such as picnics, movies or museums. Arriving a day later than you had planned may leave you feeling more refreshed, in a better mood and more able to enjoy the rest of the vacation.

Make sure you plan frequent food and bathroom stops before they are needed. Don't wait for the familiar whines, "When are we going to eat?" "I'm getting hungry!" or the ever-popular, "I really have to go now!"

Three days can rot both fish and family. Being confined together can create tension and cause tempers to flare up. By the end of three days everyone's best behavior has usually worn thin and old familiar patterns tend to creep back in. Every three days or so regroup and reevaluate your vacation plans.

Take time for separate activities. It's important to take a break from the family. Set aside time when you can be alone to read or take a nap. Children need their space too. If you're camping, bring along an extra tent to give the children a place to themselves. This will give you more alone time for as a couple, to be intimate and to get reacquainted. It will also help you better enjoy your children more because they won't be constantly under foot.

Plan for physical activities, which tend to relieve frazzled nerves and renew spirits. Throw a Frisbee around, take frequent walks, hike along scenic trails and explore the area.

Finally, check in with each other frequently. In the excitement of the day it's very easy to step on each other's toes. Children have a tendency to act out or withdraw if they are being dragged from place to place and their own needs aren't getting met. Try to get everyone to talk about how they're each doing, what they need, what they'd like to do, and also and to register any complaints. Don't wait for the tension to build into an inevitable explosion.

Plan your trip sensibly regroup and rethink your plans as you go
and you will have a great time!

Published in the Half Moon Bay Review on June 27, 2007