Ask the expert: Bickering ruined our family holiday

Tue, Jul 22, 2014, 01:00

Q My husband and I are writing this letter together. We’re just back from our first family holiday abroad in three years and seemed to spend the whole 10 days giving out to our four children for their constant bickering.

They’re aged 14, 11, 8 and 7. They were active and busy and really enjoyed the couple of cultural things we did, but the constant picking at each other (“I was sitting there”; “He got more than me”; “It’s my turn by the window”) in the background nearly drove us mad.

The teenager in particular seemed to spend her time trying to wind the little ones up. They couldn’t spend five minutes together without one of us being called and they didn’t seem to understand or care that this was our holiday too or appreciate how much effort and money we had put into it.

It took the fun out of the holiday and we found ourselves snapping at them and, in the end, at each other. Before this we were looking forward to the idea of doing more travelling with them but now we don’t think we could face it. Is there any magic solution?

A It is deeply frustrating to be faced with children who won’t stop fighting and bickering. It’s particularly annoying when you’ve gone to the trouble and cost of bringing them on holidays and they don’t seem to be able to meet what seems to be a simple, basic request. To be honest, there is no magic solution that will guarantee a bicker-free holiday in the future, but there are a few adjustments you could make so that you don’t come home feeling resentful and more stressed than when you left.

There is quite a gap in ages between your children, so developmentally they’re thinking in different ways and interested in different things. They’re likely to be spending more time with same-age friends at home than with each other, so there can be a bit of an adjustment to suddenly hanging out full-time with older or younger children, even if they’re siblings.

Bringing a friend along is one option; it can change the whole dynamic and generally makes everyone, including parents, behave a little better. Another possibility is to travel with a family with similarly-aged children. There are also lots of family-friendly holiday options with children’s camps and activities which many families swear by but which may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

It may sound obvious, but make sure they’re rested, fed and watered. Fatigue from lax bedtimes and being out of their normal sleep routine can lead to crankiness and irritability, so it’s important to build in naps and lie-ins, especially if they’re more active than usual. Always carry snacks and drinks and try to keep mealtimes as regular as possible. Children will bicker when they’re bored so have back-up games, books and a pack of cards to entertain.

It is a bit of a cliché, but adolescents are more touchy and intolerant. Teenage girls in particular seem to enjoy creating difficult situations and making dramatic comments just to get a reaction. Fourteen is a tricky age because she’s too old to be lumped in with the younger ones, but too young to be given free rein.

Make the distinction between her and the younger ones. Allow a later bedtime and a little independence; if she is made to feel adult, it might encourage her to behave more like one. If she has a phone, make her access dependent on good behaviour. It’s possibly a mistake to completely ban the phone on holiday as it may worsen her mood if she feels disconnected from her friends.

As a holiday is a new situation for them, they may be unsure about expectations. It’s a good idea to be really clear and specific about expectations and boundaries and to keep re-stating them. Offer an incentive for good behaviour rather than threatening a punishment for bad behaviour. For instance “we’ll go for an ice-cream at 6pm if you don’t fight about who sits beside who during lunch” rather than vague requests to be “nice” or “good” all the time.

Holiday bank account

A fun activity is to open a “holiday bank account” where small amounts of money are deposited as a reward for specific behaviours. It works on the same principle as a star chart and they get to spend the money on treats. As with any reward-based system, never deduct money for bad behaviour.

 

There can be a lot of pressure for a much-anticipated holiday to be a success, but the higher your expectations, the greater the disappointment when anything goes wrong, so it’s important to be realistic about your own expectations. If they bicker at home, they’re going to do the same whether you’re standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower or sitting on a glorious sandy beach in Donegal. A change of scenery is not going to improve their behaviour, and it might even make it worse if you’re suddenly living on top of each other in a caravan or small apartment and spending every minute in each others’ company.

It’s difficult to ignore bad behaviour at close quarters, but the more you make yourself available to intervene, the more they are going to call on you to sort out the slightest tiff. While you’ll need to make sure nobody is being hurt, a set of earphones will drown out the background noise and encourage them to sort things out for themselves. Another solution is that one parent becomes the “go-to” person at different times, which at least gives one of you a break.

A family holiday doesn’t necessarily have to mean being together all the time. Plan some separate activities where each child and adult gets to do something of their choice, even if it’s just a walk or an ice-cream. While it might go against the “family holiday” ethos, time apart from each other will give everyone a breather and will make for a calmer holiday.

Dr Sarah O’Doherty is a child clinical psychologist