By Christine Murray, HRI Director

What’s the perfect recipe for summertime family fun, whether on vacation or close to home? Over the last two days, we’ve looked at two key ingredients that researchers have identified as helping children make meaning of their family vacations: (1) having fun and (2) trying new things. The third ingredient is perhaps the most important one: social and relationship connections.

For family fun and vacations, social and relationship connections are sort of like the glue that connects the other ingredients. You can do fun and new things, but if there’s not a sense of bonding and connecting, those new activities most likely won’t have as powerful an impact on your family’s relationships.

The children interviewed in Hillbrecht and her colleagues’ 2008 study mentioned the importance of social connections for their experiences of family vacations, and they mentioned relationships with their immediate families, as well as their extended family members and family friends. In other words, family vacations often present opportunities for children and parents to bond not only with each other, but also with other relatives and close friends.

For families who are able to take time to get away–whether for a week or more, or even just for a few hours–from their usual routines and environments, this vacation time can serve an important purpose for solidifying their relationships with one another. In addition, vacations often provide more extended time together, especially if they come with a break from work, school, and other normal family routines.

Now, most parents would agree that family vacations–and even shorter family outings–often don’t go as planned. We may go into the vacation or outing with an ideal vision that everyone will get along beautifully, be in good spirits, and express nothing but appreciation for the chance to have fun together. While it’s a good thing to be positive and optimistic about your family, it’s also unfair to hold an idealized version of family bliss as your expectation for your time together.

It’s normal for kids to melt down, parents to get stressed, conflict to arise, and other frustrations to develop, even in what are “supposed to be” the most fun settings. In fact, when children and families get off of their normal routines and into new and unfamiliar environments, it may be even more likely for these things to happen since you’ve got a lot of new details to figure out.

When these situations arise, practice good conflict management, communication, and stress management skills to help diffuse tension. Remind yourself that family bonding doesn’t always have to look perfect to help strengthen your relationships. And, keep in mind that your family relationships can grow through difficult times, just as they can through the fun ones.

This summer, as you’re planning your family fun, consider ways to build an intentional focus on connecting and strengthening your relationships. Treasure the time you spend connecting with each other and other friends and family members who are important to your family. And even in moments when things don’t go exactly as planned, remember that you’re helping your children create memories that will help to solidify what your family means to them to help guide them in the years to come.

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