How to survive the Costa del Tantrum and reduce your stress levels on a family holiday
As we reach peak holiday stress, our reporter advises on how to keep the sunny side up on this year's big summer getaway with the family
When you crawl out from under a duvet at half six on a dark, foul Tuesday in February, it's the far-off prospect of the great summer getaway that gets your two feet on the floor and keeps them there. It's the promise that keeps you civil, manageable, even vaguely human through the endless inhospitable seasons of perpetual gloom.
You bribe yourself with images of turquoise seas, azure skies and mornings that don't begin with the sadistic wail of an alarm but much later with the promise of a brunch on a balcony or with your feet dangling in a pool.
That's the idea anyway. What's not to like?
But you're forgetting something. You have kids. Gorgeous, of course, but genetically programmed feral beasts too.
Their concept of a summer holiday is a blur of perpetual motion with zero tolerance for lie-ons, hangovers or the boring notion that dozing under a shady tree might actually constitute a good use of time.
To the average rational adult this is about as much fun as waterboarding in Tikrit.
I am not an expert and don't pretend to be. I don't even have a dodgy child psychology diploma from an internet college. My sole qualification is that for close on three decades I have holidayed at home and abroad with children (my own, mostly) ranging from sugar-junkie two-year-olds right up to monosyllabic miserablist teenagers who would rather be somewhere else almost as much as much as I wished they were anywhere else.
Here are some random rules worth heeding before taking off into the great unknown with Small People. It is suitable for both those who are new to it and those who simply never learn or conveniently choose to forget from year to year.
Holidays are like Christmas. We funnel all our hopes and expectations for the year into these two seasons, expecting them to compensate for all the trials and terrors, disappointments and let-downs that the rest of life throws at us. We want to get our own back. But life isn't like that. You can only have one holiday of a lifetime and this might not be it. So hope for a great time and settle for a good one.
The big spend
There is little difference between shopping for a holiday and aisle-browsing in a fancy department store. With both you are very susceptible to impulse buying. Scribble down a budget and stick to it. Yes, that villa with the infinity pool on the Med is to die for, but really? Click 'Book Now' on that one and the family will spend November huddled around a smouldering briquette for warmth and consolation.
Packing and travelling
It might be a short run down the N11 to the sunny (well, slightly sunnier) south east, or a marathon flight over the oceans to destinations exotic, but the stress only varies a mere degree or two either way. Even in this near enlightened age of New Men and look-at-me dads, the mammy still tends to be the project manager when it comes to the packing and organising. That's the way she likes it, so just stay out of the way.
The best way to guarantee some quality time for yourself is to plan a holiday that indulges as many of your children's demands and obsessions as possible. No point landing in paradise if the wee treasures are going to turn it into hell. A bored child quickly becomes a cranky one, soon upgrading to impossible monster. Distract them early and often. It's questionable parenting but, hey, you're on holidays.
Just because you micro-planned this holiday around your children doesn't mean you relegate your own preferences to an after-thought. While acknowledging that, obviously, the holiday is mostly about them (isn't everything?), they need to know that the grown-ups - who organised and paid for the whole exercise - have things they want to do too. Then be every bit as single-mindedly determined and selfish in pursuit of those as they would be. That should do it.
The extended family
Wonderful things, relatively speaking. But the term 'too much of a good thing' was actually coined about your family. If chain-smoking Auntie Mags drives you to distraction over Stephen's Day leftovers, imagine how impossible she'll be for 10 days in a cottage in Achill? And while it goes without saying that your own children are polite and articulate, their cousins tend to behave like malnourished street urchins who have a tribal thing about peeing on the toilet seat. Less is more.
The granny rule
There is no such thing as too much granny and grandad, though. They are wonderful at dispute resolution and discreet diplomacy. While your eldest might regularly challenge your flimsy authority, thus spreading the contagion of mutiny to impressionable younger siblings, a word in the ear from grandad can often do the trick. Oh, and they babysit too. Not that such a thought would cross your mind. But if they insist…
Sights for sore eyes
Nothing is designed to crush the spirit of a child more than the prospect of looking at stuff, be it the natural glories of the local landscape or pottering about aimlessly in the nearest village. You might be emotionally overwhelmed by shifting hews as the sun dances across the folding mountains of the Dingle peninsula. Your child won't even see it. All they'll see is a fog of beige emulsion. And they'll hate you for it. Do it on your own time.
I think we all can agree that this is a good thing and we all want to rear children who are literate in the finer things of life. But go easy. That mouldy medieval church in that little Sur Mer place last year? Five minutes would have been plenty. There was no need to read aloud from the Lonely Planet for an age, because they weren't listening. A little culture goes a long with children. Most adults too, to be honest.
Last night blow out
So you've ended up in that bloody tacky pizza place again, even though you wanted to try the highly recommended retro seafood shack. Meanwhile, granny is threatening to take her teeth out while the stroppy teen is locked in a permanent pout-face, everyone's on edge and the menu hasn't even arrived yet. Advice? Order a big jug of that ridiculously cheap local vin rouge and day-dream about the perfect holiday you are going to have … next year.