I know there are families who travel well together. They move in unison as one organism in pursuit of meaningful time together. Our family, on the other hand, slams into each other like molecules in boiling water. Our trips are often prickly, loud, and always include more headlocks than expected during a vacation.
The first headlock occurred when our oldest son, Leo, was about ten. Leo ambushed my husband, Matthew, with the classic vice grip as he walked into the living room, beginning one of our longest-lived family traditions. It starts with the surprise headlock and ends in a wrestling match. Now that the boys are older, the contest is more focused between Leo and Eli.
Matthew, the elder silverback, worries about his neck – and losing.
The headlock appears at random, but occurrences spike when we are on family vacations. There are no off-limits places for this male-bonding behavior. It can occur while waiting to be seated at a restaurant or on the beach in front of bewildered normal families. I watch, horrified, while the girls record every moment for their snap-chat stories.
I’m a planner by trade. People actually pay me to organized events. However, when I think of planning this year’s family summer vacation, I’m paralyzed by the intensity of it.
My husband is already trying to opt out. He fears that his co-dependent bulldog, Otis, will die of a broken heart if he leaves him longer than a weekend. Matthew looks to the future and our impending empty nest. His ideal vacation plan includes a small RV tricked out with a satellite connection for his work and a custom, shot-gun seat for Otis.
Given our family’s collective temperament and the headlock ritual, vacationing together is a planner’s nightmare. Our kids don’t want to be seen with us but somehow they’re always making a scene.
Traveling with teenagers is an unnatural arrangement and comes at a time in the family lifecycle when tired, middle-aged parents and antsy teens both long for their freedom and space. And yet there’s something very necessary about having to learn to get along; to sow the seeds of a common narrative, a running joke, and shared experiences that form the stories that will be recounted over the decades.
Creating that narrative has to happen in real time and there’s only one take.
The best thing I ever did for my sons’ future relationship was to bring them on a three week road trip through Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier National Park when Eli was thirteen and Leo was nineteen. They fought and occasionally got along, but it was during those three weeks that their friendship truly took root.
So I will brave the boiling waters of our togetherness, the headlocks, the arguments and complaints, all the while reading RV catalogs and calling the kennel to check on Otis.
My three guiding principles for a manageable vacation with teenagers.
1) Plan a vacation that allows room for each teenager to safely have time to themselves. Choose destinations where they can explore together and alone. Think twice about that camping trip that includes carrying a 30lb pack and sleeping in the same tent.
2) Don’t take every complaint about being bored or mad seriously. I used to waste a lot of time worrying and trying to prevent all forms of discomfort. Now I realize that it’s just the teenage mind ping-ponging from one thought to next, fueled by hormones and crushing self-consciousness. The same goes for the middle-age parent.
3) Give teens a couple of days to decompress and get used to the new schedule and surroundings. I have found that it take at least 48 hours for everyone to synch up and stop bitching about what they are missing.
Blog Posts from our National Parks Trip