After a tough year, don’t get your hopes up for summer vacation

If you leave your expecations at home, you’re more likely to enjoy your family trip. Here are some tips.

School is out. It’s the season for that time-honored tradition … the family vacation! With COVID-19 waning in Washington, there is huge pent-up demand for getting out of Dodge. It’s been a rough year.

When our kids were little, starting in May, I counted the weeks until our vacation in August. Our family trekked to the seashore to play in the sand. I fantasized about clams and salmon, the pounding surf and long bicycle rides on windy roads. I saw myself soaking up the sun, letting the sea and sand repair my body, mind and spirit. Anticipating this respite gave me a warm glow.

For many families, this yearly pilgrimage to the Cascade Range, the San Juan Islands or Vancouver, British Columbia, is part of a family tradition. The challenges of remote learning this school year combined with work-at-home for parents has been stressful for everyone.

Summer in the Northwest invites recreation and relaxation. The family furlough brings the clan back together again to regroup and restore.

Yet there are pitfalls to avoid, both in the planning and execution of this yearly ritual. Anticipation and expectations can bring disappointment. My vacation days are all cloudless days with the temperature at a dry 75 degrees. I imagine harmony and bliss.

What if it rains? What if it’s cold? I mean, this is the Northwest. What if the chicken pox marches your way?

I remember long car rides with my children fighting in the back seat. One year, our kids brought along 2,000 souvenirs from day camp: head lice. All I remember is endless trips to the laundromat. On our first whale watch, just when a pod of orcas swam by, we had to take turns soothing our seasick youngster.

Sometimes active families feel obligated to fill every minute of their vacation with ceaseless activity. Wake at 7 a.m., jog at 8, swimming pool at 11, cycle at 3 p.m., barbecue at 5, and a movie at 7. The clock is ticking. The pace is fast. Everyone comes home more exhausted than when they left.

Family members often have different ideas on how to spend precious vacation time. Dad wants to sleep late, Mom wants to go out and eat, Brother wants to ride his dirt bike, and Sister wants to swim. It’s hard to meet everyone’s needs at the same time.

Younger children claim this family time as theirs. During the school year, children share their parents with jobs, housework, and chores. Now on vacation, they want all of their parents’ attention.

Teenagers may resist family togetherness at every turn. They want to be with their friends or left alone. “Do we have to do that again?” They can be surly and aloof. Spouses look forward to unhurried moments together with no time pressures or outside demands. “Ah, finally some romantic time,” they sigh. Parents who spent days on end with each other during the pandemic may yearn for time alone.

Here are some tips for enjoying your summer trip:

Bring realistic expectations along with the sun block. Be prepared for some difficult times along with good ones. Expect some fights in the back seat!

Anticipate problem spots. Teenagers need some age-appropriate diversions — younger children need playground stops on long drives. Plan ahead!

Arrange to spend some time alone with your spouse. This takes a lot of planning!

Limit digital toys. This is a good time to limit video games, TV and cellphones. Encourage your children to develop the ability to amuse themselves.

I leave my expectations at home, having already savored my fantasies of endless sunny days. I bring my summer reading, knowing I won’t be able to read it all. I am ready for whatever happens, rain or shine!

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at

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