Managing Multigenerational Travel

Traveling with your extended family doesn’t have to be a pain. Relax, let go of grudges and enjoy your time together.

Hi, my name is Amy, I’m 37 years old, and I’ve never taken a vacation without members of my extended family.

Yes, I am a freak.

It’s true—even before we had kids, my husband and I traveled mostly with my parents or to see his. We’ve been to London, Kraków, Georgia, Cape Cod … all with members of our extended family.

We’ve traveled on our own here and there—our parents weren’t invited on our honeymoon—but for the most part we enjoyed spending time with our families of origin.

Now that we have two kids and live 700 miles west of everyone we’re related to, we travel expressly to spend time with our siblings and parents. We have neither the time nor the cash to spend on big vacations just for entertainment purposes.

But as our nuclear family grows and changes, so do our roles and interactions with our relatives, making some of the trips fraught with emotional landmines.

One for All and All for One

I just spent 20 days (yes, you read that right) staying at my mom’s house back East, and while we love each other, we have our conflicts and issues. No, I am not going to tell you what they are, but rest assured that we have our share of dysfunction.

What’s that saying about happy families? All happy families are alike, but every unhappy one is unhappy in its own way?

Yeah, something like that. What can I say? I wasn’t paying attention during the Russian literature section of class.

Traveling with multiple generations—adult children, parents, siblings and grandchildren—is hardly unusual, especially in these days of far-flung families. We’re in the midst of a great Diaspora; gone are the days when everyone lived in a one-block radius.

So if we want our kids to get to know the rest of the clan, sometimes we have to travel with them.

Krista Herling of Wenatchee, Wash., knows of what I speak. She travels frequently with her husband, Brian, 19-month-old son Cory, and members of her husband’s family. While she enjoys the trips—and is in the midst of planning another—she recognizes that there’s plenty of opportunity for conflict.

Family Feuds

Herling and her sister-in-law clashed in the past, she says, adding that their similar headstrong personalities can make for a tense situation. During a trip to Yellowstone National Park this past summer, her sister-in-law led a “mutiny” after Herling planned too many activities for the group.

“My husband and her husband agreed with her, and I felt attacked, especially with my husband not backing me up,” she recalls. “The problem was lack of communication. My sister-in-law was about to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and I didn’t realize how bad she was really feeling.”

Herling acknowledges that she, too, played a part in the problem, as the planner of the trip’s itinerary. “I hadn’t fully communicated how busy we would be,” she says.

Establish Open Communication

Rosemary Blieszner is the alumni distinguished professor in the Department of Human Development at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and an expert in adult familial relationships.

She agrees that keeping the lines of communication open is key for maintaining healthy family relationships in tense situations.

“A lot of [conflict resolution] comes down to good communication and problem solving that you’d use anywhere—at work, with your partner, with your friends and neighbors,” Blieszner says. “The important thing is to keep the conversation focused on getting to know and understand each other, rather than focusing on blaming and accusing.”

Blaming and accusing? Has she been spying on my family during Thanksgiving dinner?

When we spend time with our extended families—no matter what the setting—it’s easy to fall into old roles. My sister? The bossy one. My brother? The surly one. Me? The complainer (yeah, big surprise there, huh?).

Let It Be

How do we avoid these tendencies? After all, I’m not the same person I was at 15. At least, I hope I’m not. But I do tend to slip right back into that teenage skin when I’m around my siblings and my mom.

“Getting ‘stuck’ in problematic interaction patterns isn’t good if it makes people unhappy and interferes with the quality of relationships,” Blieszner warns. “I think people have choices [about] how to react—one can get all huffy or hurt about trivial stuff, which is what a lot of family interactions really are—or one could … have enough sense of who they are to let it go and see it as unimportant in the grand scheme of things.”

And really, is it so terrible that I groused about the gravy? Or that my sister planned an entire day for my daughter? Or that my mom thinks I should give the baby cereal in his bottle?

It’s annoying, but blood is blood, people. Are there truly toxic relationships that need to be cut off? Yes. But frankly, if you’re planning a Disney cruise with the grandparents, are you really in that position? No.

So take a deep breath, and practice being Zen. You’ll be home before you know it, where you can be as surly, bossy and complain-y as you like.

Themes: Family Travel