- Begin talking about the visit (who will be there, what you will do) several weeks ahead of time. Young children have only a fuzzy concept of time intervals, so you don't want to start too soon. But you can X off days on a wall calendar with the comment, “When the X's fill up all this space, we're leaving for Grandma's.” If the trip involves a visit to a place the child has been before, get out any photos you might have of the previous visit and discuss the people and places with your preschooler. This sharing of pictures and stories gives you an opportunity to mention special precautions that might be necessary on the visit or things that will simply seem different. “Do you remember that Grandma has a lot of pretty things on her coffee table that she doesn't like you to pick up? If there is something you really want to see up close, ask her to show it to you.” “Grandpa doesn't hear as well as you and I do, so when we talk to him we'll want to use a loud voice.” Things likely to be drastically different should also be mentioned ahead of time: “It will seem funny to you, but all the rooms in their house are on the same floor; their house doesn't have an upstairs.” If a theme park is being visited, try to prepare your child for the fact that the “characters” might not look exactly like they do in books, on TV, etc. If you know in advance about major food differences (earlier or later meals, different kinds of foods, etc.), be sure to talk about these.
- Take some “home” with you. This is an old trick we've all used; allowing a beloved but beat-up blanket to go wherever the child goes is the most famous example. But there are other take-alongs that can help keep the stress level down. The basket of toys used in the car should be brought inside and used freely during the visit.
- Another take-along I highly recommend is your child's own pillow. In my experience, most motel pillows were made for basketball players or space aliens with strange neck structure. The ones as Aunt Sharon's house may feel equally strange. Falling asleep on a drastically different pillow can be difficult, so try to save enough space for packing a much-loved pillow. (And don't forget it when you check out of the motel or leave Aunt Sharon's…if you do, there will be a crisis when you get back home.)
- Expect some regression, and make allowance for it. This is almost inevitable. Your 3-year-old daughter, who hasn't had a temper tantrum in months, suddenly drops down on the kitchen floor of her grandmother's house and kicks and screams. Your 4-year-old has been sleeping dry for over a year, but the first night at your college roommate's home he wets the bed! No need to scold; better to bring along a sheet of plastic as long as your son is tall and quietly slip it under the bottom sheet. Nature outings are especially good at producing this kind of regression. When my children were little, about the only vacation we could afford was a camping trip to one of the parks in Upstate New York, where we lived. It quickly became apparent that my daughter was simply not going to have anything to do with an outdoor toilet—even one of which the park service was especially proud. On the first such trip we had to stop in a small town and buy a potty, and from then until she was in kindergarten it was a standard piece of our camping equipment, every bit as important as our stove and cookware.
- Sleep regression is also a frequent occurrence. The bed is strange, the sounds are different, and falling asleep just doesn't come easily. The pillow from home will help, but you may need to do additional things as well. To begin with, I would move bedtime back an hour or so until sleep can simply not be postponed any longer. Let her fall asleep on the couch or floor in the room where everyone is talking. Or lie down with her until she falls asleep. Maybe by the second or third night this will no longer be necessary.
- Reconnect with home activities from time to time. One of the few things in our lives that is cheaper now than it used to be is a long distance telephone call. Call back to your home territory a few times—a special friend, a parent who didn't get to make the trip, a neighbor, etc. If your preschooler is enrolled in a good educare program and misses her friends and her teachers, let her make a short call. The calls can be short and not too informative, but they'll help her re-establish her bond to her familiar routine.
- Find time for special moments. When we go to visit family or friends, we want to spend quality time with the adults we are visiting. That means that you will want to get away from your kids (and maybe their kids) from time to time. If you do this and need the services of a sitter, make certain it is a reliable one who will appreciate the fact that she or he is a stranger to your child and may need to make a few exceptions for him. But somehow, in the confusion that often results from the temporary combination of two households, find time to be alone with your child and share some of the special things you generally do together—reading a book brought from home, taking a walk together, playing with some of the toys brought in the car or in whatever outdoor play space is available. These special moments will, more than anything else, make the temporary setting seem home-like and secure. And they'll help keep your stress level down, too.
These little extra steps on your part will make your visit to extended family or friends more likely to produce pleasant memories than regrets. And I'll make a prediction: your kids will be so well-behaved that you'll be invited back next year!
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.