I had an email last week from a reader, Sue, asking about how to have a happy family holiday with teenagers. She said “you seem to manage to really enjoy your holidays with your boys. When my two were little I used to look forward to them being bigger, I imagined that holidays would be more relaxing but actually I find them really stressful. Now that they’re both teenagers they just seem to be bored and we end up having endless arguments. I’m dreading this year’s trip to Spain which is stupid when I’ve spent all year working hard to pay for it. Can you tell me how you do it?”
I tend to shy away from this kind of question – I’m not parenting expert or a ‘mummy blogger’ and, other than having been a teenager and mother myself, I’m not really qualified to answer it. However I’ve spent a lot of time travelling to meetings this week which has given me time to think about it.
I started off by asking the middle son, who was the only one around at the time, what he thought was the secret to a happy family holiday. This was his answer (before he sloped off, alarmed by the requirement to think) “wi fi, swimming pool, no walks and no culture.” In a way he had pinned it down quite succinctly – this is what I find works for us.
1. Good location
I always book our summer holiday in September as soon as we arrive home from the last one. My friends think I’m mad but I do it because I have fresh in my mind what worked and what didn’t. Being an early bird means you also have first pick of accommodation. Ideally for us there should be a couple of bars and restaurants within walking distance so that it isn’t a choice between driving or cooking every evening and the rest of the family isn’t captive until the driver decides it’s time to go home.
There’s no getting round the fact that this is probably the most important factor for a happy holiday with teens. Just accept it.
3. Air conditioning
I hate air con because it means I’m always cold but I have accepted that teenage boys in particular are fractious and grumpy if they can’t retreat into a cool cave every 20 minutes during the day.
I find the best way to get them away from the wi-fi during the day is to have an easily accessible expanse of water – a pool or the sea.
No family can sustain captivating conversation for 14 nights. There will be some evenings when everyone just wants to zone out. It’s nice if you can do that together. We take a laptop with every kind of cable we might need and preloaded movies that everyone can enjoy. It can also be a good way of subtly introducing a bit of culture by taking a movie that was filmed where you are staying / is based on something that has happened there.
If you’re going somewhere hot, the hours between 12pm and 4pm can drag so take some games. Some of our happiest times have been spent in the shade with a glass of wine and a highly competitive contest. Great ones to pack include Banagrams; Perudo and the travel card versions of Cluedo; Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit.
I keep a pack of cards in my bag for evenings in restaurants when tempers can flair after a long hot day.
8. A holiday book
When they were little, I used to pack a book that I knew they wouldn’t otherwise read – something like Le Petit Prince – and we’d chill and read a chapter out loud as we sipped the first cocktail of the evening before going out. The youngest will probably still be willing to lounge and listen this year and I wouldn’t be surprised if the others tune in whilst pretending to do something else. It’s a really nice way to spend half an hour and the story becomes inextricably linked with the memories of the holiday.
Yes really. I still pack waboba balls, a Nerf howler, packets of water bombs and frisbees. We also always make sure we buy a couple of lilos and floats on our first day. At some stage in the middle of the holiday they will develop a series of pool based Olympic challenges that will see them regress for an afternoon or two. Last year it even included diving for fresh walnuts as they fell from the trees.
10. The pre-departure dinner
There’s a time, about a week before you leave, when everyone is feeling excited and positive about the trip. It’s always good to make the most of the benevolent atmosphere to discuss anything that you know could be an issue.
For us it often revolves around culture – hence the middle son’s earlier battle cry. Mr MC and the boys would happily laze for 2 weeks at our base without venturing very far. I, on the other hand, get cabin fever. Because I plan and book our holidays there is always something at our destination that I really want to see or do. It’s often something cultural which will be greeted with zero enthusiasm.
However, I usually also find something that the others would love and this is when I make a trade off. So for example, the last time we went to France, they resigned themselves to a morning at the Toulouse Lautrec museum in Albi in return for an morning spent at a Wolf Conservation Park.
The pre-departure dinner is also a good time to deal with any individual conflicts that are simmering in sibling relationships. Who’s currently annoying whom, how – and what can be done about it. This way you can implement things like code words for the individuals involved so that you can diffuse flashpoints as soon as they arise.
11. Four days of space
This is something we’ve done since the boys were little. We know that it will take 4 days before everyone is used to being together again on a 24/7 basis. For the first 4 days we keep our expectations of each other low and leave everyone to do their favourite holiday thing whether it’s reading books, sleeping, gluing themselves to YouTube videos or watching the whole Vikings boxset.
12. Agree timeframes in advance
I remember the worst holiday I had with my parents was when I was 15 and my dad decided we would tour the Normandy landing beaches for a week. The days felt endless and since then I’ve tried to remember that if teens feel out of control they get grumpy. So if we’re planning a day out when everyone is dependent on the driver, we agree a timeframe in advance. For example that we’ll commit to aiming to have lunch at 1pm and leaving to return to the villa at 4pm.
13. Spend a bit of time absorbing their culture
When you have long lazy days you have time to find out what it is that makes them laugh until they cry when they retreat with their phones and their ear buds. “Baby Monkey” will always make me think of the holiday we once had in Croatia and last year, they tried to teach Mr MC and I to do the shuffle (the teen dance move du jour) which had us (and them) crying with laughter one night.
This is very much an individual family decision but once our boys hit 15, when we’re away we let them have a beer or a glass of wine with dinner. Generally we find they don’t really want it and are unlikely to finish it (this changes as the years go on) but they feel good about being invited into the adult arena and are often very entertaining company after the first few sips!
This is the most important one of all. I’ve noticed that our sons can be irritable if they feel like we’re running their lives when we’re on holiday. The thing they hate most is feeling that they have no choice. It makes all the difference if we give them each a night when they choose where or what we eat or if we let them decide which beaches we’ll go to on different days.
So, I don’t know if this will have helped with how to have a happy family holiday with teenagers Sue but I hope so. I’ve always disagreed with Tolstoy’s much quoted opening to Anna Karenina “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I would probably reverse what he says and claim that each happy family is happy in their own unique way. These tips are just some of the things that work for us – only you can tell whether they’ll work for you.
I should add that although we do have happy holidays, we are not The Waltons. At some point each of us will have a meltdown of some sort or just a grumpy day. I think the thing we are good at is handling these and moving on. We usually end up laughing about them and they become part of our story.
The most important of all the tips in my view is the one about choice. If teenagers feel they have control over their days and are not being forced to do things, they will generally be happy. As Sue says it’s frustrating when you’ve worked hard for a holiday to feel like you’re then having to work to make it a happy one. However it’s their holiday too. You’re making memories that will bond you as a family for years to come so it’s worth making the effort to make sure that they’re good ones.
Knowing what a wonderful group of wise women you are, I’m sure you’ll have tips of your own to add, so please share them in the comments. Together we can nail this one.
On Tuesday I’m very excited to be going to take part in Hope’s Autumn fashion shoot which is based around real women. I’m going to be covering the day on Facebook as we go on so if you’d like to join me behind the scenes, follow me here. Have a great weekend everyone and now that the sales are all further reduced, here’s an up to date edit of the best.
Sales worth checking out
Boden – up to 60% off PLUS and extra 15% off dresses, tops, t-shirts and shirts until Sunday here with code 9D9F
Finery – 8 pieces, 8 days, 80% off here
Finery – new lines added up to 60% off (I bought some lovely pieces in the Finery sale from John Lewis in Birmingham yesterday)
Hush – summer sale is now in full swing
John Lewis – most of the sale is coming to an end but I noticed some lovely things in their Bruce by Bruce Oldfield sale yesterday