A great family holiday is unlikely to be the picture perfect image of our imagination, writes Dr John J Marshall.
Being on holiday is supposed to be terrific for parents and their kids’ psychological well-being. The build-up to preparing for a holiday offers a welcome distraction to the humdrum of daily life. Our imagined breaks are often an idealised version of how holidays should look: pristine beaches and warm azure seas, but even in paradise sand flies abound.
The reality of standing in the stifling heat in long queues for that latest Star Wars ride sinks in, along with a gnawing feeling of injustice as another family cockily glides by with their fast-pass tickets. This mental injury pales into insignificance to the psychological torment that the Disney Small World tune inflicts on your psyche, as your pre-schooler forces you round, again and again.
It is the anticipation, rather than the reality, of holidays that have been shown to make us happier, at least until the packing begins. Studies of people’s moods show that the post-holiday boost does not last very long unless you enact some critical psychological tactics.
Some researchers have found that there was no relationship between the length of holidays and post-trip happiness. However, there was more bang for your ‘mood buck’ with frequent short breaks.
That said, it has also been shown adults with disabilities who travel a great deal, gain a strong sense of self-efficacy and life satisfaction. The key to successful holidays relates to our hopes and anticipations, family cohesion, parenting style, personality and even technology, which can get in the way of a good time.
We are told that quality time together as families benefits attachments, but for some families, the cracks can surface all too easily. Psychologists helping children with emotional problems often spend time a great deal of time in their therapy sessions before the summer break assisting families in preparing with military precision about the process of going on holiday.
A child on the autistic spectrum (ASD) senses real danger when facing difference. A change is far harsher than a rest. Some therapy sessions might involve rehearsing what traversing through an airport entails, coping with the noise in security or smells, like diesel, deep within the bowels of a ferry.
Therapies might include rehearsing how to calmly walk through a security detector without attracting suspicion, learning why you may have to take your trainers off and managing those strange new foods in restaurants, without making a scene. Many parents who have children on the ASD spectrum are terrified their child might have a meltdown in a public setting due to being overwhelmed with sensations. Rehearsing ways to cope can really mitigate the impact of these environmental triggers. In one more extreme case I was involved in, a child with ASD who desperately wanted to go on holiday, yet was terrified by change, visited the airport and rehearsed their journey, bar flying, with the permission of airport management. The holiday experience for him made a lasting, lifelong impact.
Family holidays, which are increasingly multigenerational, used to healthily involve minimal interference from the usual life routines and social networks, but it’s not unusual for kids to carry their smartphones and sneak in lap-tops and even gaming consoles into their baggage. Our digital elasticity with these intrusive conveniences leads to the co-presence of “home” and “away”, further adding to stress levels.
How many of you on holiday check your work email, log into home CCTV, or switch on and off home lights from your smartphone, while paddling in the Mediterranean? These infringements of tranquillity test the cohesion or emotional bonds within families.
Families are systems and can be tested to breaking point on holiday. It’s hard not to notice counterproductive parenting styles which can compound a nerve-wracking situation. I saw one pair of pensive parents confront their child in McDonald’s with an unopened bottle of water sitting between them during a French heatwave, haranguing him with a diatribe on “keeping hydrated” and threatening about the perils of dehydration. He looked about five years of age!
Parental over-involvement (helicopter-style) and verbosity, a measurable parenting style, unwittingly reinforces negative child behaviour. Over-involvement has been found to negatively impact older children’s developing sense of independence. Its opposite – laissez-faire and lack of supervision – fosters oppositional behaviour problems in equal measure. It’s all on display around the hotel pool.
Your personality may also affect holiday experiences and reflections. People with more narcissistic traits, driven by an intense need for admiration and recognition or grandiosity that is maladaptive, have much higher expectations of that perfect holiday. The scuppering of their super-optimism leads to more intense painful disappointments, even angry outbursts, because of the shattering of their entitled expectations, a self-enhancement failure, as they see it.
So how should families cope? Without boring you with the detail of a circumplex model of family cohesion and adaptability, the implications for a great holiday include: having clear rules for younger children before traveling; encourage everyone to express their opinions; children’s input to the decision-making for day trips; learn how to negotiate and comprise (some battles are just not worth having); and be open about how there will be sand flies in paradise. Studies tracking adolescent mood changes over summer holidays show significant daily variation as the naturalistic norm, so tolerate and surf these expected undulations.
What might really count for that feel-good effect is paying specific attention to the recollection phase of a holiday trip, discussing, reminiscing and savouring the holiday experience.
Fostering a rosy view while openly acknowledging and incorporating the fractious stories of conflict will at least distract from the phenomenon of creeping vacation weight gain.
Dr John J Marshall is a consultant clinical & forensic psychologist