By Margarita Tartakovsky, MS
Psychotherapist Jenifer Hope, LCPC, has worked with many families whose biggest concern is detachment. They feel as though they’re forgetting who their loved ones really are. They don’t have time to get to know their children. “They feel isolated within their own family because everyone is so busy, that there is no actual family time,” she said.
Jennifer Kogan, LICSW, a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., also sees a shortage of time as the biggest obstacle for families in connecting.
“It doesn’t take much for families to become detached,” Hope said. Most parents commute at least 20 minutes each day. Kids need time to do their homework and participate in extracurricular activities. Add on time for self-care, errands and responsibilities, and there isn’t much time left for family.
But there are many ways families can get closer. Below are 10 tips to try.
1. Pick two.
Hope often suggests her clients pick no more than two activities for their kids to participate in outside of school, and try to schedule one on a Saturday. “That way you are not spending every evening driving kids everywhere,” and you have a lighter load during the week, she said.
2. Hold family meetings.
Families can use these meetings to plan the upcoming week and talk about their values, Kogan said. Every family member has a voice and a say in these meetings.
For instance, families can talk about volunteering, planning upcoming holidays and even explore a problem someone is having at school, work or home, she said.
Family meetings “help families forge bonds and models teamwork at the same time.”
3. Gather around the table.
Eat together once a week and once on the weekend, said Hope, who practices at Urban Balance, which provides comprehensive counseling services in the Chicago area. This can be dinner but it doesn’t have to be. It could be a family breakfast, Kogan said.
Eating together helps parents to “interact with their children and ask them about their day,” Hope said.
4. Have one-on-one time with your kids.
If you have more than one child, Hope suggested scheduling time with each one. This could include everything from going out for breakfast to going to the library and reading books together, she said.
“By spending alone time with each child, you are creating memories and an opportunity to reconnect and bond.”
Hope and her husband have twins. Once a month one twin stays at the grandparents’ house while Hope and her husband spend the day with the other (and vice versa).
5. Practice mindfulness together.
Mindfulness simply means focusing one’s attention on the present moment in an accepting, nonjudgmental way. It’s a skill that boosts well-being and helps individuals handle stress more effectively, Kogan said.
“Practicing mindfulness as a family can help everyone share in an experience that evokes feelings of calmness, contentment and warmth with each other.”
Kogan suggested trying this exercise:
Go outside in the backyard together, sit down on the lawn and close your eyes. Depending on how old your kids are, see if you can all close your eyes for 2-5 minutes and then talk about what you noticed. Did you hear a rustling of the leaves, a bird chirp, a dog bark?
Kogan also recommended these resources: the book Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids and Their Parents by Eline Snell and the CD “Indigo Ocean Dreams” by Lori Lite.
6. Create a family crest.
Kogan suggested drawing a family crest together and discussing what your family stands for. Brainstorm what your family cares about. For instance, include “respect for others” and “listening and supporting others,” along with examples, Kogan said.
7. Carve out time as a couple.
Hope stressed the importance of couples taking time to reconnect and focus on their marriage. “If mom and dad are not connecting, the kids feel it and do the same.”
If you’re pressed for time, she suggested sneaking in lunches together or putting the kids to bed 30 minutes earlier once a week. This gives you time to watch a movie or savor a cup of tea and be quiet together.
8. Model healthy communication.
Kogan also noted that parents set the tone for their family. “If they can reconnect to each other and model how they communicate and handle conflict effectively, this sets the stage for the whole family.”
Often parents don’t want to argue in front of their kids, she said. But it helps kids to see how to resolve differences in healthy ways. For instance, you might use “I” statements, not blame each other, take turns listening and end your talk with a hug, Kogan said.
9. Consider what you can cut out for connection.
Hope was working with a family who found it helpful to cancel cable for a month. They spent that time playing board games and reading books as a family, which made them feel much closer, she said.
10. Limit screen time.
Another family limits the number of hours they spend on their computers, smartphones and iPad. They also turn off this technology at a certain time in the evenings.
“This helped them reconnect because the parents were not always on their phones doing work emails or Pinterest and the children were no longer engulfed by their iPads or playing video games,” Hope said. “They actually had to talk to each other!”
Familial connections have to be maintained. Hope likened it to a car needing a checkup or tuneup. “Families are no different. You have to put in the effort and time in order to remain connected.”