6 Rituals for a Healthier Family

Family rituals provide you and your children with a sense of security, identity, and belonging. They build stronger family relationships through the creation of shared memories and the commitment of time spent together. (See Cheat Codes for Dads: Shared Rituals) With those benefits in mind, here are 6 rituals every family will enjoy.

  • Family Meals are a tremendous ritual of connection and security. Really, everything I needed to know I learned at dinner. Although Family meals are a great ritual to practice daily, you can shoot for 3 to 5 family meals a week if your schedule doesn’t allow for a daily family meal. Involve the whole family in the meal process. Whether they help with food preparation, setting the table, or cleaning up, everyone can help in some way. Use the whole mealtime to talk, share about your day, get to know one another more deeply, and laugh. Use the time to grow closer to one another.
  • Days of Honor also represent a great opportunity to create rituals to celebrate family. Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Children’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries…make each one special with activities, favorite foods, and even a few gifts to honor the special people in your family.
  • A Biannual Mommy/Daddy Night. Twice a year let each child spend the evening and night with either “Mommy” or “Daddy.” Take turns so each child gets a special night with each parent. Plan a special meal, watch a movie, enjoy an activity of your child’s choosing. Whatever you and your child choose to do, enjoy this special time of parent-child bonding.
  • Celebrating an International Day can also create a wonderful family ritual. Pick three or four countries you want to learn about over the next year. Take time to learn a little bit about each country. Then celebrate an International Day in honor of that country. Eat foods from that country. Listen to music from that country. Talk about the country. Even play games common to that country.
  • Heritage Day. In a similar fashion, learn about the country from which your family has descended. Learn about the heritage of that country. Then celebrate the country and traditions of your “origins” on a special Heritage Day.
  • A Walk in the Woods. Make it a weekly or monthly ritual to take a family walk in the woods or through nearby park. Not only will you grow closer as a family, but you will also reap the physical and emotional benefits of nature as well.

Of course, there are many more rituals you could enjoy. I encourage every family to celebrate holiday rituals, a bedtime ritual, a morning ritual, a parting ritual, a “reunite-at-the-end-of-the-day-ritual”…. The possibilities are endless. But each one presents the opportunity for a healthier, happier family.

What are your favorite family rituals? Which new ones might you like to try?

Exercise Your Depression

Families and happiness seem to go hand in hand. At least it appears so in Facebook posts and television commercials. But we all know families experience hardships and struggles as well. In fact, our family members might struggle with depression and that depression may deepen in times of stress like we are experiencing today.

If you, or someone in your family, struggles with depression, you know how it impacts the whole family. If so, I have good news. Two studies, one from 2017 and one from 2020, suggest a fun and effective way to help reduce the symptoms of depression. Exercise…aerobic exercise to be more specific.  In both studies, engaging in an 8-week moderate to intense aerobic exercise program reduced depressive symptoms. The most recent study (2020) found that those who had a more severe baseline of depressive symptoms were the most likely to respond positively to an aerobic exercise regime. So, if you or someone in your family struggles with depression, start exercising today. Here are some tips to help you get started.

  • Pick an aerobic exercise you will most likely enjoy. You could walk, jog, bike ride, swim, row, or many more. You can engage in these activities indoors in a gym, on a treadmill, an elliptical, or a stationary bike. Or you can enjoy these activities outdoors, allowing allow you to enjoy the benefits of nature as well.
  • Buddy up. If you struggle with depression, ask a family member or friend to join you. Join a class or group designed for that activity. If your family member struggles with depression, join them in their exercise routine. You can motivate one another while sharing company and time together. You will not only reap the benefits of exercise but the benefit of companionship and a growing relationship.
  • Make it a habit to encourage. Express gratitude for the time you share while exercising. Acknowledge improvements. Recognize the beauty around you, especially if you choose an outdoor aerobic exercise. As you do, you will also realize the positive impact of gratitude and awe on your mood and the mood of your exercise partner.

These studies measured improved results after only 8 weeks, but you might just find
yourself enjoying this so much you make a lifetime habit out of it. I know I did. So, if you or a family member are feeling depressed start exercising today.

Effective Parents Do This

Effective parents do this all the time. Although this skill undergirds almost everything else an effective parent does, we rarely talk about it. When do effective parents do this? Before they discipline, before they step in to help, before they assign a chore, before answering a question (like “Where do babies come from?”), and before granting a privilege represent just  few of the time a parent will do this.  What is “this” that effective parents do this often? They observe their children deeply and sensitively.

Sensitive observation involves listening as well as watching. It begins at birth (if not in utero) and continues for a lifetime. Sensitive observation carries many benefits. Observation helps them build a stronger relationship with their child. It also gives a parent wisdom and power as they discipline and teach their child. How does it do this?

  • Sensitive observation teaches a parent about their child. They learn to recognize the signals of boredom, tiredness, and hunger. With this knowledge a parent can intervene in the wisest manner possible when inappropriate behavior arises. They can respond differently when inappropriate behavior is a response to hunger or tiredness than when it is a ploy for power or a testing of limits.
  • Sensitive observation also helps a parent differentiate between a child’s needs or problem behaviors and their own parental fears and projections. It helps a parent recognize their own escalating fears as opposed to the objective difficulty of a situation. A parent who engages in sensitive observation of their children does not have to take on their children’s failures or mistakes. They can allow their children to learn from those moments instead. They do not feel the need to rescue their children for poor time management or simple neglect. Instead, they can allow their children to experience the consequences and grow. On the other hand, a parent who engages in sensitive observation does not have to gloat in their children’s success. They can allow their children to enjoy their own success and the effort they invested to achieve that success.
  • Sensitive observation allows a parent to trust their child’s developing cognitive and motor skills. It allows a parent to recognize their child’s competence and ability. This will also provide a parent with wisdom regarding when and what household activities to invite a child to participate in. It will allow a parent to step back and allow their children to take appropriate risks within the scope of their children’s abilities.
  • Sensitive observation allows a parent to accept and acknowledge their child’s emotions…all of them. With sensitive observation a parent can exhibit empathy while remaining confident in their own ability to hear, support and problem-solve with their child rather than shame, guilt, or distract. They will be able to accept their children’s emotions and hold them safely while helping their children learn to express and manage them effectively.

Sensitive observation is a powerful parenting tool we all need to use. So put on the glasses, open the ears, and observe your children. You might even discover how amazing your children actually are.

Healthy Family Pandemic Tips

The pandemic lingers on. Even as vaccines become more readily available, cases rise and fall. Schools go in-person only to return to hybrid model before going back to in-person with every fluctuation in COVID cases. News of “variants,” “surges,” and “waves” keep us all vigilant. On top of it all, many of us are simply exhausted after having already spent a year struggling with pandemic related changes. Our children in particular struggle with this current environment of constant change and lack  of predictability. They may respond by engaging in risky behaviors. Or they may, like adults, experience an increase in depression or anxiety. Fortunately, we are not powerless in this situation. We can help each one of our family members survive this time. We can encourage and even assist one another in developing healthy coping skills through these turbulent times. Here are five suggestions to begin.

  1. Encouraging healthy coping during the current pandemic and its related stressors begins with conversation. Acknowledge your children’s current struggles. Talk about the struggles and frustrations. Speak about the boredom. Discuss the loneliness, the fears, and the losses related to the pandemic. Remember, everything is more manageable when we can talk about it with someone, and we can talk about anything within our families.
  2. Create healthy schedules. The pandemic has robbed us of the typical structures that provide predictable schedules. School, work, churches, community groups—they have all changed, closed, or gone online. Without a predictable schedule we tend to feel insecure. This is especially true for our children. Creating a schedule in your home can provide the predictability and security under which our children thrive. Ironically, a routine and schedule can add meaning and purpose to our lives and our children’s lives as well. Be sure to include mealtimes, school time, play time, and even game time and free time in your schedule.
  3. Build daily routines of connection into your family schedule. Online school is lonely. Online work provides less interaction. But humans are social creatures. We need social connection just like we need air to breath. Build daily opportunities for your children to connect with you throughout the day. This may involve mealtimes, play time, or free time. It may simply mean pulling up a chair to “check in” with your child or teen.
  4. Our children also need to socialize with peers. Parents cannot provide all their children’s social needs. Children and teens need peer interaction. So, create opportunities for your children to socialize with other children. Plan a time for your child to get together with their one or two of their peers at a park. Allow your children invite a friend over to play in your yard. Let your children go for a walk or a bike ride together. Any of these activities provide a safe way for our children to socialize. You can also set up opportunities for your children to interact with one another through zoom, face time, or some other social app.
  5. Although social media provides a way to build social connection, a parent also needs to monitor social media use to assure appropriate usage. Determine how you will monitor social media consumption in your house. Possible ideas include utilizing a common area to charge phones overnight, shared passwords to allow periodic review of incoming media, and tech-free times (such as dinner). Also, don’t let your children get caught up in FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) because everyone looks like they’re having so much fun without me on social media. Talk about the false images portrayed on social media as we all post our happy times and best face.

These five ideas can help you keep your family emotionally healthy during the pandemic. What other ideas do you have?

Family Happiness is for the Birds

Remember Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds? Creepy…but recent studies show birds play a very different role in our lives and the lives of our families. For instance, the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research explored the data collected from 6,000 people living in 26 European countries and from a variety of socioeconomic levels. They discovered that the richness of bird species in their living environment was positively associated with life-satisfaction. The greater the bird species in an area, the greater life-satisfaction people in that area reported. In fact, a 10% increase in bird diversity led people to report an increase in life satisfaction equal to the life-satisfaction reported when a person experienced a 1.53 increase in their salary.

You might be thinking, “Birds? What are you talking about? That’s crazy!” I know. That was my initial thought as well. But think of the joy you feel when you see the first robin of spring. Last spring, we saw orioles in our neighborhood for the first time and it was genuinely exciting. But don’t take my word for it. Another study in 2017 involving 1,023 participants who lived in an urban setting explored the impact of vegetation cover and bird diversity on depression, anxiety, and stress. In particular, experiencing bird diversity in the afternoon decreased participants’ experience of depression, anxiety, and stress. Additionally, having 20-30% vegetation cover in an area resulted in enough bird diversity to reduce the severity of depression, anxiety, and stress. “Is it the birds or the vegetation cover?” you might ask. The researchers couldn’t say for sure. But a more recent study may shed some light on how to answer that question.

For a study completed in 2020, researchers hid speakers that played a variety of bird songs along sections of a popular hiking trail in Colorado. By using the speakers, researchers could adjust the perceived diversity of bird songs along the trail. Researchers then interviewed hikers about their experience along the trail. Those who experienced a greater diversity of bird songs reported improved well-being. They also reported feeling better about life and about their hiking experience than those who heard fewer bird songs. One of the researchers said they were “kind of flabbergasted” that only 7-10 minutes of exposure to greater bird diversity led to participants experiencing improved well-being. “Flabbergasted. ”  I like that word. Frankly, I’m flabbergasted myself.

What does this mean for your family? It means that taking the opportunity to hear bird songs offers another way to enhance your family’s happiness. Birds! Not Alfred Hitchcock’s birds, but the birds in your own community. Here are a few ideas to gather birds so you can hear their song.

  • Put some bird feeders in your yard. Include a hummingbird feeder and a finch feeder. Plant some flowers that will attract birds. Then sit down with your family and enjoy the show. Count how many different types of birds you see?
  • Take a family trip to an aviary. You’ll see birds from all over the world and get to listen to their songs. And, you can have great family fun nights at the aviary.
  • Go for a family walk or hike through a local park. Enjoy your time together in nature and listen for the birds.
  • You might even purchase a CD of bird songs or download forest sounds filled with bird songs and play it quietly in the background at home. It may not be quite the same as the outdoor experience, but…who knows?

These activities are not for the birds. They are for you and your family. Enjoy the experience and the increased life satisfaction your family will gain as well.

Feeling Negative? Pessimistic? Put on a Smile

It is easy to get caught up in the stress and turmoil of life. When we do, we begin to view the world through a negative and pessimistic lens. We might grow a little more depressed or anxious. Maybe you have felt yourself growing more negative or pessimistic in response to the stresses of life. Maybe you’ve even noticed your child, your spouse, or your parent becoming more depressed, negative, anxious, or pessimistic. If so, you also know the pain this can create. But now you can thank researchers from the University of South Australia for revealing a way to change that downward spiral. And it’s as simple as…smiling!

Researchers at the University of South Australia stimulated the facial muscles of study participants to replicate the movements of a genuine smile. They did this by having them hold a pen between their teeth. They discovered that the activation of “genuine smile muscles stimulated the person’s amygdala, which then stimulated the release of neurotransmitters to encourage an emotionally positive outlook.”

“So what?” you might ask. Let me explain. Stimulating the facial muscles of a genuine smile contributed to an increased ability to recognize other people’s positive facial expressions and body movements. In other words, participants became less negative and less pessimistic while becoming more accepting and inviting when the muscles of a genuine smile were engaged. Previous studies have shown that stimulating the facial muscles of a genuine smile increases a person’s ability to overcome stress more quickly as well. Combining these studies, we discover that engaging the muscles of a genuine smile helps a person become more positive, increases our ability to recognize other people’s positive facial expressions and body movements, and increases our ability to soothe ourselves more quickly when stressed.

But what does this mean for you and your family? How can your family reap the benefits of stimulating the facial muscles of a genuine smile? After all, we can’t walk around with a pen clenched between our teeth all day. How can we use this information to help our families? Here are 3 ideas.

  1. Smile. Smile when you see your family. Let them see your pearly whites in a genuine smile. Remember, a large percentage of learning comes through observation. When you smile, your family is more likely to smile with you. In other words, smile for a happier family.
  2. Encourage your family to smile. Tell a “dad joke.” Watch a funny movie. Listen to a comedian. Play a game your children enjoy. Be silly. Have fun. Smile.
  3. If all else fails, you can always have the whole family walk around for twenty minutes clenching a pencil in their teeth

Whatever you choose, bring a smile to your face and to your family. Everyone will be glad you did.

What Our Children Really Need

One goal all parents share is the goal of raising healthy children. But that goal includes more than just physical health. We also want to raise emotionally healthy children. A large study out of Johns Hopkins University (published in 2019) found positive childhood experiences promoted the development of emotionally healthy adults…just like we want. Best of all, you can provide these positive childhood experiences in your family. You can also help bring other adults into your child’s life to provide even more. Here are the positive experiences the researchers found fundamental to our children and some ways you can provide them in your home.

  1. Children need the opportunity and ability to talk to family members about feelings. Learn to accept your children’s feelings, their emotions. Label their emotions so they can build a strong vocabulary for emotions. Value your children enough to listen to their emotions and respond to them with empathy and understanding before problem-solving. Use emotions as a starting point to learn about your child’s priorities and sensitivities.
  2. Children need to feel safe and protected by the adults in their home. Creating an environment in which the healthy expression of emotions is acceptable will go a long way in creating this safe environment. Obviously, assuring our children’s basic needs for food and shelter are met will also help them feel safe and protected. Similarly, forbidding verbal and physical violence while encouraging loving communication and politeness promotes safety. Your children will also feel safe and protected when you allow them to witness and experience healthy, positive physical affection. (Learn the Heartbeat of a Hug.) Make sure they witness the resolution of disagreements as well. All this will help them feel safe and protected by the adults in your home.
  3. Children need adults who take a genuine interest in their lives. Show your children their importance to you by learning about their interests. Talk about their interests. Invest in their interests. Ask about their activities and their plans. Learn about their dreams and invest in their dreams. Help them with projects and homework. Join them in an activity of their choosing. Show them through your words and your actions that you are interested in them, that you delight in them.
  4. Children need someone in their corner. We all want someone who is in our corner, someone who has our back. Advocate for your child. Help them face and overcome obstacles. Stand by them in the midst of stress or conflict. Support them in resolving conflicts they can resolve on their own and step in to help them resolve those conflicts that become to intense for them to manage at their developmental level. Believe them when they tell you something…and, even more, believe IN them.
  5. Children need to participate in community traditions. Get involved with your child in community. Community may include your neighborhood, your church, and scouting organizations as well as clubs, athletics, or special interest organizations. Each of these groups will have activities and traditions in which you and your child can become involved. Get involved.
  6. Children need to feel connected at school and supported by friends. Our children will feel more connected at school when we have a good relationship with school. So, attend parent-teacher conferences. Go to the concerts and the plays, volunteer to help at school events. Get to know the teachers. The more connected you are to the school, the more connected your child will become as well…and the more likely they will succeed.

In all these ways, you and your home can provide positive childhood experiences to your children. But there is one more way to provide your children with an abundance of positive childhood experiences. Involve other positive caring adults in the fabric and life of your child and family. This may include parents of your children’s friends, ministers, coaches, teachers, or community and club leaders. The more caring adults sharing a healthy involvement in your child’s life, the better. It will allow your child multiple positive childhood experiences to shape their lives in resilience and opportunity. So, build a village of caring adults around your child.

Don’t Catch Depression From This Pandemic

Depression has increased dramatically during the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic studies suggested 11% of the population reported enough symptoms to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of depression. In December of 2020, during the pandemic, 42% reported enough symptoms of depression to reach a diagnosis (COVID’s Mental Health Toll). In fact, the World Health Organization noted depression as the leading cause of disability in 2020. This increase in diagnosable symptoms is shocking, but not surprising. In fact, a study published in August of 2020 and drawing information from a database of over 100,000 participants revealed social connection as the strongest protective factor against depression. So, it comes as no surprise that after a year of needing social distancing and “shelter-in-place” protocols that depression has increased. The question is: how can we connect socially while maintaining a level of physical safety? After all, our emotional lives depend on social connection, the frequency of confiding in one another, and the opportunity to visit with family and friends. How can we help our families connect socially? Here are just two ideas.

  • Consider each family member’s interests and look for groups related to those interests. This may include sports, music, scouting, science, or other clubs. Find out how various groups are encouraging involvement during this time. They may meet over zoom. Maybe they have small groups meeting while necessary precautions. You may also participate in your faith community. Once again, they may meet over zoom or in small groups with necessary precautions.
  • Call a friend and talk…or zoom. Although not as personal as face-to-face contact, talking on the phone or zooming is the next best thing to face-to-face contact. So, connect via phone or zoom rather than text. You may also meet a friend at the park for a walk or sit in an outdoor setting to talk. You might even meet a friend or two at a restaurant that has outdoor seating or is maintaining necessary safety precautions. You can also enjoy a picnic or simply watching your children with a friend in the back yard.

These represent only two ideas for maintaining social connection during this time. Doing so takes some effort but will bring a greater sense of peace and happiness to you and your family.

What are your ideas for maintaining social connection during the pandemic? What have you and your family done?

Learn the Stats…Your Family Stats

I have friends who love football, soccer, baseball, basketball…really any sport. They watch all the games. They know the players’ names, backgrounds, and achievements. They can recite various players’ position, height, and weight. They can rattle off statistics about a favored player’s style of play and perhaps even tell you the names of the player’s wife and children. They have an amazing grasp on the knowledge of the sport and the players they love.

Some of these men, though, have trouble telling me the name of even one of their children’s friends, even though they live with their child. They have difficulty recalling their anniversary date or their spouse’s birthday, even though they see their spouse every day. They have no mental model of their family members’ lives or world. In the words of John Gottman, they lack a love map of their partner and children.

This raises questions in my mind…questions about priority and honor. We make time to learn about those things we love. We spend time being with and learning about the things we value. We talk about the things we love. We develop a complete and exhaustive “love map” of those things we enjoy and love. So, let me pose a couple of questions to consider:

  • Based on your knowledge base, what receives a higher priority: the sport you love or your spouse and children? Which do you know the most about?
  • Do you know more stats about your favorite athlete or your spouse? Your children?
  • Are you more familiar with the world of sports or the world of your spouse (life story, friends, hobbies, dreams, favorite clothing style, struggles)?
  • Are you more familiar with the world of sports or the world of your children (favorite school subjects, friends, frenemies, dreams, struggles, hobbies)?
  • Do you invest more time and effort to learn about your favorite sport or your spouse? Your favorite athlete or your children?

The point is, we need to become intimately familiar with the world our family members navigate on a daily basis. We need to develop a “love map” of our spouse and our children. It will show that you “buy in” to your marriage and your family. It will reveal how much you value your spouse and your children. It will strengthen your marital relationship by giving you a deeper understanding and appreciation of your spouse. It will nurture a healthier relationship with your children as well (which will also make discipline easier). So, get to know the family stats—the dreams, the life story, the thoughts, the fears, the joys, the list goes on…. You will have fun learning the information and you will nurture a stronger family at the same time.

A Father’s Superpower

Every father has a superpower. No, he cannot leap over tall buildings in a single bound, run faster than a speeding locomotive, or fly through the sky like a plane. Still, every father has this unique superpower. Actually, this superpower is more practical and more powerful than those displayed in the movies. A father’s superpower is much more important than those superpowers. A study published in 2020 revealed this superpower after analyzing data collected on 5,000 children…and now we need to encourage fathers to use it. What is this superpower?

The study revealed that a father’s involvement in his children’s lives between the ages of 5 to 15 years was a superpower. It’s true. This superpower saved his children from the villains of behavioral and emotional problems as they matured. The superpower of involvement included participating in activities like feeding his children, playing with his children, reading to his children, and helping his children with homework. Involvement also included providing noncash items like clothing, toys, food, and other necessities for his children. This superpower of involvement was more influential than mere monetary support. Monetary support is a fake superhero, an imposter trying to elicit the joys of the true superhero without the sacrifice and love, a greedy villain.

The true superpower of a father is involvement in his children’s lives. His involvement protects his children from the villains of depression, worrying, bullying, and other insidious crooks (aka, negative behaviors).

So, forget the cape (unless you really want to wear one), toss aside the mask (well, when COVID is over), and get involved in your children’s lives. Then, “Bam…,” “Boom…,” “Kablam…,” the villains are out and Dad is in the house! And, he’s enjoying a lifetime, loving relationship with his children.

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