Building family connections, one small effort at a time.
Connection is the glue that keeps families together, helping them stay intact when life doesn’t go as planned.
A lot goes into building a healthy family but certain characteristics stand out.
Here’s a list of five healthy habits of emotionally-fit families and ideas on how you can incorporate these habits into your family life to build connection and a strong emotional base for your kids.
1. Talk often, talk openly.
Openly sharing ideas, beliefs and thoughts is at the base of all healthy relationships. Healthy families talk a lot. Whether it’s mere chit-chatting or having a serious discussion, it’s valuable. The key is keeping it open and not passing judgment. This is especially true when talking with teens—a time when asking open-ended questions rules over giving advice. Also, when parents make room for ambivalent and less desirable feelings—like disappointment and sadness—and are able to sit with these feelings rather than try to fix them, they send the message that ‘we’re here for each other no matter what.’
“When your child tells you about a bad choice they made and you feel upset, don’t show it. Try to stay calm and ask guiding questions, instead,” said Dr. Usha Udupa, a child psychiatrist with Mountain Crest Behavioral Health Center in Fort Collins. It’s okay to say that you’d rather discuss it later if you need time to absorb the information. That way you can pose your answer or consequence thoughtfully rather than reactionary.
Just as important as open communication is good listening. “Stop what you are doing and look your child in the eyes. Let them know they have your full attention. If they like to chat constantly, invite them to help you do a task together so you can get something done while they talk and share,” said Udupa.
If your child wants to talk at a time you simply can’t, let them know what the situation is and say you can talk after you’re done. Just make sure you follow through.
2. Establish routines and rituals.
Daily routines are important, especially for young kids. Knowing that every day starts with a “Good morning, Sunshine” and ends with storytime helps kids feel safe and secure. “These daily rituals become a pattern and serve as a comfort for kids,” said Udupa. Having the same routines their whole lives also defines the word “family” for kids.
“Rituals help us feel secure and like we belong. That’s why we repeat comfort foods and holiday routines from our own childhoods,” said Udupa.
A prime example of this is eating family dinners together. Of course, life gets crazy—mom or dad has to work late, kids have sport practices—and sometimes this simply can’t happen. But making it a priority as often as possible is really important. There are even studies that show that kids who eat dinner with their families get better grades and are less likely to try risky behaviors.
“Nightly family dinners guarantee that you’ll get at least 20 to 30 minutes of uninterrupted time together every day, no matter how busy life gets,” said Udupa, who suggests establishing dinnertime ground rules of no phones, no television and no newspapers.
3. Engage in signature family activities.
Like rituals, find other ways to connect and define your family. Maybe your family mountain bikes, camps, skis or goes to the mountains every fall or the beach every summer. Maybe you have a family book club or you do puzzles together. Maybe you go to church together every Sunday. Whatever it is, it’s uniquely yours. “When families bond over certain activities, they build a sense of cohesiveness, a sense of ‘we’re all in this together.’ It also helps siblings of different ages and stages stay connected,” said Udupa.
A word to the wise: Don’t stop these activities when your kids become teenagers. “Even if you get flack that they don’t want to do it, make them do it anyway,” said Udupa. Most teenagers prefer to be with friends rather than with family, but forced family outings are important to keep the “glue” strong.
4. Teach cooperation, not competition.
In this dog-eat-dog world, it’s good to teach the alternative—how to give someone a boost rather than devise a plan to leap over them. “It’s engrained in our culture to compete, so it’s good to teach the opposite in our families and on the sports field,” said Udupa. She advises that parents be okay when kids don’t get the top grade or the winning point. Instead of saying what a child could have done better on the field, point out what they did to help a teammate or support the winning play.
There are lots of ways to build cooperation in a family. The skills kids learn will prove invaluable in life and friendships. Here are a few:
- Build something together—put in a deck or assemble a go-cart together.
- Have everyone pitch in to clean the house. Play the “10-minute pick-up game” every night where everyone runs around and picks up their own items, throws away trash and hangs up coats for 10 minutes.
- Volunteer as a family to support a community project, nonprofit or elderly neighbor.
- Catch your child getting along with others or helping, and give them praise.
- Do turn-taking activities that focus on fun and cooperation, like playing Frisbee or building a Lego tower together.
- Tell stories of times you cooperated and had good results as a child or currently at work.
5. Put family first.
Nothing says ‘you’re important’ and ‘I value you’ more than putting someone first—above work, phone calls, friends, chores, projects and more. “Kids need to know they matter to you more than anything else, sometimes. Giving kids your full attention teaches them they are important in a very basic way. It teaches them security from the inside out and gives them the capacity to handle what life throws at them as they move forward,” said Udupa.
When parents give kids 100 percent of their attention and put down work to listen to them or be with them, kids believe ‘I am good’ not just because mom bought me the latest toy, but because mom wants to spend time with me.
Send this message by being attentive, and doing things together as families. When possible, plan activities or time to connect with each of your kids individually. This can be hard, especially for single parents, but it’s worth it. Create separate rituals, like dad goes golfing with his oldest son once a month or mom takes yoga with her youngest daughter each week. It doesn’t matter what it is, just so you get one-on-one time together. If your schedule doesn’t always allow time for individual activities, don’t fret. It’s amazing the difference even 15 minutes of undivided attention can make to keep you connected.
“When we send the message to our kids that they are our priority, we help build their core—a core that says, ‘I am worthy,’ ” said Udupa.
Also, when your older child wants to talk, stop and give her your time. If you can only spare five minutes without distraction, give it and then make a plan to talk more later on.
When kids are raised with a strong sense of family, they are resilient and flexible, and they see options. “Having a solid base gives kids the capacity to stand strong and not be knocked over by the first wind that comes along,” said Udupa.
So get out some “glue” and start dabbing it wherever you can: chat after school, help with a school project, eat dinner together, go on a family outing, listen and make eye contact. This is how emotionally-fit families are built: One dab at a time.
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