5 Ways To Keep Your Kids From Killing Each Other (Or You!) On Vacation

by | Jul 27, 2022 | Family Adventures, Travel Tips

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When traveling with kids, it’s easy to create high expectations for how the trip will go. You picture strolling through a new city with your child in awe over all the beautiful things they see. You painstakingly plan adventures that are a perfect fit for your family and can’t wait to hear their squeals of fun and laughter. 

But even on the drive to the airport, screams erupt from the backseat as one starts hitting the other and the other asks when the trip will be over.

Often reality doesn’t match the picture in our heads.

 

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I know because I’ve got two boys … really close in age, and we’ve had some really hard moments while traveling. I remember this one time we were driving cross country, and the plan was to arrive at our hotel around 7 pm, eat a quick dinner, and put the kids to bed. But a huge traffic jam and freeway closure meant we had to go the long way around. By 9 pm, the kids were done. My youngest was trying to fall asleep, but my oldest just couldn’t. Overtired and adrenaline rushed, he kept bugging his brother. Poking him, singing loudly, all that fun stuff. The youngest lost it. Complete meltdown. Screaming, crying, throwing his shoe at the front seats. Trying to open the door on the highway! It was insane. I had to pull over and practice some of the tips I share with you in this article and calm everyone down (including myself!). 

 

The Realities of Parenting

Kids misbehave. Doesn’t matter where they are. At home, at school, at grandma’s house, on an airplane, in line at a museum, or swimming in the resort pool, the location or circumstance isn’t what triggers the behavior. It’s your child’s thoughts and feelings that trigger behavior. I’m sure you’ve watched your kids fight while eating an ice cream cone on a beautiful day. Maybe they started thinking, “His ice cream is bigger than mine! And everyone likes him more. It’s not fair!” Those thoughts triggered disappointment, frustration, and jealousy. So they communicate or cope with those feelings by shoving their brother, complaining to you, crying, pouting, etc.   

 

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If you’re like most parents, you respond with the typical threats of taking away privileges. Threatening to take away their ice cream right then or their screen time later. Telling them to stop being difficult or else you won’t buy them ice cream next time. Giving them a little lecture on being nice. Sometimes these threats work to shift your child’s behavior. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they make things worse, right? No matter what, making threats never feel that great. 

When you aren’t on vacation, these moments are a bummer, but you don’t make them mean that much. They are just normal kid stuff, and you move on. Irritating? Yes. Super consequential? Not really. 

 

Two parents sit with their preschooler, who is wearing a shirt that says "Mini Boss."

Does your kiddo tend to run the show while you’re on vacation? Photo by Trust “Tru” Kasande on Unsplash.

 

But on vacation, everything feels amplified. Your expectations for joy are higher. You take moments like this more personally. You worry that these moments are going to ruin the vacation. You feel more critical of your children and thoughts like “Can’t they just be grateful?” cross your mind. 

Not only are your expectations amplified, but the same behavior strategies your child uses at home to communicate their displeasure or cope with their feelings will be even more active while on vacation. Your child can feel greater discomfort while traveling so they might act out even more. Vacation can become the perfect storm for family chaos. Higher expectations and higher stress can lead to bigger feelings and more misbehavior. 

 

There’s Hope!

When your kid acts up while on vacation, your emotions about it intensify, but you hesitate to yell at them or threaten them when you’re all supposed to be having an “amazing” time. It’s easy to feel totally trapped by your kid’s behavior. Plus, how do you threaten a kid when on vacation? You can’t really not give them the iPad on the plane, or not give them a treat at the theme park. Or can you?

You can. 

Threats are pointless. But setting clear limits (& following through on them so they aren’t just empty threats) is incredibly effective, especially on vacation. 

Here’s how to take your power back.

 

Be The Leader

Listen, you’re the grown-up. Being the leader while traveling is even more important than when you’re at home. Here’s why. There are going to be times while traveling when a situation is just too much, and you might need to switch things up. As the leader, you know what is best for you, your kids, and your family. Parent leadership is the confident energy you bring to your family. Your calm and confident energy will make your children feel more secure and less likely to have meltdowns. 

As the leader, you should have a general plan for the day, of course, but be ready for misbehavior and big feelings to impact your plans. Being flexible and ready to pivot will make you feel less stressed and resentful when things don’t go as planned. It’s ok to skip a planned activity, leave early, say no to a family gathering, or spend longer at the hotel pool than you planned. Taking happy, well-rested, well-fed kids on an activity is much easier than dragging grumpy ones. 

 

Both parents can be healthy models and leaders for their children while on vacation.

Adulting is hard, but kids rely on us to be the grown-ups and leaders in each situation. Photo by Lawrence Crayton on Unsplash.

 

Pause When You’re Mad

You might lose your shit. That’s ok. That’s normal. When tensions get high, or things aren’t going your way, and the kids start going nuts, it’s important that you calm yourself before you interact with them. Here’s why. When you become super REACTIVE and respond to your children with stress, anxiety, frustration or anger, then they escalate their stress behaviors, and the next thing you know you are in a chaotic argument with your kids. Cue vacation meltdown.

To avoid spiraling into a power trip with your kids, pause and reset your stress response system. The first step is to Stop. Don’t Talk. Don’t Engage. Whenever you become aware that you are feeling super angry, annoyed, yelling, lecturing, spanking, emotionally checking out, making a bunch of commands or threats, stop yourself. Even if you are in mid-sentence. Just stop.

Stopping is HARD. I’m not going to lie. 

When your brain gets stressed, it activates your nervous system, triggering the fight/flight/freeze response in order to protect you. Your stress response is an automatic, evolutionary process. It’s primal, really. 

And guess what? Your brain will often TRICK you into thinking that your kid’s behavior is a threat to your entire vacation and all the good memories, when in fact the ‘threat’ is just your kids being loud, or not getting out of the pool quickly, or arguing with their sister, or not finishing the waffle stack they ordered.

Instead of reacting, just stop and wait. Don’t decide. Don’t act. Don’t do anything about the situation. Give yourself time to think and get calm. Very few things are actually emergencies. Even 60 seconds of delay can shift your perspective from panic, overwhelm, and anger to clear-headed and calm.

Let me let you in on a little secret … As long as everyone is physically safe, you have permission to DELAY doing anything about your kid’s misbehavior.

 

A little girl climbs on top of her two parents while they are hiking in the woods.

We all get overwhelmed at times. It’s okay to take time to calm down. Photo by Xavier Mouton on Unsplash.

 

Connect Before You Correct

Don’t forget, you take your actual children with you on vacation. Not your perfect dream children. Kids misbehave when they aren’t feeling great, not because they are bad kids. When kids don’t know what to do with their feelings, they show up in ways that don’t work (hitting, shouting, complaining, whining, name-calling, refusal, ignoring, etc). So, if you want to improve your kid’s behavior, whether you’re at home or on vacation, teach them how to communicate and cope with their feelings in ways that work best for everyone. That way they don’t have to argue, hit, complain, insult others, or do other annoying behaviors in order to feel better.

Here’s a simple script to put this into practice. Before addressing your child’s misbehavior with a limit or a consequence, connect with your child’s emotions. Recognize their emotion, validate it, and offer a way your child can express that feeling in a way that works. This can be as simple as, “You hit your brother. Are you feeling disappointed about your ice cream?” Pause and let them talk. Then say, “Your feelings make sense. But since you can’t hit, you are welcome to keep eating your ice cream as long as you don’t hit.”

 

 

Teaching your kids to name emotions like sadness, anger, fear, and hurt is the first step in helping your kids learn new and better ways to communicate and cope with their negative emotions. When your kids know what they’re feeling, how to talk about those feelings, and how to process those feelings, they are more likely to behave in healthy ways. 

 

A family takes a selfie together in front of the Arc de Triomphe while on vacation.

Take a moment to connect with your kid before correcting their behavior. After all, connection is what vacation is all about. Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash.

 

Be Ok With Giving Consequences On Vacation

Sometimes staying calm and offering connection isn’t enough. Sometimes, even on vacation, you might have to follow through with a consequence. I promise this won’t ruin the whole trip! 

Setting limits and following through is super important, especially on vacation. A limit is when you communicate with your kid what they can do or what you’re willing to do under certain conditions.

Examples:
“We will go down to the pool once everyone has their sunblock on, as long as it’s done within the next 8 minutes.”

“I’ll be happy to buy dessert after dinner tonight as long as there’s no bickering while we wait for our table and there are no problems during the meal.”

“Feel free to use your own spending money on souvenirs; the mom account is closed for today.”

But what if they don’t stop the behavior? Follow through on your limit. Thinking about the ice cream example, you can say, You must be really upset because you keep bugging your brother. I said you can eat this as long as you’re not hitting your brother, but you still are. This ice cream is causing a lot of problems for you so I’m going to take it.” 

Be super matter of fact. Don’t add lectures, criticisms, comparisons, bribes, yelling, hurting your kids, or rejection. Losing the ice cream is all that’s needed to create a learning moment. You don’t need to add a “shame sprinkle.”

 

Set consequences with kids even while on vacation

Consequences on vacation? Sometimes they’re the key to a better trip for the whole family. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.

 

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Keep Everyone Safe

One of the worst things that can happen on vacation is if your kids start hitting each other (or you!). Your job as the family leader is to keep everyone in your family safe; on vacation, at home, in the car, everywhere, and always. Safety means that no one gets hurt by someone else, either physically or emotionally. Your kids don’t hurt each other, and they don’t hurt you or others. 

Remember, feelings drive behavior, so big feelings sometimes show up with big behavior. That’s normal. But when those moments happen, intervene right away. 

Imagine this scenario. You have two kids playing nicely and the next thing you know, one of the kids is hitting the other. Step in and say, “Everyone stays safe in this family. It’s ok to be mad. It’s not ok to hit.”

As you are saying the sentences, step in between the activated kid and the person/object that they’re being physical towards. Even if the action is over, still step in and say the same thing.

When you move closer, be calm. Don’t rush at them aggressively. That won’t help. Say the words in a strong, firm voice, with a calm presence. 

This is usually enough to interrupt the moment. The firmness of your voice and the clarity of the limit will actually lower your child’s stress. It will actually help them become less activated. 

 

Here are some sample scripts:

  • Everyone stays safe in this family. It’s ok to be annoyed. It’s not ok to tell your brother he’s dumb. You can say, “I’m so annoyed.”
  • Everyone stays safe in this family … including you. It’s ok to feel sad. It’s not ok to bite yourself. You can bite this.
  • Everyone stays safe in this family … including me. It’s ok to feel frustrated. It’s not ok to hit me.  You can say, “I’m so mad at you, Mommy!” 

 

If they’re being physical to you … take a step back. Move out of reach and say the sentences while moving away to a safe place.

If they are breaking things … if you can move objects gently out of reach so they don’t get broken, great. If not, worry less about things and focus on people. Relationships are always more important than things.

Kids hurting other kids (or you) is definitely a behavior that can feel really overwhelming. And it can trigger a lot of stress for you. Remember, being firm doesn’t mean being harsh. You don’t have to be angry or activated to set this boundary. You can stay calm and still be super firm.

 

Set firm boundaries when big feeling come out to keep everyone safe.

Big feelings can be overwhelming. If parents set calm but firm boundaries, everyone stays safe. Photo by Hisu Lee on Unsplash.

 

Traveling with kids doesn’t have to be an endless stream of conflict and grumpy feelings. The calmer and more confident you feel, the calmer and happier your children will feel. And when things go south, no problem. Pause, reset, and move forward with a limit. 

 

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Darlynn Childress is a life and parent coach who spends most of her days helping moms stop feeling like crap and actually enjoy their kids. She is the host of the “Become A Calm Mama” podcast and founder of the online “Calm Mama Club” community, where she shares practical tips and tools for parents. Darlynn has traveled extensively with her kids, who are now teenagers, exploring England, Canada, New York, Mexico, Hawaii, and several long road trips to national parks. A Southern California girl since birth, Darlynn spends her free time hiking, stand-up paddleboarding, reading novels by the pool and planning her next vacation.

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