Vacation Tips for Nontraditional Families (and traditional one’s too!)

Vacation Tips for Nontraditional Families (and traditional one’s too!)

by Ron Huxley, LMFT

After six years of marriage in my new “blended” family, I have vowed to never go on vacation again. At least not with the children. Vacations are supposed to be a time of fun and relaxation. Yeah right! Try taking a vacation when you are a nontraditional family. It is more likely to be a time of stress and frustration. And you have to pay good money for it too! Here are some battle-tested tips for the brave or stubborn among you who still want to go on vacation in a nontraditional family.

Tip #1: Pack your grief, it will follow you anyway.

Nontraditional families of yesterday are the traditional families of today. They include, but are not limited to, single, divorced, step/blended, adoption, and foster parent families. They have some unique characteristics not normally found in traditional, two-parent homes. One of the biggest is grief. Although grief is a common experience in all families, it is particularly familiar to nontraditional families. Grieving comes from the shattering of a dream, namely being a traditional family. It involves the loss of a relationship or death of a family member.

It would be better to pack the grief along with all the toiletries and clothing. This means be aware of and accept that you are going to grieve, even on vacation. Changing an environment will temporarily keep it out of your mind but in the long run it will be right there with you. It is not necessary to dwell on it but don’t pretend you can leave it behind. For more information on nontraditional families and grief, see

Tip #2: Keep your expectations low and your priorities high.

Why are you going on this vacation? I know it’s not because you love pain. Are you doing it for you, the children, or what? Answering this question will allow you to keep your expectations low and your priorities high. The higher your expectations the greater your chances of disappointment and anger. My wife and I have found that when we go on vacation with the children, it is about the children. We don’t try to have a romantic encounter with each other unless it happens unexpectantly. If we wanted that, we should have gone on vacation by ourselves. And sometimes we do.

Going on vacation is always unpredictable. That’s part of why we love to do it. It is different from the daily routine of work and taking care of the house. But it also away from the familiar. So be willing to take some risks and go with the flow. Be focused on your bottom line. If you want to see new things or have fun, there are many ways to have that. And most likely, it won’t be what you imagine. When you take the wrong highway or the kids get sick, remind yourself that you are doing something new and different. If not a little bit anxious.

Tip #3: Take a time cushion, to rest.

If you think it will take seven days for a vacation, plan for eight or nine. If you think it will take four hours to drive to your vacation spot, prepare for five or six. Taking a time cushion will allow you to rest and not be upset because you are late or lost. If you are a single parent, you have the job of two parents to do when on vacation. Be kind to yourself and over prepare. That extra sweater just may come in handy if someone gets theirs wet and need a new one. Those extra snacks may keep the wild things calm when you are trying to find the right turn off on the highway in the middle of the night after being hours on the road. Time cushions allow you to handle the stressors that occur when taking a nontraditional family vacation. For more information on time cushions, see

Tip #4: The family may be a democracy, but you have veto power.

Nontraditional families vacations fail for two simple reasons. The adults make all the decisions or none of the decisions. Parenting research has proven that the most effective families are democratic in organization. It allows children to take responsibility for their actions and cooperate with parents. Put it can go too far. Have family meetings before you leave, and yes, let them make suggestions about where you go and what you do when you are on vacation. Have frequent huddles, where family members spontaneously put their heads together to come up with a game. Regularly take the pulse of the family by polling family members about where to eat dinner, what movie to rent, or the schedule for fun that day. But always remember that a democracy still has a leader. And this leader has the ability to veto a decision made by the younger family members. Make sure you have a good reason for vetoing a decision but don’t bother trying to fight for your position. One of more of the children may not like your decision but leaders accept that and move forward. The disgruntled child will usually come around soon enough. For more information on the steps of a family meetings, see

Tip #5: To settle things down, mix it up.

In order to settle down personality conflicts and power struggles, mix up the quality time with family members. In step families, blending or bonding issues is job one. Being on vacation with yours, mine, and possibly ours, makes it even tougher. You can use this time away from home to spend time with various members of the family in various combinations. For example, biological parent can go fishing with biological children and go for hike with nonbiological children or both. You can mix things up by gender or age as well. Perhaps the boys (dad or step dad included) decide they want to go shopping and the girls (mom or step mom included) decide to go ride horses. This breaks down relational and gender stereotypes. Or maybe the older children, biological or not, go on the scary roller coaster rides with one parent, biological or not, while the younger children watch the animal show with the other parent, biological or not. Don’t forget to do things as a family together. That is part of the bonding process too. But it is not the only way to bond. Mix things up to settle the family down. See communication tips for families at

Tip #6: Show me the money!

The one guarantee to have a bad vacation is to spend money you don’t have or try to take an expensive vacation and create long-term problems. Most nontraditional families have suffered financially as well as emotionally. Money can be one more reminder of our losses. Be realistic about what you can afford. Talk to the children openly about the vacation budget. There are many ways to have a vacation without spending lots of money and still have a great time. In fact, it might be better as the focus is off of doing things and more on being together. Stay over night with relatives that might live in different spots of the country or world. Even those “distant relatives” may be open to visitors. Always be respectful of the relatives home. A card, plant, or small gift left behind after your stay is a nice way to say thanks and costs very little. One family stayed with a relative, helped them paint their fence the next morning, and then traveled on to the next destination. The kids remembered the fence painting as the biggest highlight of the trip. Go figure!

Be creative. Go camping instead of staying at a fancy motel. Buy groceries items to eat for breakfast and lunch and save your money for dinners out. Give the children a specific amount of money at the beginning of the trip and inform them that this is their allotted spending money and there will be no more. Let them spend it on anything they want but don’t give them more when it is gone. Of course, buy their meals. Their money should be budgeting on candy, toys, or novelty items they will want on the vacation.

Tip #7: Model social skills … sometimes!

It is a proven fact that children do what we do and not just what we say. If you throw a tantrum about a flat tire on the highway, you have just taught your child to throw a tantrum when he is frustrated. Model the kind of behavior you desire from your children. Use that bad vacation to teach how to deal with adversity and setbacks. Failures teach much more than successes, and stay with us longer too.

Sometimes you need to let the littles things in life go. You don’t have to be on duty as the politeness police all the time. Let your children get away with a few things that you wouldn’t normally allow at home. My two girls love to go to camp by themselves every summer because there are no parents around to hound them. Turn the other check and listen with your deaf hear or just close your eyes. You and the children may enjoy the time more. Of course, fire-setting and car jacking is out! For more social skills, see

Tip #8: Nontraditional families may need nontraditional vacations.

If you are a nontraditional family, it goes without saying that you don’t have to follow the traditional family vacation schedules. Try looking at your vacation from a 180-degree angle. Turn it upside down or backwards. Do anything other than what you have always done, if what you have done has been extremely unpleasant. What am I talking about? Just this, break out of old, dysfunctional patterns of doing things and find new ways to enjoy your vacation.

For example, why take the whole family at one time? Can’t you take the girls on one vacation and the boys on a different one? Can’t the younger one’s do one thing and the older children another? Does the vacation have to be one, two, or three weeks in succession? Try breaking it up into smaller, more manageable (or tolerable) chunks of time. Do you have to go with the children at all? Do you have to leave the house or can you just stay home for a week? What works for one family will not always work for another. The important point is that nontraditional families find nontraditional vacations that work. Forget trying to live up to societies’ expectations about what is O.K. It is time to rewrite the family vacation script.

Having said all this… maybe I will go on vacation this year. With the kids.