Daughter hugging mother while on the beach It’s been a long, challenging year. As we emerge from COVID-19 restrictions, many families are considering well-deserved vacations and time off.

Whether your family plans include a trip to the beach, amusement park, exotic getaway or local attractions, there are bound to be some bumps in your path to a perfect get-away. Christina Di Bartolo, a licensed clinical social worker at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, offers advice to help families make the most of their vacation plans and ensure everyone brings home some lasting memories.

Build anticipation, but set realistic expectations

Part of the joy of vacation is planning for it! Encourage your kids to be part of the conversation by asking:

  • Are there activities or people they’ve missed and want to do/see?
  • Are there new hobbies or interests they’d like to learn more about or pursue?
  • Are there family traditions they want to resume or continue?

It’s important for each member of the family to understand this vacation is for all of you. Set the expectation early that everyone will need to compromise and work together to make it a positive experience.

Do your research

Older youth and teens can help gather information about possible vacation spots. State and local Visitors Centers can be great resources and most information is available online. If you want to stay close to home (and avoid airfare costs), consider these options:

  • Sun and surf: There are so many beach options in New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. You can choose one that caters to your family’s specific interests. Not near a beach? Consider visiting an area water park, lake or river.
  • Soak up some history: The Philadelphia region is a hotbed of history; so many of our nation’s firsts happened in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, and many are open to visitors.
  • Step back in time: Places with distinctive old-world charm like Lancaster County, Pa., often offer unique attractions like a visit to an Amish farm and stops on the Underground Railroad.
  • Explore nature’s wonders: Check out the many rivers, lakes, parks and wildlife areas in the region. Along with popular attractions like Longwood Gardens, there are many unique options like the Wolf Sanctuary of PA and Bear Mountain Butterfly Sanctuary Area.

Plan, but remain flexible

Once you select a destination and lockdown details like dates and reservations, it’s time to look at your vacation plan in more detail. Consider your children’s ages, personalities and interests – as well as any special challenges individual family members face, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or problems with emotional regulation. Some children may have more trouble transitioning between activities than others.

Do stuff your family will enjoy together. For example, if you’re headed to a shore vacation, you’ll likely spend time on the beach, in the ocean, on the boardwalk and can add specific activities like mini-golf, fishing, amusement rides, crabbing, collecting shells and more. Mix it up!

“Chunk” up your day. If you’ve planned a multi-day trip, don’t try to do everything in one day – especially if you have young children who need to eat and rest frequently. Consider creating chunks of time for different activities. For example, maybe in the morning, you go for a bike ride, out to breakfast or sleep in. The afternoons may be filled with beach time, a water park visit or naps if you have younger children. Evenings may include dinner out, local rides, to see a movie or playing board games with family.

Alternate activities. With multiple people to please in your family, it’s a good idea to alternate activities so each family member feels they’ve gotten to do something they enjoy – if only for a short period of time – on most days. Meals can act as natural change points during the day for any family members who have a tough time transitioning between activities.

Try new things. No matter how hard you try, not every activity you plan for vacation will be everyone’s favorite. Explain this in advance to your children and encourage them to be open to learning about new places and trying new activities. They might even discover they like something their sibling or parent does.

Build in time for rest and take breaks. Build in breaks for lunch, dinner and individual pursuits. Younger children may also need a nap or quiet time each day.

Prepare for disappointment. No matter how much you plan, everything will NOT go smoothly. Whether it’s a favorite store that’s too crowded to enter, a favorite ride that’s closed for repairs or an unexpected injury, something challenging will occur during your family vacation. Prepare your kids as best as you can and adapt plans to reschedule favorite activities when possible.

Bring comfort items. For children who easily get stressed when they get overtired, don’t get their way or otherwise have a hard time transitioning from one activity to the next, consider bringing an item or items that may soothe and distract them such as a blanket, stuffed animal, small game or digital device that may be used for short periods of time.

It’s OK to split up. While it is a family vacation, you don’t have to spend every minute together, and it may be better to occasionally divide into smaller groups to pursue individual interests. Perhaps mom takes her son to a ball game, while dad heads to a movie with two younger daughters, and a teen wanders around the mall. Plan to share your individual stories the next time the whole family gathers again.

A positive outcome

Family vacations are a unique opportunity to spend quality time together, do something fun or different and learn more about the people in your own family. You may be amazed by what you have in common, learn something new or consider learning more about something you’d never heard of. By being open-minded and letting each person share what they are passionate about and why, you’ll become more bonded as a family unit – and that’s certainly a wonderful takeaway from any family vacation.

Christina Di Bartolo, LCSW, is a project manager and licensed clinical social worker in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

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Contact: Christina Di Bartolo, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia,

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