“I wish my kids and I were closer.”
One of the letters I received recently on Psych Central’s Ask the Therapist feature echoes a lament I hear regularly.
Another parent writes, “I feel like times together are either too tense or too boring. What can I do?”
Still another says, “My two teens are either out of the house or out of touch. How can I keep them involved with the family?”
Parents want to be closer to their kids. They want their kids to be closer to each other. They know that tweens and teens need the family more than they think they do. But sometimes it seems like modern family life conspires against togetherness.
Parents are stressed by working harder than ever if they have work; are stressed and depressed if they don’t. Kids are so connected to the peer group through texts they seem lost to another universe. The teens who are striving to get into good colleges are spending hours on homework and more hours in extracurricular activities to build up their resumes. Those who want or need money work after school and on weekends. Those who are depressed or don’t care retreat to the privacy – and aloneness – of their own rooms or corners or to the street. The computers, TVs and smart phones beckon to everyone in the family. What can a parent do to combat the ever-present electronics and the siren calls of the peer group?
There are dozens of books with hundreds of pages of advice for how to keep the family close. Many are good ones. But if you are too stretched to read them, here’s a short how-to:
Togetherness = Time + Talk + Teamwork
Time: A group of people can’t be a family unless they spend time together. Parents have the right and obligation to make demands for together time, even if kids whine, complain, and otherwise object. If you place a value on family time through action as well as words, the kids will eventually accept it and value it too.
Make a commitment to have dinner together, as a family, eating at the same time around the same table at least three or four times a week. Research shows that kids who share dinnertime with their families on a regular basis do better in school, get along better with others, and generally do better in life.
Take charge of planning and following through on a family activity once a week. That can be a family game night, a hike together, playing an outdoor sport or an indoor Wii, or going to a local event and talking about it afterward. As long as you are doing it as a family instead of as individuals you are supporting “familyness.”
Talk: In order for a group of individuals to be a family, they need to really know each other. Knowing comes from sharing information and stories.
Be interested in what interests your teen. It doesn’t matter if you are interested in the subject. What matters is that you are interested in your teen. You think their taste in music is appalling? Rather than passing judgment, ask your teen to explain it to you. Who are the bands she likes? What makes their music so compelling? What does he think the songwriter is trying to tell us all about the world? Engage in conversation, not criticism. Same goes for choice of friends, activities, and dreams.
Share your life. People learn best through stories. Share anecdotes from your own growing up. Don’t be afraid to poke fun at yourself. Share the not-so-good as well as good times and what you learned about yourself and others. Share information about what you find rewarding and challenging about being an adult. One caution: The kids are not our counselors. Keep appropriate boundaries when talking about adult issues that should remain adult issues.
Teamwork: To be a family, the people in it need to feel like a team. Anyone who has played on a team knows that you don’t even have to initially like each other to work together. Working together often is what fosters liking and respect.
Create times to work together on something, almost anything. Cleaning the garage or doing yard work can be an odious task or it can be a way to build your team. Don’t just direct the kids to do it. Get in there and be an active coach. Play to different people’s strengths. Give them encouragement. Express appreciation.
Make meals together. Remember those family dinners back in the “time” category. Often the best part of the meal is the making of it. One kid can make the salad while another sets the table. As kids get older, they can be involved in creating the whole meal. “Hell’s Kitchen” may make for good TV but it doesn’t create good feelings in a family. Be generous with praise and appreciation. Demonstrate cooking techniques and shortcuts. Not only will you get togetherness, but the kids will eventually leave home knowing how to get a meal on the table.
Find activities that require different strengths and different skills. Just as people on a team have different jobs in order to reach a mutual goal, there are family activities that can accommodate everyone’s age and skill level. Going on a trip? Ask one kid to research things to do at the destination, ask another to keep a family blog, another to track mileage and expenses, another to be in charge of taking family photos, etc. At the end of the trip, you can work together to make a family album or to update the family website. Planning the grocery shopping for the week? Get everyone involved with meal planning and with looking for coupons. Kids who have had an investment in what they’re going to eat are less likely to balk at what’s for dinner.
If you want the members of your family to be closer to one another, keep the three T’s of time, talk and teamwork in mind and build them into every week. Togetherness naturally follows.