45  Family Holiday Stress


“I approach our forthcoming summer holiday on the continent with dread. My oldest daughter A (16), despite being an A level literature student, will be lying on the beach reading bonk-busters, my youngest daughter B (11) will be complaining about missing Neighbours and East Enders in England rather than looking forward to secondary school and my wife will be sunbathing and complaining that I spoil the holiday by wanting her to visit boring places like museums and art galleries and I would have preferred to stay at home working.”

 Mr W.L.


 It is often hard to remember that the concept of a holiday is a relatively new one. A holy day, an Old English term, was a single day of great importance as it commemorated a religious event or festival. It took until the fifteenth century for the “y” in “holy” to be changed into an “i” and for the term “holiday” to represent a day of amusement or entertainment. In the UK we now consider a holiday to be a collective term- days in which work is given up for the purpose of recreation and amusement rather than a single day.


 Whilst it was an historic achievement to have a secular day or days relief from enforced labour, the current cultural insistence on what a holiday should be and how it should be enjoyed can represent a new kind of totalitarianism. Whilst observing a classroom in a famously liberal school some twenty years ago I was surprised to hear the class teacher order her class to “Go out and play now!” in the same tone in which her despised authoritarian school counterpart would be ordering children to study! In a similar way in South Africa a few months ago I saw a white “liberal” woman employer order her black female cleaners to go and vote for democracy.


 If there is the economic freedom to have a holiday (and some families can not afford to stop work for the summer) the issue of personal choice within a family context is very important. For my father, a holiday was taking his typewriter to a new environment! However, as it was a portable, he was happy to take it to the beach, a museum, a mountain - anywhere the rest of us wanted to go. If Mr W.L. really would find his own work the most enjoyable use of his holiday time has he properly looked into all the technological ways he could take his work with him in a way that would suit his family’s wishes? The exponential creative growth of computer systems has made some kinds of work easily mobile whilst advanced video-recording has eased the withdrawal symptoms of soap addicts.


 However, it may be that Mr W.L. is only pining for his work because his family’s holiday needs are so differing that they do not seem to accommodate each other. This is not surprising. As Consultant Psychiatrist and Family Therapist Dr Arnon Bentovim comments “Holidays, by definition, create a context which families are uniquely unsuited for. Because of generational and gender differences holiday clashes and conflicts are inevitable as the family have to confront the stage they are at without their usual daily separate activities.”


 A, aged 16, will be joining the large number of teenage girls (and women) who read a particular kind of “soft” pornography on holiday - currently termed a “bonk-buster”. Is Mr W.L. concerned by the way that the spotlight of a holiday can focus on the growing sexual awareness and maturity of teenage children as well as her choice of reading material? Often the two go together. Such a novel offers an apparently adult anticipation of and participation in sexual activity whilst minimising the emotional complexity of relationships. This kind of reading reflects the diversion from usual patterns that a holiday often represents in the same way that a “holiday romance” differs from a home one.


 B, on the other hand, deals with her sense of forthcoming disorientation by focusing concretely on the activities of a group of people she knows daily from television whom she will miss. Successful soap operas offer a daily transitional space in which familiar elements in viewers’ lives can be explored relatively painlessly. Children of B and A’s age (as well as adults) can miss their favourite soaps when abroad on holiday. Soaps offer a daily certainty in the midst of the daily uncertainty of life and may be missed most at times of transition. With B just about to start secondary school she might be fearful of the older expectations ahead.


 Is Mr W.L’s concern about an “improving” holiday a genuine educational pleasure of his that he would like to impart to his family or is his insistence on the educational (museums, art galleries, A’s A levels and B’s secondary transfer) a way of expressing his fears about his own or his family’s academic ability?


 Mrs L. wants to spend her time lying in the sun. Is there a particular aspect of this activity that is upsetting Mr W.L? Where sunbathing goes over a certain amount of time it is not only physically dangerous but it also might represent some kind of emotional concern. Does Mr W.L. feel jealous or worried that his wife needs the sun more than him? Or does she feel driven to stay in the sun longer to counteract his wish to be in museums and galleries. For some adults, sun, sea, mountains, great art and antiquities can represent something parental, reassuringly larger and older than us, that look after us. Whilst these can provide holiday pleasure, like all human activities they can be expressions of discontent or loss if taken to excess.


 On the last day of July you could hear many teachers all over the UK commenting “the kids ran wild- they are really longing for the holidays”. In fact, often the opposite is true. Children of all ages can experience the summer break from school as an abandonment by their teachers and their “excitement” can be artificially generated to hide loss. Denial of loss at holiday times can be expressed by sexualisation (reading sexy novels, undertaking brief holiday flings,), over-activity (frenetic work schedules, touring) or compulsive ordering of events (a calendar dominated by soaps, an over-ordered list of excursions to museums or art galleries) as well as in many other ways. At the Tavistock Mulberry Bush Day Unit a Leavers’ Certificate Course was held to enable children to understand these processes and make the transition less painful. Denigrating or idealising what is left behind or what is looked forward to (whether culturally high or low status) are signs of not dealing with change. There may be more of an educational cachet in saying “horrid soaps” instead of “horrid museums” but where there is any denigration instead of concern a problem is showing itself.


 Can the L parents find a holiday that will offer each of them time for their separate interests as well as a compromise time to put up with each other’s? Do they need to think together more at the different stages of life their girls are entering? It pays to think carefully for as Dr Bentovim comments “A holiday offers enormous opportunities to get to know each other and out of the conflict can come awareness of change and maturation”.