Family Vacation: Tips to Bond and Make Good Memories (and Avoid a Nightmare)

While packing for our ritual summer vacation, our children now 23 and 26, I catch glimpses of them frolicking in my minds eye when they were little. It’s as if each of their younger selves jumps into my suitcase, eager to come along. I welcome them gladly. Such is the blessing and power of cycles, of circles and the rituals that allow us to pause and connect, to center while embracing the passages and transitions of life. Being someone ever-hungry for growth and change, from time to time, I feel the strong need to plant my feet in what feels familiar, simple, delightful. 

Not needing to be fancy or expensive, I am a big believer in creating good family memories, and with continuity. Setting aside time and making a plan.  Making connection a priority, attuning to and balancing everyone’s needs, depending on their life stage, personal preferences, strengths and weaknesses. When it comes to vacation, I relish the deep sense of comfort and security returning to the same places year after year, breathing into the well-known. And at the same time, through venturing out, exploring unknown places, we can take our family bond to a whole deeper level.

All groups, and the people in them, benefit from a sense of belonging. Our need to belong ranks up there with food and shelter. Without it, as Brene Brown puts it, “We don’t function as we were meant to.  We fall apart. We break. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.” Family vacations can enhance our sense of belonging, rejuvenate our spirit and provide an often needed grounding force, especially as kids take leaps toward independence.

We all have different levels of healthfulness within our families.  While even dysfunctional families can have good experiences with positive memories, sometimes bonding closer with family is not the most self loving choice. I recommend for some to create belonging and traditions with surrogate relatives, if you will—that is, with friends, neighbors, spiritual community, extended family or even fellow sports or music fans. So feel free to replace “family” vacation when you see it, with “family of choice” vacation. 

So how can we create good memories on family vacation, and at the same time avoid the mistakes that can lead to a nightmare?

  1. Engage your family in the planning. When we have a voice, we feel respected, valued and more invested. Feeling like a creator of the vacation, we belong to it. Cooperative input also has a practical side.  Everyone is more likely to be happy, understand that we all matter and family happiness is a democracy.

  2. Don’t pack your expectations.  Set intentions yes, but be prepared to do some letting go. It’s vital that we have desires, to know what we want— and as parents, to create boundaries. But without a good muscle for “letting go” our intentions sneak into expectations and then we throw our power away to people and external circumstance. And others feel it. Expectations create a negative energy and a risk for conflict Be prepared to focus on what matters most and accept that you will likely experience some moment of let down. That’s okay, and part of life. You have the power to let go, connect within yourself, let the situation breathe as it is and to focus on the good.

  3. Balance group time and activity level. Especially with sensitive or tense dynamics, leave room for space and down time. And use good self care. Tired and “hangry,” now that’s a set up for disaster.  Make sure you allow time for some solitude to connect within and center. Our relationships with others can only be as positive and true as the connection we have with our self. 

  4. Take a tech-break. Picking places in nature for vacation can be a wise move, especially because our magical, natural world encourages mindfulness, self reflection, pausing and listening.  Around, between and within us. Some families bring a bowl to stow phones away, and pick a common 30 minute window for connecting with the device-driven world.

  5. Plan meaningful bonding time.  I like to let my family know in advance some ideas I might be thinking about that could be fun and help us connect.  And then in the spirit of collaboration, invite any of their ideas. This can include mapping out our nights to grill in or dine out (we’re foodies), arrangements for music, hiking, or frisbee; or something more heartfelt like bringing something you’ve read that inspires you to share. Last trip, I brought along a little purple journal I found with family quotes and funny moments logged from years way back. This year, I might suggest we wrote poetry and share. A hit when they were 7 and 10, we’ll see how that flies.