Don’t let summer vacations wear you out

School is out, the birds are singing and the days are longer. It’s that time of year again. It’s the season for that time-honored tradition: the family vacation.

Starting in May, I count the weeks until my vacation in August. That’s when my family treks to the seashore to play in the sand. I fantasize about clams and salmon, the pounding surf, and long bicycle rides on winding roads. I see myself soaking up the sun, and letting the sea and sand repair my body, mind and spirit. Anticipating this respite gives me a warm glow.

For many families, this yearly pilgrimage to the mountains, the San Juan’s, or exotic destinations is part of a family tradition. The frantic pace of the school year, filled with obligations and complex schedules, takes its toll. Summer in the Northwest invites a slower pace. The family furlough brings the clan back together to regroup and to be restored.

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

What if it’s cold? What if it rains? (I mean, this is the Northwest!) What if chicken pox marches our way?

I remember long car rides with my children fighting in the backseat. One year my kids brought along 2,000 souvenirs from day camp: head lice. There were 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 a.m., swimming pool at 11 a.m., cycle at 3 p.m., barbecue at 5 p.m. and a movie at 7 p.m. 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 to eat, Brother wants to ride his dirt bike and Sister wants to swim. It’s hard to meet everyone’s wants and 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. But sometimes it takes time to reconnect, and conflicts may flare. Not used to spending so much time together, husbands and wives can be disappointed. High romance is replaced by low boiling points.

Here are some tips for enjoying this time together:

Bring realistic expectations along with the sunblock. Be prepared for some difficult times along with good ones. Expect some fights in the backseat.

Anticipate problem situations. 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 Xbox, Game Boys, and cellphones. Encourage your children to develop the ability to amuse themselves.

I leave my expectations at home, having 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 director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.

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