When vacationing with teenagers, there is often a big gap between expectations and reality. As parents, we fondly remember the family trips we went on as kids – even those that went awry. And we want to create similar fond memories for our kids. But, well, they're teenagers.
"Yeah, I'm a teenager. My name is Isaac. We are on a stupid trip that my parents planned so we can have special family memories. But I want to be home with my friends. That's what I want for my special summer memories."
Edward, Isaac's father, has a very different idea.
"During the school year, it's easy to be overwhelmed by classes, work, extracurriculars and the routine of it all. I know it sounds corny, but there's no family togetherness. Time for us to be a family. I want to try to have a real family vacation, something that we, that they, can look back on and remember as special."
Isaac is not on the same page.
"My parents are dragging me on this 'great' driving and camping trip through Quebec and all they've done so far is complain about stuff. And I've only said two words the whole time – except of course swear words – because I don't have anything to say, because everything has been so boring, like I knew it would be."
But despite all of the teen negativity, the truth is, family vacations with a teenager – even a reluctant teenager – can be fun. Even genuinely bad vacations can and do get remembered with fondness at special family events. "Omigod the trip to…" and everybody breaks into hysterics as yet another horrible memory is recalled. And many vacations work out better than what a doubting teen may have anticipated.
Teenagers often do say, "I know I didn't want to go. I didn't want to miss anything that was going on back home. But it turned out it was like a vacation from all the drama. I had a good time actually."
There are no guarantees as to how the vacation will turn out. That said, here are some suggestions that might make it easier. But of course, despite your best efforts, your Isaac might choose to stick to his own agenda of misery.
"Hello, I'm not having a good time."
Don't have too specific expectations. That's a plan for failure. Have an agenda every day, but be prepared to drop it and not worry about it. You have to be fast on your feet to change plans to address the inevitable.
"Hello, I'm still not having a good time."
If you can, stay at places where you can go swimming.
Suspend a lot of rules that you normally have, with the explanation that these exceptions apply only because it's a vacation.
"So I've made up this song called I Hate This Vacation. And my mother screams at me every time I sing it, so I've been singing it a lot."
Let them use their electronics. Let them stay in touch with friends – unless you decide that that's the whole idea to have it just be us – and not allow any electronics.
Isaac's younger brother Casey pipes up from the back seat: "Dad, there's something wrong with Isaac. I think he died. He said he would if you didn't let him use his cellphone. Can I have his room?"
Vacations are not times to work on trying to improve their character. That is, don't nag them about annoying habits.
"Dad, I poked Isaac with a pencil to see if he was alive and he hit me. You have to punish him."
Remember: Intentionally leaving a child behind at a rest stop is not an option.
If they want to bring a friend along and it's not a problem for you, it definitely can be nicer (for them and for you).
The bottom line is that it's good to have dreams and to try to make them happen. Sometimes they work out – usually not in expected ways – and sometimes they don't work out – in which case you can say you tried.
"All I can say is, this better be one of those vacations that you appreciate later on, because I'm sure not appreciating the one we're on."
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of several parenting books.