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Summer Vacation: How to keep expectations and conflict in check

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.

At least that’s what the song says.

It’s time for big events like summer travel and family reunions. It’s also time for unrealistic expectations and unfortunate (and perhaps inevitable) conflicts with loved ones.

The pattern is almost as old as we are. When we’re kids, we get excited – sometimes irrationally so – about big events like heading off to camp, taking a family trip, or going to a friend’s awesome birthday party. We build that event up so much in our minds. How perfect it’s going to be. How great we’re going to feel. How cool it will be to tell all our friends about it.

By the time we get to the event, there’s no way that it can possibly live up to our ridiculously high expectations. Not only that, but there’s often that one kid or parent who says or does something that sets our teeth on edge (best case) or starts a fight (worst case).

In the end, we’re crushed and disappointed.

Luckily, as adults our minds are more disciplined. We can manage our expectations more effectively and engage in tactics to avoid or diffuse conflict.

First, though, let’s talk about our feelings.

Understanding Emotions

Summer vacations and family events get us out of our day-to-day lives. That’s great, but it sometimes makes us more vulnerable to emotions.

“When we travel, our comfort zone is compromised,” Friedemann Schaub, an MD and author of The Fear + Anxiety Solution. “As we get older, we have our touchstones, and leaving those behind is stressful. We worry more.”

When we’re on the road or with family in our homes or elsewhere, the rhythm of day changes, too. “We’re getting out of our routines,” he explains. “People may be messing around with how we like to have things. Our way of doing things is changed. There’s less peace and quiet.”

All these scenarios can create stress, anxiety and frustration. And left unchecked those feelings negatively impact us and the people around us.

“We may close down or withdraw, become more judgmental and negative, or we may lash out more,” Schaub notes. These reactions can hurt our friends and family, or make them worry about us. “It can be misinterpreted as ‘she doesn’t like to be here’ or ‘he’s not enjoying being with us’.”

When we’re traveling or celebrating with a partner who has cognitive issues, there are additional considerations.

“Our advice is to be very judicious in the activities that you choose to attend with any seniors that may have dementia or other types of cognitive impairment,” counsels Andrew Dubler, managing partner of Home to Stay, Cherry Hill, NJ. “It can be very difficult for an older adult with cognitive impairment to keep up socially. This can lead to added stress and pressure, which in turn will exacerbate their impairments.”

Understanding the feelings that may come up for us and our loved ones helps us deal with and diffuse emotions so they don’t take away from the good times.

Managing Expectations Around Summer Events

Even us grown-ups have to work to manage our expectations.

“We can’t stop focusing on the idea that these big events need to be memorable and bring everyone closer,” Schaub, explains. “Wherever family comes together, there’s the illusion of making it a really special time. That expectation is too high.”

It’s a good idea to go into a family event or travel opportunity expecting things to go well. After all, that sets the intention and kick starts the “power of positive thinking”.

Nobody’s suggesting you lower expectations or expect the worst.

“Just avoid ‘magical thinking’,” Schaub advises.

Magical thinking encompasses a lot of behaviors, like being superstitious or believing something we know, in the rational parts of our brains, is silly. 

Research by Jane Risen, an associate professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, shows that even though we may recognize that what we’re thinking doesn’t make sense or is unrealistic, we still believe it. And we still let it drive our thoughts and emotions.

What to do about that? When we find ourselves getting a little too giddy about an upcoming summer event, or fantasizing about every last detail, we need to reset. Same if there are unexpected changes in the middle of our family picnic or trip to Machu Picchu.

“The older we get, the more we’re used to having it our way,” Schaub notes. “We have less flexibility and more rigidity. And we're less likely to roll with punches.” It’s natural, but it’s not helpful.

 

Instead of getting mad or frustrated, get mindful. Take a breath, then:

  • If your expectations are outsized, reset them to a more realistic level.
  • If you’re ticked about a change of plans, think about the options you have and choose one to pursue. Yes, it’s the old making lemon out of lemonade cliché. But it works.

“We need to put our expectations aside [and] approach things with a greater sense of appreciation,” Schaub says. “Plan for diffusing energy and not putting too much on the plate. Take time outs to give everyone a breather. Prepare for what’s real, not for what you wish.”

Managing Family Conflicts

Conflict, even among loving family and friends, is inevitable. Hot weather, close quarters and high expectations make flare-ups more likely.

“Everyone’s on their best behavior at the beginning,” Schaub laughs, “but that’s not natural.” At some point, the kid gloves come off.

Sometimes the conflict is superficial; other times it’s deeper. Either way, dealing with it is better than letting if fester.

For small conflicts – like jostling with your travel companion for the armrest or feeling frustrated by how long he takes to get ready – close your eyes, take a deep breath and let the emotion pass. Still a little chapped? Ask for the result you want:

  • “Can I have the armrest for this section of the trip?”
  • “We have to go in 30 minutes, so I’ll take 15 minutes in the bathroom now and you can have it next.”

When it’s a more serious issue with our offspring, Schaub says job one is accepting that our children are grownups – even when they may not be acting like it. “Maybe they’re spoiling their children rotten or still not dressing for breakfast after all these years – we have get away from being the parent,” Schaub says.

Decide if the issue is really something worth getting upset about. If not, let it go. Life’s too short, right?

If it’s serious or truly important to you, don’t address it in the heat of the moment, Schaub recommends. “Diffuse it, change the topic, then address the conflict later when it’s quiet, one on one. Do not involve the entire family so it becomes a whole scene.”

One effective way to avoid conflict in the first place is to “know your buttons and the ones you’ve installed on your kids,” Schaub notes. “Preemptively plan how you want to act differently. Don’t get triggered or trigger others.”

Even under ideal conditions with loving family and friends, conflict does arise. Changing the way we look at it can help us deal with it effectively.

Rather than seeing conflict as something bad, Schaub challenges us to see if as a healing opportunity.

“It’s an invitation to communicate and get closer to each other,” Schaub notes. “When we resolve conflicts, we understand each other better. And we may even address things that may have been lingering for decades.”

Reducing Stress

When the stress of managing expectations and conflict gets too high, get moving – and I don’t mean packing your stuff and going home.

“If we can keep moving, it keeps us in a positive mood and allows us to connect with others as well as ourselves,” explains Erica Hornthal, founder and principal of Chicago Dance Therapy. “Movement keeps us in our bodies which enhances our connection to the present moment. We can practice deep diaphragm breathing to signal the ‘rest and digest’ response as opposed to the ‘flight or fight’ response. Moving releases endorphins and enhances the emotional feel good response.”

Use these insights to help you keep your expectations and emotions in check this summer so, as the song goes, you’ll rise up singing.

Summertime was written by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gerswhin

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