Baggage, budgets and boundaries: How to plan a smooth family reunion

Experts offer tips on how to avoid conflict and get along with relatives….

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For families long separated by pandemic travel restrictions, the time is nigh for a reunion. A multigenerational vacation is a way to reconnect while remaining in a relatively safe family pod.

Multigenerational vacations were already trending pre-pandemic, says Dan Austin, who with his family runs Austin Adventures, a group and custom travel outfitter. In recent months, he says, “we’ve been inundated.” Austin, his wife and their adult children recently reunited in Baja California. “Like ours, many families have been cooped up and separated for 14 months, and really just want to enjoy some family time. People are eager to travel, but they still want to travel in their own bubble.”

But what if a week with your extended family, surrounded by your needy parents, whiny toddler nephew or crude-joke-telling brother-in-law sounds like a trip to hell? Duty may obligate you to take a multigenerational vacation, but travel experts and family therapists say that a healthy dose of planning can keep it from being a stressful, miserable experience.

Family reunion trips, says child psychiatrist and family therapist Maurizio Andolfi, are a reaction to the closures and imposed distancing of the past year, and also a celebration that (hopefully) everyone, especially elderly family members, survived the pandemic. But even for happy families, he says, “all that togetherness is pleasurable at first, but after a day or so, it might feel claustrophobic.”

“No family is perfect,” Andolfi says. “They all have their unfinished business.” Factor in divorces, stepparents, addictions, old rifts and childhood trauma, and you have got the makings for some major triggering. “You might be 50 years old,” he says, “but you may recreate the old mechanism of a kid in the middle of a family conflict. It’s easy to put on the clothes of your 11-year-old self when you’re confronted with the conflicts you’d buried or forgotten.”

“There’s a gravity to thinking that ‘because we’re a family, everything will be easy’,” says Matt Lundquist, psychotherapist and clinical director at Tribeca Therapy in New York City. “Vacations are fun and relaxing in proportion to how much you work at them.” And that includes not just the practical work of planning accommodations and activities, but in preparing ahead of time for the inherent emotional challenges of a multigenerational trip.

Lundquist says self-preservational planning means talking about potential conflicts ahead of time. Maybe the elephant in the room is a years-old argument between two family members, where there is still a great deal of resentment. “It might be necessary to talk in advance and name this tension,” Lundquist says, “and to say to each of the warring parties, ‘We look forward to seeing you, but don’t fight with your stepbrother.’ “

If you’re the one who is at the center of an unresolved conflict, or if you anticipate that a family member – an older sister, for example – may intentionally or unintentionally trigger unpleasant memories, emotions or reactions, Lundquist says to line up allies ahead of time.

“Talk with someone on the trip who knows how your sister can push your buttons,” he says. “Agree in advance that they’ll pull you aside, squeeze your hand under the table, and just be your support.” If you can align with someone who gets along with both of you, they may be able to serve as an intermediary peacekeeper – at least long enough to get you through the week. “The objective is to minimize conflict,” he says.

Andolfi says that if possible, give a wide berth to those family members who create or trigger conflict. If that means positioning yourself at the opposite end of the picnic table – ideally a long table – so be it. “It’s OK to put up some individual defenses,” he says, “and decide to communicate from a certain distance.”

Lundquist and Andolfi both say that a family vacation itinerary should include breaks from one another. “If you’re all spending several days together, then it’s OK to split off a few times,” Lundquist says. “And if it’s talked about in advance, it plays less like you’re avoiding your family and more like, ‘We’re having a blast but now we want to go off on our own for a while.”

Andolfi stresses that family matriarchs and patriarchs need to be part of the discussion, too. “There may be a dominant figure, like a father who was important during his career or was used to commanding lots of employees and wants to do the same with his family,” he says, “or a mother who gets her feelings hurt because her children want to spend time by themselves.” It’s best to prepare them ahead of time that everyone is going to choose their own levels of space and privacy.

Family history might not be the only source of conflict when you all get together in one place. Different parenting styles, cleaning habits, even bedtimes, can cause tension when you’re all under one roof. “Planning and transparency are so much of the ballgame,” Lundquist says. “What are the expectations for things like chores, cooking, and child care? Maybe a couple wants to sneak off by themselves for an afternoon and just expects that an aunt will watch their kids,” he says. “Put the expectations out there in advance rather than assuming.”

Budget is another topic to put on the table early in the planning stages. “One of the good things about group travel is that you can amortize the cost by renting a big house with room for everyone,” says Pauline Frommer of Frommer’s Travel Guides, where I am a writer and editor. “But budgets have to be discussed in advance, so that every person has a feeling of financial buy-in and no one gets arm-twisted into paying more than they can afford.”

Lundquist agrees that money needs to be talked about. “It’s helpful if the individuals who have a little more money can initiate the conversation,” he says. Decide whether you are splitting all costs evenly, even if that means scaling back so that everyone is comfortable, whether some family members want to be magnanimous and let everyone pay what they can based on their capacity, or whether different budgets mean that some branches of the family tree high-time it with meals, tours and experiences while others sit them out. “Communicate and agree in advance,” Lundquist says, “so that everyone owns the financial decisions.”

Frommer recommends that families avoid putting one person in charge of planning, even if it’s that person’s nature to take the lead. “I suppose it’s fine if you’re a strong person who can take charge and deal with the consequences,” she says. “But all the blame falls on one person if something goes wrong.” Lundquist suggests assembling the key stakeholders, such as one representative from each nuclear unit, on the phone a handful of times to talk explicitly about logistics.

Online tools, Frommer adds, such as shared spreadsheets and payment platforms, ensure that everyone pays at the same time and is on the same page with planning. If you’re planning activities down to the day, remember to make contingency plans for rainy days, tired kids, picky eaters, or whatever else circumstances may throw at you.

When deciding what everyone wants to do and where they want to do it, Austin says to give everyone a voice. “Before the trip starts, get everyone involved in decision-making so that every family member – whether they’re 8 years old or 80 – has a say in where they go and what they do. Find out what everyone wants to do, and at least touch on that during the week so that no one feels like they got left out.”

A destination where there isn’t much variety might be the worst option for a multigenerational vacation, especially when there’s a broad age range of participants. “You can’t make only one part of the family happy,” says Frommer, “and if there are little kids along, there has to be something for them to do.” She recommends cruises or all-inclusive resorts, where there’s a variety of activities and everyone knows in advance how much it will cost. Austin says national parks are a great option for extended families, because they offer activities for a range of physical abilities, plus history, wildlife and chances for everyone to spread out.

However you and your extended brood decide to vacation together, go in with the knowledge that things aren’t going to be perfect. “Having managed expectations is not cynical,” Lundquist says. “It’s playing the long game.” You may not resolve that years-old rift with your sibling, but you may thaw the ice over a campfire or a game of charades.

“This doesn’t need to be the bonding trip of a lifetime,” says Lundquist, “but you might get to ‘fine.’ When people haven’t gotten along for a long time, having an OK time together is a win.”

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