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Family Time: How to Do It Well

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By Mary Hockett, MA Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor 

Why is it that families are suffering from so much stress in our society today? Why are so many children anxious and angry? Why are parents so frustrated at their children? What is happening that teachers and social workers must meet moms or dads at the curb as they coax their child out of the car to get to their school classroom?

First of all, family structure today can be very different from the structure of the past. There are more divorced families that result in single parent families. Parents that have remarried present unique dynamics children need to navigate through, such as the addition of step moms or step dads and half brothers and sisters.

These factors alone can create more stress for the family. Then there are the messages you get from society and social media urging you: to 1) work more, and 2) make your kids smarter by driving them to 2 or 3 structured activities a week. Add to that the fact there are only 24 hours in a day, and we have some heavy-duty stress going on.


Finding the Work-Life Balance

Research says that roughly 50% of families are intact and seem to resemble the traditional family structure. But, pick up a magnifying glass and look closely at what is truly going on. A typical daily format may be: Dad and mom leave for work at 6am, take their young children to a child care center and their school-age children to a before-school program. Then, after a long day for both the parents and the kids, the parents drive back to pick their children up from child care and an after-school program at 6pm.

Often, there is dance or soccer club the children need to be taken to before dinner. Then, the parents either stop at a fast food place on the way home, or they exhaustedly fix dinner while urging their children to do their homework. Dinner is finished and the bedtime routine begins. Mom is cleaning up in the kitchen and dad is reading his emails on the computer. One or two children want a story and need mom to lay down with them until they draft off. Mom usually falls asleep and dad is watching a movie until his bedtime. Regardless if this is a traditional family or a remarried family, these ongoing responsibilities and activities can be quite stressful for every family member involved. Family time

Does that sound like your family? Maybe not exactly, but it does happen quite often. Let’s examine the dynamics of that family.  First, the children may not be getting enough sleep as they are up by 5:30am. Second, they are actually away from the family for 12 hours. How do children respond to such long hours at school? Sometimes they become anxious and they find they don’t often feel good as they are getting ready for another long day. They may complain of a headache or a stomachache. They cry and insist that they stay home. They may respond in anger and begin acting out at school by name-calling or hitting other students or even teachers.

Some children thrive on negative attention because that is the only kind of attention they will receive for half the day. Some children have a theory that if they act out and punch, hit, kick, and swear, they will be suspended. Then mom and dad will have to stay home with them and give them the attention they crave. Other children, though quiet and well-behaved, are still saddened that they can’t have the attention they so truly crave and deserve. Their needs slip silently through the cracks.

What can you do to make life less stressful for your children?

  • Children need their parents to slow down the lightening quick pace set by our culture and society.
  • Give your children time and room to think and create.
  • Sit down with them and do a craft with them.
  • Sit on the floor and play cars and Legos with them.
  • Try to decrease some of your work hours and hours your children might spend away from home at school or clubs.
  • Love them and embrace them and let them know you are a family.
  • Talk with one another.
  • Take time with your children and let them know you want to listen to them and that you understand them. Consider the rushing off to work or school you do and see if there is any way to slow it down. If you are a family that needs to drop off their child at 6am and picks their child up at 6pm, ask yourself if there is any wiggle room to spend more time with your child.
  • Do what you can to sit around the table together away from the TV or social media. DO NOT eat dinner in separate rooms with an electronic device sitting in front of each member of the family. Dinner around the TABLE can be a great time to talk about what happened at school or what your child has experienced today.
  • Fill your child’s love tank on a daily basis. Find ways to speak love and care to your child in a way he or she understands and appreciates

What is the difference in our family structure today as compared to 40 or 50 years ago?

Quality family time

There was not so much pressure on parents to sign their children up for all kinds of programs after school each and every day. In the past, we were hard pressed to find Lego clubs and acting clubs, gymnastics clubs and ice-skating clubs. Today, parents and their children have many great choices and the children can participate in so many superb programs. But at the same time, the newly added structured programs can tire kids out. There is little time to play out of doors with neighborhood kids in an unstructured play time which consists of social interactions and imaginative play.  When I see kids in therapy, they often tell me that they don’t go outside very much and some don’t even know their neighbors. Some children thrive in a “type A” environment and can keep up with the frenzied pace. Some kids cannot and these are the kids that become anxious and angry.

How Electronics Affect Family Time

Another altogether new variable within the family structure today that was not there in the past is the Internet. I’ll not belabor the pros and cons of the Internet because we all can sit for hours and have that discussion, but I will say that iPhones and iPads and other devices hold a powerful position in the family today. Take a child’s IPad or videogame player away and that child will have a huge meltdown. If a child misbehaves, the number one consequence is to take his screens away from him or her for a day or two. Just giving a child the threat of taking it away if they don’t behave, is enough to make that child think twice about continuing the behavior.

These electronic devices get in the way of family interactions too much of the time. I was sitting in a cozy little restaurant having breakfast with a friend, and across the table from me was a mom and two children. They ordered breakfast and were waiting for it to be served to them. Both children were under 6 years old, in my estimation, and they were both engaged in their small iPads playing a video game. There was zero conversation going on between one another and when breakfast was served, the kids kept playing. Mom encouraged them to put the devices down several times, but they didn’t even acknowledge her. Mom ate her breakfast and drank her coffee while her two boys played their never-ending video game. Their pancakes and bacon got cold, yes – even the bacon. I did see one of the boys take a bite of his bacon, and when it was time to leave, they all got up from the table and left the cozy restaurant with cold pancakes and bacon in a little white box. I felt really sad, but also angered, by what I saw that day. on phones

From that day on, I paid attention to what was going on around me in the restaurants and I saw the same thing time and time again. Sometimes, the parents are both hiding behind their phones or checking messages while their children play video games. Children need to be told what is appropriate and what is not by their parents. Parents need to give their children a healthy example of what is right and wrong. Children and parents need to interact and learn good social skills by eating dinner around the table both at home and at restaurants.

Advice from this baby-boomer: Be available to your children and teach your children to put their electronic devices away at dinner time. Don’t give those devices the power to baby-sit your children just to keep them quiet. Talk to your children, create with your children, laugh with them and tell them stories. They are really looking for your attention and your love. One of the craft stores I shop at encourages parents to put away the iPads and let the kids develop their creativity. I totally second that idea.

We can’t alter what changes have occurred in our society but we don’t have to be a slave to them, either. We are seeing children in our counseling offices with many behavioral problems, such as anger issues and anxiety disorders. Many times, there are other outside influences that may cause your children to feel scared and upset.

Those experiences and issues will need to be processed and worked through at some time. By your patience and love, any challenges introduced to the family system can promote resiliency and growth as time goes on.


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