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Avoiding the ‘Emotional Thermostat’ Trap: Tips for Family Vacation

Family vacation travel

I walked next to my son along a paved path we had discovered through a travel vlog. I could feel his excitement as he nearly bounced with each step.

My husband, my 16-year-old son, and I had all been anticipating this trip for months. Dreaming, talking, planning, researching. And after a long day and night of travel we finally arrived in Billund, Denmark for the first leg of our 2-week Scandinavian adventure.

“We made it! We’re actually here!” I said out loud for the third time in an hour.

“We’re actually here,” my husband repeated from behind us.

Was that sarcasm? Does he not want to be walking? Are we walking to slow? Is he annoyed by my excitement? I turned my head just enough to see my hubby smiling at me.

Oh good, I thought. He’s happy too! My body relaxed back into the rhythm of walking next to my long-legged son.

A few minutes later my son sighed.

“You good?” I pounced.

“Yep,” he answered.

Was that a hint of annoyance? I decided to ask a different question.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I’m good… just hungry.”

Relieved by his answer, I showed him my GPS that indicated we were just a couple minutes from the restaurant we were heading to.

As we walked the rest of the way, I reminded myself of my wise therapist’s words. At my appointment days before our departure, we discussed some of my anxieties about the trip.

My therapist repeated words she has spoken to me before - “You are not responsible for how other people are feeling.”

“Well, I just want to make sure everyone is enjoying everything,” I defended. As soon as the words came out, I knew how silly they sounded.

“You can’t make anyone enjoy anything. You can’t make anyone feel how you want them to feel. And it’s too heavy a burden to try.”

I knew she was going to say that.

“Give yourself freedom to enjoy each moment,” she continued. “Your emotions don’t have to ride someone else’s rollercoaster. Everyone will have bad moments. Extend grace when they happen and ask for the same in return.”

My emotions don’t have to ride someone else’s rollercoaster.

Maybe it’s part of being a mom. Maybe it’s my empathetic nature. Maybe it’s my anxiety. But when I’m with my family, I feel the need to be the emotional thermostat.

I am constantly checking, sensing, gauging, adjusting. I spend all my energy trying to make sure they are comfortable and happy. I’m not concerned with my own experience… until I inevitably crash. My energy is sapped, and I snap. Suddenly I’m too exhausted to regulate my own emotions. Then, I expect someone else to take on the role of thermostat so I can finally have a break!

The first night of our trip, I fell into my old “thermostat” habits, and I knew it. I ended that night praying that God would help me do better the next day, and of course he did!

My family and I in Norway

Our trip wasn’t perfect. We each had our moments of irritation, annoyance, and hunger turned “hanger.” But overall, our trip was amazing! We walked away with lifelong memories, shared adventures, and a lot of pictures.

Guess what? No one missed having an emotional thermostat.

I trusted my teen and my husband to let me know if they needed something, and I wasn’t afraid to express what I needed either. I found humor where in the past I would have found frustration. And instead of anxiety and emotional exhaustion, I found freedom and enjoyment.  


If, like me, you find yourself in the “emotional thermostat” trap, here are a few helpful tips to enjoy your next family vacation:

  • Embrace the freedom to enjoy each moment. Trust that each person also has this same freedom. You are not responsible for their joy.

  • Manage your expectations. It is unrealistic to think that each moment of vacation will be magical. When we stress over making each moment perfect, we add tension that can make vacation feel more like a pressure cooker. Leave space to breathe in your schedule and prioritize enjoyment over cramming in an unrealistic itinerary.

  • Extend grace to yourself and others. Each of you will have moments you are not your best selves. Give each other grace to have those moments without it ruining everyone’s day.

  • Reflect and pray. Although it may look different than your usual routine, remember to keep talking to the Lord. Ask him to help you let go of what you cannot control. Praise him for the moments of bliss and allow him to teach you through the challenging moments.



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