Making The Most Of Summer Vacation

Making the Most of Summer Vacation


Posted in: You & Your Family

Topics: Healthy Living

Summer vacation might not seem like the most likely topic for a blog that focuses on demystifying psychiatric challenges in kids. Sure, we write about families, children, and parenting, but what in the world could we have to say about that blessed time off that is integral in American tradition?

We might start by asking where it went.

Time off for vacation is increasingly rare in the United States. In fact, there was an illuminating (albeit pretty depressing) piece in Time about a year ago that deplored the American tendency to eschew summer vacation. The article detailed the many reasons this happens: lower wages and other economic stressors, increased non-vacation scheduled time for kids during the summer months, and a general attitude among U.S. employers that vacations are not viable options for employees. These findings, you might already know, set us apart from virtually every other first world country. There was a reason we used to take these vacations, and one could even make the case that the loss of these times “off the grid” is contributing to a worsening sense of ennui and frustration. You can read more about these findings in this blog post, written by the same author.

However, it would be incorrect to assert that merely taking a vacation will create that placid tranquility toward which we all so desperately strive. That’s a bit too simplistic. In fact, I was chatting about this with a friend recently, and he noted that anyone who’s ever told him that “he ought to take a vacation” has become the target of his quiet and uncomfortable rage. He was a joking, of course…but also kind of serious. Vacations can be hard; just think about them.

Think about Disney World, one of the “classic” American family getaways. If it’s so relaxing, why are there foot massage machines in the giant McDonald’s that sits just outside the Magic Kingdom in Orlando? I’ve seen more crying children and arguing parents in amusement parks than I’ve ever seen in supermarkets or department stores—and most kids love amusement parks. Heck, I love amusement parks.

But, if your whole trip is that amusement park—and I want you to picture that experience, really get it into your mind’s eye—then your vacation is going to generate the need for another vacation. All of those bells and whistles and over-stimulation, coupled with about eight thousand tons of fried food and a quickly-overused credit card, are pretty draining. Everyone gets cranky; it’s why that can’t be your whole trip.

Consider next what my family lovingly calls the “oblication.” This is the pilgrimage that we all take, most often during the holidays, to squeeze our extended families into hyper-condensed “quality time.” There are no shortages of movies about this kind of trip; that’s because this kind of trip can yield no shortage of misery for certain people. But again, the caveat: this kind of misery occurs mainly if all you do is sit around in cramped quarters with your extended families for hyper-condensed quality time. There’s no quality in that experience.

You’ve got to mix it all up.

If you decide to go to Disney, plan some time to go explore the surrounding area. If you go to the grand ol’ family reunion, plan some time away from the fray: Go for some walks; grab a bike. I know these hardly sound like revelatory recommendations, but think about how hard it is to do these things if you don’t plan ahead for them. And these things, these breaks from the pattern, are inevitably what make the trip better.

Consider the long road trip. Nowadays, gadgets and such make the time pass more quickly for those who can’t drive—and that’s a good thing. There isn’t much else to do in the car except sit and worry about whether you have to go to the bathroom. Still, a good audio book, a good soundtrack…these things can help make at least some parts of the drive pretty great. I still recall driving across a stretch of Kansas while my family and I sang the Glee version of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” Those rows of wheat seemed to bend to our off-tune crooning.

And you already know all of this. If I made this blog post into a multiple choice exam, you’d all check off the answers that correspond with mixing up the time away; that emphasize allowing different family members to have their unique needs met on each trip; that focus on not getting too stressed. You all know that being stressed is bad.

But, you also know that we fail, often, to do the things that we need to do in order to relieve our stress.

Take that vacation if at all possible. Let it be a long weekend, if that’s all that’s allowed. And then, look at what you have planned and troubleshoot. Bring along audio books. Eat together. Go see the biggest ball of string in the world. But most importantly? Relax. Otherwise, you’ll need a vacation from your vacation. And that’s a vicious cycle you want to avoid.

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Steven Schlozman, MD

Steven Schlozman, MD

Steven Schlozman, MD, is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS), course director of the psychopathology class for the MIT-HMS Program in Health, Sciences and Technology, and former co-director of the Clay Center for Youn...

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