Disclaimer: I’m not a mental health professional – just a mom who is passionate about travel and adventure. This post is based on my experiences and observations along with some online research. If you need help strengthening your family relationships, I recommend turning to a professional.
The Coronavirus pandemic rages on as the autumn months give way to winter. Now, in the depths of frigid December, I’m thinking more than ever about past adventures with my family and the journeys that I want to embark on in the future. I consider myself an accidental adventurer – I grew up in a wonderful family that, for the most part, enjoyed low key activities at home.
But my passions changed when I met adventurous friends in college. Suddenly, I couldn’t get enough of campouts, road trips, short getaways, and lengthy international trips. Nearly a decade later, I like to think that I’m building a legacy of adventure for my little family, and I can already see the benefits that this lifestyle provides.
Loving parents work tirelessly to forge strong bonds with their children. From reading on the couch with inattentive little ones to watching a movie with a teenager or catching up with adult children, parents hope to stay connected with their kids at every turn. For me, adventure is a great connector that can span generations. There’s a reason why resort vacations, Disneyland getaways, and family camps are a big business – families want to escape and create long-lasting memories.
What does science have to say about sharing experiences?
When you travel or enjoy an adventure with loved ones, you’re sharing an experience. All kinds of experiences can be shared, from jobs to trips to life changes and global events. Research shows that shared experiences are amplified, meaning that even the most mundane activities – like eating a meal with a friend – take on additional meaning and power simply because another person was involved.
This concept applies to both pleasant and unpleasant experiences – so that terrible movie you watched with a family member or that incredible trip that you took with a friend will leave more powerful impressions than experiences that you went through alone. Additionally, studies reveal that you don’t even have to communicate with the other person or people involved while the event is occurring. How wild is that?!
We’ve long understood that the behaviors of others influence us, but it’s fascinating to know that the mere presence of someone else can have an impact on how we perceive our experiences.
Now that we know sharing experiences of any sort can affect family relationships, let’s talk adventure.
What does science have to say about novel experiences?
When I think of adventure, I think of novelty. Even if you visit the same hiking trail or vacation spot, you’re bound to have a different experience each time and to come away with new memories. That’s one reason why traditions are so powerful; even if you’re going to the same place with the same people, you create novel memories each time. As someone who craves novelty, I enjoy getting out as much as I can, but not all people are like that. Many people have a low tolerance for novelty and prefer to stick with set routines.
Fun fact: there’s actually a scientific term for people who constantly chase newness – they’re called neophiliacs (not to be confused with a similar-sounding term that means something VERY different, lol). Neophilia manifests itself in a variety of ways, from wanting the latest and greatest electronics to constantly visiting new places and trying novel things.
Even if your drive toward novelty isn’t prolific enough to label yourself a neophiliac, many people still enjoy novel experiences and embrace newness. Scientific studies show that novelty ignites the pleasure centers in our brains and new things – in the case of these studies, new products and objects – draw us in, even if we haven’t been interested in the items in the past.
So what does this all have to do with families and adventure?
Now that we’ve explored some relevant side topics, it’s time to get back to the meat of this blog: does adventure strengthen family relationships? The answer appears to be yes, even outside of anecdotal experiences.
A study conducted at Iowa State University followed multiple families through family camp experiences to measure the impact of camp on “family functioning and parenting”. Now, I have to give another disclaimer here – I’m not a Ph.D. student or a scientific researcher, so I’m no expert at dissecting academic papers. But the study concludes that family camps, where relatives spend time together, engage in stimulating and challenging activities, and bond with another had an overall positive effect on:
- Family cohesion (the closeness of family members)
- Family expressiveness (communication and understanding among family members)
- Family conflicts (in this case, they were reduced in the family camp environment)
It’s worth noting that family camps are designed to foster these outcomes, so while I’ve never been to one, the programming likely involves bonding activities, problem-solving exercises, and fun events that bring people together. In most cases, the programming is also guided by an outside party, such as a director or camp counselor. It would be interesting to compare the effects of third-party involvement to events or trips that are solely guided by individual families – would the positive outcomes be the same? What do you think?
In my own life, I’ve seen how adventure and exploration strengthen our family relationships. Of course, we bonded during the positive, cheerful moments where we all felt happy and relaxed, but even our most harrowing times – like getting robbed at gunpoint in the Caribbean – strengthened our family relationships. The benefits we’ve realized through our adventures near and far include:
- More appreciation for each other
- Improved communication
- Greater patience in unexpected or stressful circumstances
- More excitement and enjoyment within our family
- Greater happiness as we reflect on fun and meaningful memories
…and many other benefits.
How can I strengthen my family relationships through adventure?
Now, this blog wouldn’t be complete without addressing a fundamental point: many families want to embark on fun adventures and make new memories, but they face serious financial, emotional, or relationship challenges. The good news is that adventures don’t have to cost money or last for long periods of time. Additionally, you can start small no matter where your family where things are currently at with your family relationships. Here are a few simple ideas:
- Go on a hike: hiking is (usually) free and can be as long or short of an outing as you’d like. You can find easy trails that will suit everyone’s skill level and be fun for the whole family. And here’s a bonus: you can probably find a mountain trail where no one will have cell service, so you’ll be forced to interact with each other!
- Sit around a campfire: many public parks and outdoor areas have fire pits. All this outing requires is materials for starting a fire – but you can also roast hot dogs or marshmallows as an added treat.
- Visit a local attraction: does your town have a free museum or a neat outdoor area that’s worth checking out? Make a special occasion out of the day by inviting the whole family. It can be tough to find attractions that appeal to everyone, but most cities have a variety of options to choose from.
Would you like to see more tips and information about how adventure strengthens families? If so, leave a comment below!