Psychology

Happy families

When you’re out and about and you see other families chatting and laughing, with parents and siblings all apparently getting on like a house on fire, do you ever feel a stab of envy? What’s the secret of stopping squabbles and cutting out conflict? Read our 10 tried-and-tested tips to create a feel-good family life – and five ways to wreck it!

Published

Does it sometimes feel like you live in a war zone in your house? Leo Tolstoy wrote: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ But if you worry that your family life is not as equable as it could be, you’re not alone! Our simple and practical ideas are designed to reduce stress and conflict and help to make your home a happy place to be.

1. Sit down around the table and eat a meal together regularly – with no TV on, not even in the background. As your children grow older and more independent, you will be thankful if you have established this family ritual, as this could be the only time in the day you’ll have to focus on each other. Research suggests that the amount of time children spend eating meals at home is a big predictor of higher academic achievement and fewer behavioural problems.

2. Exercise every day. Not only is this good for your children’s health, it will also help to make sure that they are ready for bed before you are! Young children are full of beans and need to let off steam. You want physical tiredness at bedtime, not mental exhaustion and crankiness. And if you establish physical activity and exercise as normal now, your children are far more likely to continue to participate when they are teenagers.

3. Don’t let your child go hungry. Plan meals ahead, start cooking before everyone is hungry, and carry snacks with you when you are out and about to stave off cravings, plummeting blood sugar, and subsequent whining and tantrums. Make sure those snacks are healthy. Don’t let kids fill up on junk food unless you really do want them climbing the walls and screaming.

4. Have a reward cupboard – somewhere inaccessible where you keep small, inexpensive treats for jobs well done, good behaviour and so on. If you offer a treat/ reward for a particular behaviour but it’s several days until you can get to the shops, the meaning of that reward is lost. Just have a few pocket money type treats – fun pencils, plasticine, colouring books and so on. But not sweets. Never give food as a reward, or withhold it as punishment.

Not all rewards have to be instantaneous. You can start teaching delayed gratification with star charts, where they can save up for extra special treats. But put the stars up as soon as they are earned.

5. Actively teach your children how to get along with each other. You might think this was a wonderful thing you did, giving them a brother or sister ‘to play with’. They may not see it quite like that! What you actually did was to introduce a usurper who steals their toys. Why should they want to share you, or share their things?

So coach them in playing together, but also enforce a respect of each other’s personal space and possessions.

6. Create a family identity. This might sound like an odd idea – it’s not always easy to notice what is unique about you and your loved ones. But there will be something if you look for it, and celebrating this ‘specialness’ will make your family bonds stronger. Find things you enjoy doing together and make those things happen. Maybe you will be the family that goes cycling together, or collects fossils.

7. Get involved in the things that interest your children. This is particularly helpful with children of the opposite sex – so if your son is into football, go and watch the matches with him. It doesn’t just mean watching the same TV programmes (although this can be part of it).

Incorporate the interests into shared activities. And on that note, life is so much easier if you choose holidays they will enjoy. Forget your own needs for a few years. You’ll get back to the things you like to do eventually, but in the meantime, don’t waste your money on luxury retreats which will only be spoilt by whines of ‘But there’s nothing to do!’

8. Don’t worry all the time about being fair. Children will never agree that you’ve been fair, no matter how meticulous you are about everything. If you are thoughtful and aware, then you’ll be doing your best. Instead, focus on creating routines and structure. If children know what is expected, they are not going to start shouting ‘but it’s not fair!’

9. Institute regular family meetings, allowing your kids to have their say, with a parent ‘chairing’ meetings fairly and firmly. Allowing children a chance to contribute to the running of the family – even in small ways – means they feel part of the decision-making process.

10. Accept your role as fall guy. They will behave their worst for you. Remember, they’re not like this all the time. Be adult about it: we all need to dump somewhere.

AND FIVE WAYS TO WRECK IT!

Here are five things NOT to do if you want family life to stay tranquil:

1. Contradict or undermine your partner. Even if he’s made a decision you don’t agree with, argue it out later in private. Try to work out some party lines in advance. If your kids know that you disagree about things they will exploit it.

2. Label your children. It might seem cute to say he’s the sporty one and she’s the pretty one, but this sort of thing can be really damaging, leaving the child feeling he or she has to live up to certain expectations.

3. Make your children responsible for each other’s behaviour. ‘Make sure he behaves himself. Hold on to him while I whizz round this shop.’ That’s your job, not theirs. If you can’t make a two-year-old behave, what makes you think your four-year-old will do any better?

4. Never make a threat you can’t or won’t follow through. The simplest and most obvious no-no, but the hardest one to stick to!

5. Rush. With children, you always need more time than you anticipate. If you get stressed by being late, your children will be stressed. And research shows that prolonged stress can be really harmful to children, who do not have the coping mechanisms of adults. To have happy, well-adjusted children, aim to make your home a sanctuary from the harsh outside world.

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