Family Life, Parenting

Parenting Corner – What Makes a Family Healthy

Since February’s issue is devoted to family health, it’s a good time for reflection about what makes a family healthy (besides the pandemic-related answers everyone has pondered for the last two years).

Russian author Tolstoy famously noted that “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Substitute “healthy” for “happy,” and there may indeed be some commonalities among healthy families.

What are some ways family members can help each other not only survive tough times, but eventually thrive? Some ideas:

1. Establish some new routines around basic physical needs.

The pandemic has been hard on the body, mind, and spirit, even for those who never actually had the virus. Increased isolation may have created some tough habits to break, especially around eating, sleeping, and physical activity. We know children can’t really regulate their own behavior and emotions without these needs being met, and frankly, adults suffer as well. Striving for earlier bedtimes, looking for ways to increase time spent in motion (shorter blocks of time in physical activity may feel more doable than long ones), cooking some nutritious meals together, and setting limits on screens to give our minds (and eyes!) a break, may be a few small strategies for getting healthier together.

2. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

It may be easy to fall into an all-or-nothing shame spiral and just give up if you can’t seem to manage big improvements in the areas you’d like to change.  Instead, seek to identify, with your children’s input, some ways to build small steps into your daily activities. Plan to cook a Sunday meal together, or go for a family walk after dinner. Identify together some screen-free zones, times of day, or alternative activities for both independent play and family connection that are easily available. Small and attainable changes trump overly ambitious ones, and the thrill of small successes will encourage you to do more.

3. Look for balance between individual members’ needs with the family’s needs as a unit.

As the world slowly returns to a place where outside demands continue to ramp up, it becomes difficult to prioritize family time. But cohesive families do value time spent together and intentionally look for ways to make it happen. Certainly, children need loving, predictable caregivers for their sense of security, but parents should not feel guilty for finding ways to fill their own cup of emotional energy and for spending time connecting with their partner. Again, maybe large blocks of time aren’t always available, but look for small ways to nurture yourself and your relationship, which can pay dividends to your well-being and ultimately your children’s as well.

4. Reflect on what emotional and communication habits you’d like to change.

Shaming and blaming is something most parents wish to avoid, but it may be challenging to avoid when you’re under stress, and the last couple of years have been extremely stressful for many people. Mentally hitting the “pause” button when you feel yourself sliding into aggravated-parent mode, then taking a deep breath or even walking away for a moment can help you stop yourself from lashing out. Changing your self-talk about your child’s behavior (or your own) can change the course of the outcome of a situation. We sometimes tend to “catastrophize” thinking about what our child’s doing (“He forgets everything, he’ll never do well in school”), and it just escalates our own negative response. Rather, being curious and reflective takes us in a more productive direction (“I wonder what’s getting in the way of him remembering to pack up his backpack?”) When situations are not in crisis mode, talk with your child about how you can solve a problem together. Really listen to their ideas (even if you acknowledge you can’t go along with all of them), and find a plan that can work for all of you. The experience of feeling heard, and being supported rather than blamed, can shift everyone’s experience into a more positive one.

Lisa Phillips

Lisa Phillips, MSW, LMSW, has been a parent educator at The Parenting Center at Children's Hospital since 2001 and is a regular contributor to the award-winning "Parenting Corner" column.

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