Pack your bags to give children ‘happiness anchors’

Whether you travel near or far, family holidays are about nurturing relationships

When one of my teenage sons started rhapsodising at the dinner table one dark winter’s evening about how that summer’s holiday had been “one of the best ever”, my husband and I exchanged glances with exactly the same thought: “You could have fooled us!”

Our abiding memory was of teenagers who showed no enthusiasm for getting up before the midday heat was going to drive you indoors anyway. They showed little interest in exploring the locality of the Spanish villa on foot and were, of course, in constant contact with friends at home via wifi.

But his comments just reminded me that a) just because teenagers don’t appear to be enjoying themselves, it doesn’t mean they’re not and b) the value of family holidays lingers on long after the shorts and strappy dresses have been packed away for another year.

For children, in particular, it's not where you go that matters but the getting away

It is why holidays have been described as a “happiness anchor”. They provide a well of feel-good memories on which people can draw in the months, years and even decades later.


For children, in particular, it’s not where you go that matters but the getting away – both to a different setting and from the distractions of work and home life. So if your family enjoyed a trip away at Easter or just is looking forward to one in the summer, rest assured that it is a good investment in your children’s well-being.

‘Quality time’

"The time away from the usual is hugely important," says Colman Noctor, a child and adolescent psychotherapist with St Patrick's Mental Health Services in Dublin. Even so-called "quality time" spent at home with your children is not the same as holidays because parents are rarely truly switched off.

“Without a doubt children will have lasting memories of positive holiday experiences. They will remember the emotion that went with being in France or the campsite they really loved,” he explains.

However, it's not the venue that is of primary importance. "The notion of having to spend vast amounts of money to go away is not necessarily part of the package," says Noctor, author of Cop On: What it is and why your child needs it to survive and thrive in today's world.

The mobile home in Wexford could be as memorable to children as a trip to Disneyland. A father of three children, Noctor remembers his own father talking fondly of going on holidays to Blessington – all the way from Tallaght. It was the experience of being “somewhere else”; the distance travelled to get there was less important.

For children who are rushed off to childcare and rushed back to bed in the evening, this downtime is a special experience

Children enjoy the adventure of going away and having their parents to themselves for seven days. It offers the chance to reconnect through spending more time with each other.

In today’s world, such opportunities are at a higher premium, he suggests, because we always seem to be running. For children who are rushed off to childcare in the morning and rushed back to bed in the evening, this downtime is a really special experience.

So although some exhausted parents like to put their offspring in children’s clubs all day, Noctor advises moderation in this regard.

“I think that negates the whole experience of what it is. The key to the holiday is the opportunity to nurture our relationships rather than being about entertainment.”

While acknowledging that children enjoy the company of other children and that, individually, parents might benefit from “farming them out for seven days”, his concern is what it does for the family dynamic.

“I wouldn’t say it is altogether that helpful,” he comments. “Our relationships are formed on intimacy, and without opportunities to form closeness, we are not going to develop that intimacy and relationships are not going to progress.”

Holiday ‘disasters’

Even holiday “disasters”, although usually unpleasant at the time, can be fondly remembered by the whole family for years to come.

“Adversity gels us together,” says Noctor, adding that he and his siblings still laugh about five days the family spent in a mobile home, in the lashing rain, darkness and thunder.

Psychologist Dr Jolanta Burke, who specialises in positive psychology, is in total agreement with the concept of holidays as a "happiness anchor". What differentiates us from animals, she says, is that we have an ability to "time travel".

“In a split second we can close our eyes and think of events from the past, or dream about the future and our bodies experience the physiological effects of it. When we think of something exciting, our heart rate goes up, when we think of something relaxing, it goes down. Therefore, thinking of our past and future has an effect on how we feel today.”

In positive psychology, families are encouraged to sit around the table with photographs and recall good old times

Holidays allow some people, who use them for physical activity, to speed up their lives, while others prefer to slow down by relaxing on the beach. Just the anticipation of getting away from the daily routine can boost our mood, as does remembering the pleasure of it afterwards.

Indeed there is an intervention used in positive psychology whereby families are encouraged to sit around the table with photographs and recall good old times. The aim is to increase family members’ well-being, explains Burke, who lives in Dublin but is a senior lecturer at the University of East London, as well as a visiting lecturer in Trinity College Dublin’s business school.

In her own home, the dining room walls are adorned with an ever-changing array of holiday snaps. These keep the memories of past holidays alive and accessible, allowing them to feel good about them more often.

“Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t look over someone else’s head and giggle because they spotted a picture of the last time we went to Legoland, went kayaking in Lough Derg, covered ourselves with ice-cream in a medieval city of Torun in Poland, or watched our dog Rosie swim in the sea along the Wild Atlantic Way,” she remarks.

Psychological benefit

To help maximise the psychological benefit, Burke recommends creating holiday rituals. For small children it might be packing a particular bag to take in the car or plane, or bringing a special “travelling bear” each time. For older children it might be always going for pizza on the first night or playing a particular card game in the evenings.

“Enacting these rituals reinforces the family’s identity, makes people feel closer to each other and intensifies our positive experiences, during and post holidays.”

There is often an unspoken distinction between families who “holiday” and those who “travel” – with the latter tending to do it for much longer stretches if they can.

“We call it travelling because we don’t go to sit on a beach,” says Karen Edwards. “We travel because we want to experience the culture and see as much as possible and move around as much as possible.”

She and her New Zealand-born husband, Shaun Bayes, headed off for a “gap year” soon after the arrival of their first child, Esmé, 2½ years ago. Their daughter had visited about a dozen countries before her first birthday.

“Travelling is an incredible way to bond as a family,” says Edwards, who runs the website. “When you are at home, you are trying to maintain a household, whether you are a stay-at-home mother or stay-at-home father. You are always trying to get things done.

“When we are away we are removed from all these things and Esmé has our undivided attention and we just spend nice time together,” she says from their London home.

That’s not to say the Dublin-born nurse didn’t have initial doubts about the sanity of heading off to the other side of the world with a 10-week-old baby.

When, at the age of 29, her pregnancy came as a surprise, she and Shaun, a builder, had just bought an apartment to renovate before heading off on a long trip away. Naively perhaps, they didn’t see why parenthood should change their plans.

But hit by the reality of having a new baby and being “delirious like any other first-time mother”, Edwards began to think it was a “ludicrous idea”, she admits. “My husband was, ‘we’ve planned it now so we had better go’.

“I kind of forced myself into it – that was a good thing.” And, after getting their home rented out and once she was sitting on the plane, “the stress was over”.

Indeed, not only did she find travelling with a baby very doable, but it also resulted in her developing the online sharing of photos and experiences into a business that she hopes will enable them to lead more the kind of life they want.

“We don’t see ourselves staying in London for ever,” says Edwards, who is on extended leave from her job as site manager in two hospitals and awaiting the arrival of their second child, due in two months’ time. Then they are planning another gap year en famille – just as soon as the baby can get an Irish passport.

Be it a year or even just a week out, there's scientific research to suggest that holidays not only make children happier but also smarter.  Child psychotherapist and author Dr Margot Sunderland, writing in the Telegraph earlier this year, explained how they boost brain development.

“The brain’s ‘play’ system is exercised every time you bury your child’s feet in the sand, tickle them on the pool lounger, or take them for a ride on your back. The brain’s ‘seeking’ system is exercised each time you go exploring together: the forest, the beach, a hidden gem of a village.”

She also quoted the Estonian-born, Washington-based neuroscientist Prof Jaak Panksepp, who discovered these brain systems and how they trigger well-being neurochemicals: "We can choose activities and pursuits that release the oxytocin stored in our own inner medical cabinet… We have this wonderful healing substance inside us and need only to learn the many ways we can draw upon it."

Burke is in no doubt that parents would be better off prioritising spending on holidays over material things for children

However, financially challenged households may still question the wisdom of spending on what can seem a transient pleasure. On return to post-holiday routine, people are inclined to feel “it was like we were never away”, so would it not make more sense to use the money to buy tangible things, such as a state-of-the-art TV system, that the family could enjoy 52 weeks of the year?

Cost and value

The cost and the value are hard to equate, agrees Noctor.  A family holiday has to be valued for what it is. Who knows, in five years’ time your relationship may be all the better because of it.

Burke is in no doubt that parents would be better off prioritising spending on holidays over material things for children. Possessions don’t make us as happy as experiences because their impact on our well-being is short-lasting, she says.

“We experience, so-called hedonic adaptation, which means that we take the regular positive events in our lives for granted. However, the unusual events, such as taking holidays, give us a boost and a reminder that life is good.”

People who cannot go on holidays, be it due to financial or life circumstances, tend to feel a sense of deprivation, points out Burke, author of Happiness after 30: The paradox of aging. “It is not only about relaxation but feeling part of our community, society, as it has become our social norm.”

The St Vincent de Paul provides holidays for families who are unable to afford them in the belief that a break away is a lifeline rather than a luxury.

It’s “down time” for the family unit, says Emily McCann, treasurer of the St Martha’s Conference of St Vincent de Paul in Carne Holiday Centre, Co Wexford. “They don’t have the interruptions and the trials and tribulations of everyday life. [They can] just enjoy the beauty.”

She is a great believer in the benefits of sea air, “even in the pouring rain”, at their  centre, which has three cottages for families, as well as a block that sleeps 76 and is used to accommodate youth groups and others.

“They can do even simple things like go for a walk together, something they may not take the time to do when they are at home.”

Staying right beside the beach is a calm and therapeutic experience for city children, she adds. “There are no amusements; they have to go out and play and play is such an important part of childhood.”

Although holidays are often the only time when the whole family spends extended time together, our enjoyment of this time is dependent on the pattern of togetherness and separateness we have created, says Burke. Some people need time apart, even on holiday, and freedom from family commitments is particularly important for teenagers.

“Respecting your teenager’s need to stay in the apartment and just hang out when we go to the beach or sightseeing, or let them go for a walk on their own, or spend hours on WhatsApp with friends, without making them feel bad, can be a very important factor in the family becoming closer,” she adds.

So perhaps letting sleeping teenagers lie during that holiday in Spain was the right thing to do after all.

Reaping the rewards of family holidays

Although a trip away may seem like a passing pleasure, the benefits can be long lasting. You don’t have to travel far – it’s the change of scene that’s important, along with parents switching off from work. Holidays are an investment in your children because they can:

·  Improve bonding within the family, through time spent together away from daily distractions

· Provide a lasting source of feel-good memories to draw on at less happy times

· Stimulate learning as children adapt to new surroundings

· Expand our horizons as families have novel experiences and try activities they might not do at home

· Improve children’s concentration levels and lower stress through being outdoors in nature

· Rejuvenate everybody in the family to return to the routine with a new vigour