Summer vacation should be a time when the family feels more connected. So why is it often so stressful?
In June, my stepdaughter and I flew to New York City, just the two of us, to chase the impossible dream of seeing the Broadway musical, Hamilton.
I treated those four days in New York with her as though they were a “love bomb”, a concept from psychologist Larry Cohen. A love bomb is an extended period of special time with your child, which usually entails going away with a child for an overnight or longer. You go to a place that they’ll enjoy, follow their lead, and love them up. I was so excited to spend this special time with my daughter and optimistic about how it would benefit our relationship.
During our four-day trip, I did mostly what she wanted to do. We stood in line for hours in the sweltering sun on 48th Street, with thousands of other hopefuls, trying to win one of the ten available tickets to the musical. And when we weren’t waiting in line, we went to Alexander Hamilton’s grave on Wall Street and to his house in Harlem, and visited the Drama Book Shop on 40th street—all things my budding musical theatre actress wanted to do.
We laughed as we climbed steep subway station stairs and stopped at ice cream trucks along crowded streets. We laughed about our diet of pizza, bagels, and chocolate dipped softies on sugar cones. We stayed up late and then fell asleep to the sound of sirens, in the heat of those New York nights. Although we never won the lottery to see Hamilton, we had lots of good connection time.
Total love bomb success, I thought… until the drive home from the airport, when my friend who picked us up asked about our trip. I said, “It was all about Hamilton.” My daughter chimed in from the back seat, “No, it wasn’t. You didn’t even want to wait on line every day!” (She was right—some mornings I didn’t want to get up at 6am for the lottery line like she requested, because I knew she needed more sleep, so instead we headed out at 11am.)
I couldn’t believe I was actually hearing disappointment in her voice—and I sensed more complaints coming. My mind started to explode. How could she be so ungrateful, so unappreciative of how hard I had worked to make her happy?
I was furious! I gave the whole car a speech about how we have to appreciate even the smallest things we have, otherwise disappointment breeds further disappointment and unhappiness.
After the wonderful together time I had orchestrated, I had such a strong reaction to my daughter’s words. My friend pulled into our driveway and my daughter went inside, but I stayed in the front seat, tears rolling down my face, and complained about how ungrateful my daughter was. I thought she would be all gratitude and love after this dream vacation together. What happened?
What happened is that I had forgotten what can happen during summertime. Summer often means more relaxed time with our kids, whether it’s on vacation or hanging out at home without homework to get done. When children get this time with us, big complaints or frustrations can surface as they feel the safety of our attention.
Summer often means relaxing some of our usual rules and worries, letting our children fill up on hours of free play— whether it’s running after an ice cream truck, staying at the park until dark, or camping in the backyard. And this extended play time doesn’t always result in greater peace and harmony; instead, it brings up buried emotions.
About summer vacations, Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting says, “…When the family comes together and spends extended time, a child’s limbic system, the seat of her emotions, gets the signal that life is better than usual. Feelings that don’t correspond to the closeness, the ease, or the sense of relaxation pop up, ready to be released. Those feelings, held in storage for days or months or years, don’t match the present circumstances.”
And that’s when we get mad!
Lots of relaxed time together can be tough, even if you do everything right. Beyond simply noticing this and adjusting your expectations accordingly, here are a few things that can help:
♥ If you’re on vacation and there are lots of people around, remember to get some one-on-one time with your kids and/or partner. If kids are playing with their friends or cousins for much of the day, they still need to check in and connect with you.
♥ Make time for snuggling in the mornings or before bed. And let children know in the morning what the plan is for the day, even if it’s similar to the day before.
♥ Schedule in down time every day, so that your child can decompress and take a break from a busy travel schedule.
♥ Watch your child’s food intake, as there may be more sugar around or a different eating schedule than they are used to at home. Offer protein-rich snacks (and make sure to bring enough with you).
♥ Put your work away and focus on family time. Reduce your time on your phone or tablet and find ways to connect with your kids through board games, silly play, or reading.
The moments we spend with our children over the summer can become some of their favorite memories. Many of us have our own lovely memories from our childhood summers—and we have forgotten how we too, as children, may also have experienced more upsets than usual, even alongside those wonderful times! If we as parents can learn to expect these frustrations and outbursts, and understand that they are a normal part of summer decompression and reconnection, we can stay more patient with our children. We can avoid taking these bubbles of emotion as signs that our investment in quality time has failed. In fact, they may be signs that we have succeeded!
And connected time can bring up some emotions for parents too (as it did for me)…so don’t forget to take care of your own needs.
If you’re needing a little extra support this summer, join me for a six week Parenting by Connection group—From Frustration to Cooperation and Closeness. Choose from Sunday evenings or a Friday morning call time. See more details here.