Getting the right holiday balance for kids of all ages

Arlene Harris, who goes on holidays with her teen boys, asks experts about how to balance respecting older children’s need for independence with responsible parenting

LAST summer my family and I took a three-week trip inter-railing around Europe. This year, we embarked on something similar but confined ourselves to exploring the delights of Tuscany.

People were interested to hear about the different destinations and the freedom of travelling by train, but frequently there was an audible intake of breath when I mentioned that we travel en-famille — which in our case means two teenage boys (18 and 16) and a third (12) who is just on the cusp of becoming one.

I have always been surprised at this reaction because as long as my sons want to come away with us, I will be more than delighted to have them.

Of course, like any family vacation, there are ups and downs. When the “charming city apartment” is anything but, or their adventurous (read crazy) mother decides it would be a great idea for everyone to climb a 350ft cliff face in the midday sun — I’ve yet to live that decision down.

But for the most part, we’ve had fun and made some great memories.

Children grow up and leave the nest far too quickly and as my eldest is now heading into his second year in college, I know the opportunities to spend time together are going to become few and far between, so I will encourage my sons to holiday with us for long as possible.

Child psychologist Peadar Maxwell agrees, and says holidays with teens are a good idea, as it allows the family to bond and gives young adults the chance to learn some independence.

“I think it is unfortunate that many families don’t travel with their older teenagers as it’s a great opportunity to share an adventure together,” he says. “It’s also a good way to model how to travel safely and respectfully in another culture or country and learn about responsibilities at airport security, on the plane and when abroad.”

The Wexford-based psychologist says, with a bit of understanding and compromise, older teenagers are not any more difficult to cater for than others, as long as their needs are
considered and they are given some
independence.

“There’s always going to be differences of opinion and preferences about what to do, so pick locations which provide a mixture,” he advises. “And realise that family members may not need to be together all of the time.

“Developmental psychology reveals that adolescents need to establish autonomy and to meet and socialise with peers. In late adolescence this journey is getting to the place where the young person wants freedom and should be encouraged to accept responsibility.

This doesn’t have to mean taking separate holidays to their parents, but it does mean that parents can’t just hold their hands either.

“Parents may need to acknowledge the transition from when they planned everything and their child went along with it, to planning the holiday as a family and allowing their older teenager to have some time to venture out a bit. Hopefully, parents will see this desire to seek some freedom as a healthy, natural development.”

Dr David Carey, director of psychology at City Colleges and Dean of the College of Progressive Education, believes that without the right amount of independence, teenagers can find family holidays very confining.

“Teenagers are notoriously difficult on holidays,” he says. “Because they are trapped in the struggle for independence while at the same time needing supervision and structure, it’s hard for parents to cope with them.

“Their brains crave independence but at the same time aren’t really ready for it, so my advice would be to choose a holiday setting which provides opportunities for fun and adventure and time away from family but with reasonable structure.

“Getting the balance right is difficult but the amount of independence you give them is highly dependent on their personality, lifestyle and past history. If you have a teen that isn’t rebellious and doesn’t engage in risky behaviour, you have less reason to worry so your boundaries can be a bit elastic. If you have the opposite type you have to take more control, provide more rules and stick to them.”

Dr Carey says the best way forward is communication. “Asking them what they like, where they might like to go and what sort of freedom they expect, sets a proper tone for a family holiday,” he says.

“Trust is earned by behaviour and begins long before a family holiday. Going out and coming back on time is a part of earning trust. Boundaries can be stretched at times but must always be reasonable, set by parents, negotiated at times and mutually agreed.”



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