In a way, summer vacation reminds me of giving birth. When it's over, I forget the difficult parts and look forward to the next one.
The next time I take a family trip during summer vacation, hoping my children will get along during a long car ride or walk quietly beside us on a family outing, I should expect that there will be complaining, whining, yelling, crying, and fighting. They might promise they'll cooperate, but these incidents will still happen. If I give them incentives or promise them rewards, these incidents will still happen. If I threaten them with consequences, these incidents will still happen.
This is because children are children. They are not yet mature enough to always control their impulses and behavior. This is not a matter of age but a matter of how far along they are on the road to maturation. The connections between the different structures of a child's brain is still in a stage of development.
This means that it's not realistic to expect children to think and respond in ways that require more maturity than they are capable of.
For children to wait patiently when they want to go, walk quietly when they want to jump and shout, share when they want something for themselves, or cooperate when there's another impulse driving them, children need a fair level of ability to mix conflicting signals, thoughts, ideas, and impulses together at the same time in order to find a tempered response. This means a child might have an impulse to hit his brother, but at the same time, he can remember that "we don't hurt each other."
When we understand that children can't yet temper their impulses, we can take care of them without losing our own ability to mix our conflicting impulses and feelings: On one hand, I feel angry and want to yell; on the other hand, I want to respond calmly, so I don't hurt those I love!
Here is what I have found to work well to transform our summer vacations into a satisfying experience:
> Connect through conversation. Summer is a wonderful time to deepen relationships with our children and satiate their hunger for connection with us. Activities that make it possible to have conversation, and quiet time together for reflection, strengthen and deepen our relationships.
> Find ways to get big, loud, and let it all out! When my children are free from the structure of their school days, they often have an accumulation of frustration and other strong feelings that are trapped inside and have not yet found expression. Children need a lot of room for their big and noisy feelings. When I provide them with generous amounts of warm connection, it helps their feelings come out, sometimes with a sea of tears that were stuck inside. After this, I have found that my children are calmer and easier to direct and take care of. Children don't intentionally misbehave: Their self-control is still undeveloped. I keep in mind that we want to remember our own good intentions, and stay in control of our own impulses, so we can lead our children with maturity, creativity, and compassion.
> Use advance scripts as a guide (and script what to do and say when my child goes "off-script"). I give my children little scripts to guide them through different situations, just like the director of a play gives actors a script that directs their acting. These scripts give simple, positive instructions of what to do depending on the situation. For example, before going on a long car ride, visiting the home of relatives, or going to a special attraction, I explain expectations: "When we go into the museum, we're going to walk and talk quietly. I'll show you which things you can touch and which things are not for touching." Scripting is a temporary measure that works well only in the context of a close, trusting relationship.
Editor’s note: Don’t forget to script what you will do and say when your child goes off-script, because this will happen! Modeling to our children what we do when faced with unexpected stress teaches our children what to do when they become overwhelmed or have a lapse in their impulse control. It may help to imagine a worst-case scenario and then visualize a calm, kind response.
It's important for me to remember that summer vacation will have both terrible and wonderful moments. When we know that both will happen, and that we can lead our children by responding thoughtfully to the circumstances that present themselves to us, we can look forward to this season.
When did your child have an opportunity to release his pent-up frustrations? What quick list of expectations can you offer your child the next time you are about to enter a stressful situation?