Scientists, psychologists and family experts agree: Strong family connections make for healthier kids, parents and grandparents. Children who grow up in a household that hosts regular family dinners, for example, are less likely to suffer from substance abuse, depression, eating disorders and obesity.
But those connections can suffer under the weight of work, school, sports and other activities. As toddlers grow into detached tweens and nearly independent teenagers, family relationships may unravel even more.
“Especially when kids become preteens, they may act like they think their parents are stupid. …So it’s easy for parents to just throw up their arms and say to themselves, ‘I give up,’” says Marti Erickson, Ph.D., founding director of the University of Minnesota’s Children, Youth & Family Consortium and co-host of the weekly “Mom Enough” show. “That’s when it’s very important for parents to be intentional about staying connected.”
Strengthening the bonds in your family doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Try these eight ideas to reconnect with your loved ones and make family time a priority.
Create daily specials
In an ideal world, a home-cooked family dinner would be a snap. In reality, plans change from day to day. Adapting to whatever works for your family – Sunday brunch or healthy Tuesday takeout – gives you dedicated time to spend together.
Another idea for mealtime: Challenge kids, especially those elementary school-age and younger, to figure out what nutritional holes a meal can fill. The Healthy Habits Tracker is a good place to start.
As kids age, they often seek out friends during their free time. You can coax teens back in with a scheduled, once-a-month occasion that feels special.
“I think we often wait for family time to just happen rather than being intentional about scheduling it,” Erickson says. “I love to see family meetings … scheduled time to do things as a family.” For example, try a family game night or an old-school drive-in night instead of a regular trip to the theater.
Shopping is a necessary chore that parents often do solo. Instead, use those grocery store runs as one-on-one time with a child. You can chat while you’re gathering items from store shelves.
The family connection needs nurturing to thrive,” says Susan Kuczmarski, Ph.D., a family expert and author of “Becoming a Happy Family.” “When family members talk, share and recall memories, they add to the bond.”
Volunteer to carpool
Shuttling your kids from activity to activity can be exhausting. Try this instead: Offer to take your kids and their friends to events, and institute a device-free rule for any drive longer than 10 minutes. Even if they don’t talk to you, your kids and companions likely will share silly stories and insights with each other that you’ll overhear. Prompt them with questions – “Have you seen anything weird at school?” or “Any funny stories from class?” – and see what kind of answers they give.
Watch a TV show
Before the rise of the multiscreen household, families gathered around the TV to share a favorite program.
“We used to worry about families spending too much time in front of the TV, but at least TV viewing involved a shared experience,” Erickson says. “Today, each family member is having a separate experience.”
Pick a series that’s fun and family-friendly and watch one episode, device-free, each week.
Have a living room sleepover
Food, music and travel are shared experiences that restore families, Kuczmarski says. Travel may not be a weekly possibility but food and music are. All it takes is some creativity to incorporate them into family connection time. For example, toss sleeping bags onto the floor, pop popcorn and watch a favorite movie. Or, host a Friday night lip-sync party.
Pick a topic – goofiest family memory, oddest habit, worst jokes – and just giggle. Kuczmarski calls laughter an “essential family vitamin,” and adds that family should be a safe zone where everyone can let down their guard.
“Regardless of our age, a family protects us from the noise of the outer world,” she says. “It provides a sanctuary. We can forget everyday concerns and demands and just relax and open up to pure wonderment and joy. Happy energy is powerful. Every family possesses the ability to find merriment.”
Many of us get hung up on the idea that family consists of just parents and their kids, Kuczmarski notes.
“A contemporary definition of family can include our entire network of loving connections, such as close friends, mentors, co-workers and special people,” she says.
Let each child invite a friend to a weekly dinner. Email a few neighbors for a casual Friday night spaghetti fest.