Reduced expectations can cut stress

Kevin Leonard loves thinking about family vacations -- getting out the maps ahead of time, planning sightseeing adventures for the kids. He just hates going.

"As soon as I put the key in the car ignition, the stress level rises," admits Mr. Leonard, a father of three who lives in suburban Chicago. "It's very unsettling without the daily routines. I'm a surly, sullen grouch." The kids, he adds, who range from 2 to 8, can be just as moody.


"Everything falls apart when you go on vacation," he sighs. "It's probably better to stay home and do the laundry."

At least Mr. Leonard can take some consolation in knowing he's not alone. Stress is the awful little secret of family travel. We don't want to talk about it because we've convinced ourselves that family vacations should be fun from start to finish. That's what the commercials say, after all.


"We believe in the myth of family vacations as a nation," jokes Susan Kennedy, a Chicago family therapist.

And in these time-crunched days, we want whatever "family time" we've got to be perfect. We're certainly paying enough on vacation for the privilege.

But reality -- with kids -- isn't perfection. Whether it's a visit to grandma or the beach, a tour of Disney World or a major city, if the kids are along, you can bet the trip won't be the ideal family experience. It will be just like the kids -- noisy, messy and frustrating, with enough glimmers of wonderful to remind you why you've taken them in the first place.

It happens to me, too. My kids still talk about the time in Mexico when Matt lost an expensive snorkel in an underwater cave. I dove until I found it -- losing a contact lens and my cool in the process. "I'm glad nobody around here speaks English," Matt said sheepishly when I was done yelling about his carelessness.

Looking back, I think the difficulties of a week traveling solo with two kids in a foreign country had finally caught up with me. By that night, after a margarita or two, I was laughing along with the kids about "Mom's temper tantrum." No matter how bad things get, try to keep your sense of humor. It really does help.

"People should lower their expectations and think about what their goal is for a family vacation," advises UCLA child psychologist Jill Waterman, the mother of 9-year-old twins. "If you want to relax, don't plan a seven-day sightseeing trip. Plan a trip that decreases the demands, not increases them."

One mother plans as little as possible during her family's vacations, staying in one place and spending hours on the beach. "We take rest very seriously on vacation," she says with a laugh. "We do as little as possible to keep the kids happy."

Dr. Diane Holmes, a Chicago pediatrician, adds that her patients tell her a recipe for a stress-free vacation is to leave dad at home -- and head to the grandparents to visit with the kids. "I've done it myself and it's great," says Dr. Holmes, the mother of three.


Deborah Lerner Duane, who lives in New Jersey, says her secret to stress-free travel with her three kids is to "take a daily afternoon break. And then we're all ready to go again." Ms. Lerner adds it also helps to head home a day early. "It helps to ease the transition," she explains.

If you're a single parent, consider traveling with a friend and his or her family. Or head for a place that offers children's activities, suggests Andrea Engber of the National Organization of Single Mothers. (For a free copy of the newsletter SingleMOTHER, send a double-stamped, self-addressed envelope to P.O. Box 68, Midland, N.C. 28107.)

UCLA's Dr. Waterman adds that no matter what your style or where you're headed, it's always a good idea to keep a worst-case scenario in the back of your mind so that you'll be better prepared with stress-busting alternatives when your plans fall apart. Otherwise, you might end up the way she did -- housebound and crabby in Colorado when rain washed out camping plans.

"Always plan with the kids' needs in mind," she adds.

That means if you're visiting your college roommate, the kids won't be happy to spend the weekend just talking, Big Chill-style. Before they start whining and fighting, head for a nearby playground or initiate a touch football game.

If you're sightseeing, "Don't expect the kids to be as interested in seeing things as you are," says Ms. Kennedy. "Remember they're going to be kids wherever they are."


Keep in mind that vacations can be stressful for kids, too -- sleeping in a strange bed, for example, away from their friends, toys and the refrigerator. Siblings may fight more when forced into such close contact. My husband and I have tried dividing up for a morning or an afternoon so Matt and Reggie can get some time doing what they want to do -- and be away from each other.

Younger children can be especially discombobulated when they're away from home and daily routines. That's why, whether the kids are 7 months or 7 or 17, it's a good idea to plan less rather than more to lower the stress quotient. If the kids' idea of fun is to hang around the pool or watch movies in the hotel room, maybe you should let them -- for a while, anyway.

Most important, make sure you get a break, too. Hand the kids over to your spouse for a few hours while you laze on the beach and reciprocate later. Get a sitter for a night or two out. Don't feel guilty. It's your vacation, too.