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Low Stress Family Vacations: A Therapist Shares 6 Tips

We often romanticize family vacations as special times filled with fun, family bonding, and memory-making. In reality, family vacations are really stressful! It’s normal to feel frazzled while planning, packing, and taking family trips.

But you’re in luck! Not only am I a veteran of family travel, I also hold a graduate degree in psychology. In my day job, I specialize in teaching parents how emerging research shows us how specific childhood experiences can strengthen family bonds and build resilience in kids. Based on my experience, In this post I share 6 research-supported ways to plan a meaningful family vacation while spending less time and energy stressing.

You’ll learn:

Find Mindful Moments for the Whole Family

Overplanning, overpacking, and inflating expectations can all increase stress on a family trip. Mindfulness can help. Mindfulness involves checking in with our senses, breathing deeply, and noticing the world around us. Doing so, according to researchers, can help us regulate emotions, respond more thoughtfully, and enjoy a destination more deeply (Grossman et. al., 2004).

Mindfulness on a family vacation can include:

  • spending 10 minutes on a beach collecting rocks and building a mandala in the sand
  • going into the woods tech-free to see how many different sounds the family can identify.
  • sitting still on a dock and noticing the fish under the surface.

These examples are ways that invite family members of all ages to connect with their senses and be present to the world around them (that’s mindfulness!). Kids sometimes need a different approach to mindfulness than grownups, but that’s ok- even gamified, mindfulness has big benefits in reducing stress and anxiety.

While practicing mindfulness, pay attention to your body and your breath. Your mind may wander but that’s ok! That’s what brains do. Notice the thoughts, and return them to focus on the present.

If you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort, consider popping over to in-house yoga sessions- as a family or by yourself. Yoga-based mindfulness can help reduce stress. See my article on mindful travel for more ideas.

Create an Itinerary (For Everyone)

It’s not unusual for each family member to be really excited about doing something different on your trip. Creating an itinerary well in advance gives you a chance to hear everyone’s voice and make a few revisions.

Once finalized, good itineraries help everyone know what’s happening and when. They can reduce questions, chaos, and arguments by clearly communicating expectations to every family member.

Download my FREE group trip planner

It includes a section designed just for organizing input from every traveler about their hopes and goals for the trip. 

Vacation travel planner template shown in a product mockup of the printed version.
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For large families or group travel with teens, it can be helpful to include a column in your itinerary that specifies who is expected to show up for each activity. This keeps expectations clear and can minimize mid-trip conflict.

A Note on itineraries for Family Vacations: Why we Should Resist the Urge to Overplan

If you love planning, it may be tempting to book every activity in advance and fill every day of the itinerary. For lower-stress family vacations, however, avoid the temptation to over-plan.

What to book in advance:  Book high-demand tours, excursions, and activities in advance.

What to book day of: If an activity, destination, or event doesn’t require preregistering, consider waiting and booking day-of.

Why? A flexible itinerary can reduce stress on a family vacation. With activities penciled in- not inked– you and your family can adapt your vacation plans as needed.

It IS helpful to have a plan (no one wants mom or dad to wake up on the first day of vacation and say “So… what should we do this week?” 🤨😬) but a schedule should work for you- A good family vacation itinerary gives the trip some structure without the pressure to maintain a rigid schedule the entire time.

Some activities on a vacation may require reservations. Those should be planned and scheduled for specific times.

Schedule Alone Time on Family Vacation

While, for many, the goal of family vacations is spending a large amount of time together, that’s not always as wonderful as it sounds. Don’t try to make up for lost time by cramming all that face time into one brief trip. Even in really healthy families, spending too much time together without breaks can create conflict and increase stress.

Instead of trying to squeeze 24/7 family fun time into your vacation, schedule some downtime. Leaving gaps in your itinerary each day for family members to have solo downtime (especially when traveling with teenagers) can help families enjoy the time they do spend together during a vacation.

Allowing solo time on a family trip means:

  • Recharging the family introverts
  • Providing time to rest and regulate so that frustration doesn’t turn to conflict
  • Preventing exhaustion-related arguments or meltdowns
  • Plus, if you do activities during solo time, you’ll have more to talk about as a family at dinner!

For adults: Leave your teens to text or play their switch and take some time to yourself, go for a walk, take a bubble bath; or try dining alone in a local restaurant nobody else wants to try. For teens, a solo afternoon in a safe neighborhood of a new city can be a way to gently ease into solo travel for teenagers.

Manage Family Vacation Expectation vs Reality Letdowns

We work hard for vacation time, and it’s normal to want family vacations to be opportunities to reconnect with our kids, partner, or other family members.

Because we put so much pressure on vacations to make up for lost time, we often set up family vacations to fail before we even leave home.

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Be kind to yourself by adjusting your expectations and remaining open to whatever the trip brings. Maybe your family will have an amazing adventure that renews your bonds. More likely, though, it will be a trip filled with ups and downs, challenges, many laughs, a few hurt feelings, and some fun memories.

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Don’t expect to be able to reconnect with a distant teen or create an immediate sister-bond with your brother’s new wife in a week. Instead, look for the moments of connection, notice them, and brainstorm ways to repeat them back home.

For example, if you and your teenage daughter discover, through a resort excursion, that you both really enjoy kite surfing, look for ways that you might be able to enjoy that hobby together back home. Shared activities, not face-to-face conversations are often the best way to bond with teens and young adults.

Reduce Stress by Keeping it Familiar

Traveling to new places can be exciting, however, getting there, staying at a new hotel, doing new things, and eating at a new restaurant every night can be a lot of “new” to manage.

If the thought of planning this year’s family vacation feels overwhelming, plan a return to your last vacation destination.

Not only is this easier for adults, it actually has big benefits for kids. Vacations disrupt the predictable routines that keep chaos contained at home and visiting familiar destinations can help. Many kids have less anxiety (that means, fewer behavior issues) when they know what to expect from a vacation. For parents, a return to a favorite spot means less work planning.

But there are even more benefits! According to a major study by Johns Hopkins University done in 2019, when kids enjoy family and community traditions, they’re more resilient as adults. The once-a-year visit to the same old beloved campground, national park lodge, or seaside resort, and the predictable activities that come with it, may actually help kids grow up to be stronger, more connected adults- all that, and you get to enjoy a lower stress vacation!

A family  running down the beach on vacation.

Focus on Shared Experiences

Finally, the last piece of advice I’ll share for reducing stress during family vacations is simply to enjoy the moments as a participant, not a spectator.

Instead of hustling for the most instagrammable family pic, practicing to master surfing in a single week, or trying to curate the Perfect Family Vacation™ try focusing on shared experiences.

When the kids wade, roll up your pants and wade in with them. When your parents get up on the dance floor after dinner, grab your partner and join them.

Shared experiences are what will remain in our minds long after the Instagram pics have dropped off our feed and our kids have moved out to live their own adult lives. Understanding these benefits and focusing on the time itself, rather than ensuring that every detail of a family vacation is perfect, can help relieve some of the stress you may feel over the vacation.

Closing Thoughts on this Therapist’s Advice for Family Vacations

As the travel world opens back up in 2022, many of us will be tempted to try planning epic family vacations to make up for lost time. The truth is, however, that what our families need more than anything is for us to set aside expectations, listen to what they need out of the trip, and plan a trip that’s flexible, fun, and familiar.

Try some of these tips on your next family vacation to reduce stress and make the most of your time with your family. There is no possible way to make every detail of a vacation perfect, but taking time to yourself and setting realistic expectations can be a great way, from planning all the way through return, to enjoy a restful family vacation with less stress.

Sources:

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research, 57(1), 35-43.

Bethell C, Jones J, Gombojav N, Linkenbach J, Sege R. (2019) Positive Childhood Experiences and Adult Mental and Relational Health in a Statewide Sample: Associations Across Adverse Childhood Experiences Levels. JAMA Pediatr. 2019;173(11):e193007. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.3007