The low point of the trip wasn't when my husband, Andrew, and I hiked into the Grand Canyon without our teens, because Solomon and Celia opted to stay behind in our tiny cabin. As insane as it seemed for them to miss their chance to explore the most spectacular natural phenomenon our country has to offer, we chose to let it go.
The worst moment had been the previous day, when our kids' undisguised misery while visiting a mitten-shaped rock formation sucked all joy out of a hike. It led to hours of uncomfortable silence and passive-aggressive muttering - in both the front and back seats - on the long ride to the North Rim that followed.
We learned some crucial lessons on that trip that have improved family vacations since. But through trial and error, we have found an approach to traveling with our teens that seems to suit us all. Here are nine things that we have tried to incorporate into our getaways. I hope they help make your family vacations more enjoyable and less infuriating.
- Involve them in planning. Depending on your kids' enthusiasm for this task, this might simply mean giving them choices among several destinations and having them look over the itinerary before finalizing it, or it might mean that they take the lead on planning the itinerary.
Diana Beckman of Virginia has her kids rank their top three activities for each spot. They make sure to get to everyone's top choice, and try to get to others, with no guarantees beyond the top picks.
- Set expectations ahead of time and express your needs. When Beckman's kids were 12 and 16, she took them on a road trip from Nebraska to Wyoming. On the day of the longest drive, Beckman prepared her children by telling them ahead of time that it would be a long day and that she would need their help navigating and keeping her entertained while she drove. After that discussion, both kids were engaged, checking on her frequently and offering her shoulder rubs and snacks. That eight-hour car ride was an unexpected high point.
- Have some separate time or space. We enjoy each other's company, but it also helps, especially on long trips, to be able to retreat from each other for a few hours. When possible, we choose a lower-priced hotel so we can get two rooms. The time apart helps all of us better appreciate each other's company.
- Don't make every activity mandatory. Minimize the "shoulds" and "musts." If your kids are old enough, let them choose whether they want to participate in some outings. When they don't feel forced, they are more likely to join for most activities. If your kids are not old enough to be left alone and you have at least two adults on the trip, divide and conquer when necessary.
- Leave plenty of downtime. Teens usually like to have time to relax, check social media or just be alone. We have found that at least a few unstructured hours each day, usually in the afternoon, keeps moodiness at bay and makes the scheduled outings more fun for all of us, so we try hard not to overschedule. This has the added benefit of leaving time for spontaneity.
- Travel with a peer pack. Vacationing with other families with kids of similar ages, whether they are friends or family members, can make trips more fun for everyone. Alternatively, consider inviting the kids' friends or traveling to places where other teenagers are also likely to be staying. That way, they - and you - can make new friends.
- Don't try to control everything, including their experiences. We try to keep our mouths shut and let the kids do things their own way.
- Put your fears aside. We let the kids go off on their own in a new place, even though it can make us nervous. At their ages, they are operating independently most of the time, and it is not fair to put on the shackles just because it is a family vacation. As they have gotten older, we have chosen to trust their judgment, even in unfamiliar settings.
- Set boundaries about technology. For us, this means not getting international phone plans in foreign countries. That way we can all disconnect so we can reconnect. Many families find it helps to decide and discuss in advance whether and where they'll use technology while on vacation.