Quality Family Time in 2021

The start of the new year is an opportunity for reflection and goal-setting, and many of us may want to start at home. Hannah Pitman, MA, LPC notes how quantity and quality of family time have changed for many in 2020, and explores easy ways to build in time where we are fully present and focused on one another as we begin 2021.
"Tell your children ‘you are precious, you are valuable, and nobody else is created like you." – Karyn Purvis

"When you connect to the heart of a child, anything is possible." 
– Karyn Purvis

The beginning of a new year is a natural pausing point to reflect and set intentions. You might be feeling hopeful as we begin 2021, a fresh start after a difficult year; you might feel anxious about the unknowns and continuing challenges from 2020. For many of us, there may be a mix of both. Resolutions and goal-setting might look different this year with all the uncertainty, but for many of us, the people we see daily in our homes are constant. Perhaps the most transformative action we can take in a new year is learning how to connect more meaningfully with our partners and children.

2020 may have increased the quantity of time you spent with family, but did it increase the quality of time? Personally, I know that sharing space with my family day in and day out has brought up additional challenges to “quality” family time. When we haven’t left the house for a week straight, it can be easy to view family time as a frustration or inconvenience rather than as a gift. This has necessitated many conversations about how we want to talk to one another and how we want to interact well together. As we enter a new year, I want to encourage you (and myself) to intentionally build connection with our family members.

Building Connection for a Happier Home
Quantity of time spent together doesn’t necessarily mean deeper connection. Connection is built through undivided attention and presence. A strong sense of connection with your children creates a sense of well-being in the whole family.  It also often reduces meltdowns and fights because it helps children feel calmer and regulate better. God has designed our bodies to need connection to others to feel calm and safe and has created parents to be the intended “regulator” for their children.

Spending an extra ten minutes connecting (before any negative event happens) is likely to change the way your children respond when you ask them to do something. It is the same way for us as adults. If I walk in the door and immediately ask my spouse to do something or comment on why the dishes aren't done, he is less likely to respond with grace and kindness. Instead he feels annoyed, and I have started the evening off with a negative tone. He is short and snippy in response and it can easily spiral if not remedied. If instead I greet him first and ask how his day was, connecting with him first, letting him know he is my priority over the work to be done, then begin to discuss chores, then both of us feel less upset and more willing to discuss the work that needs done.

Kids are the same way; they respond well to positive feedback and a sense of being connected. If you want your child to do more things, make them feel successful at the things they are already doing. You can choose to use “because I said so” as your go-to answer, but connection first will almost certainly leave more pleasant feelings for you and your child. We want to capture our children’s hearts, not just their obedience. How can we teach our children to take to heart the things we feel are true and right? How can we help our children want to obey?

The answer is intentional, playful, light-hearted moments we choose to have with our children, where we set aside distractions and become present and focused. There is always something else we could be doing--housework, our job, social media--so it is important to prioritize these intentional moments. Any activity and any time together can be special; the only requirement is for you to be there with your whole heart, interested in whatever your child has to say and taking that time to truly enjoy one another’s company. This is not a time to review school work, or talk about the last time they got in trouble; it is simply time to be together. Let’s make 2021 a year where we have quality time, not just a large quantity of time with our children.

Easy Ways to Increase Quality Time
As you consider how to add in connecting moments, try to think of some rituals your family already has. What are some of the special things you do together that already make you feel connected? If you don’t have any right now, there’s no better time to start! Regardless of the ages of your children, there is always a way to bring more connection to your family. Here are some natural points in the day to try to set intentions about meaningful time together:

Morning Connection: Waking up is hard, not just for kids. Let’s be real, I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning. Maybe instead of an alarm or a light turned on or covers thrown off, you wake each kid with a song or a soft touch on the arm or a snuggle. Let your kid be involved in creating a routine with you; ask what they would like and try to find something that increases connection in the morning. It will bring joy to your morning routine.

Bedtime Ritual: Come up with a special thing you do at bedtime with each kid. Bedtime can be hard because we are far away from each other. Pray together before sleep, say something you love about each other, do three kisses and a wave as your goodnight ritual. It doesn’t have to take a long time; do what works for you and your child. If they’re old enough, have your child help create it. For older children, rather than a “bedtime” routine, perhaps plan a special activity that your family does before bed once a week, like playing a game or watching a show together.

Dinner Ritual: Regular family dinners are associated with many physical and mental health benefits, including academic performance, cardiovascular health, higher self-esteem, and lower anxiety and depression (1). Dinners are a natural time to fit in an intentional practice to boost family connection, as well. Some ideas might include highs and lows (or happys and sads), sharing something special that happened during the day, or sharing something you are grateful for. You might consider coming up with a fun question to ask at dinner, and family members could even take turns asking a question on different nights. You might say something you appreciated from the person on your right or left. If you start it and also participate, it can become a special ritual that also allows you to all know each other better. This may be hard to do every night if you have older children in sports or other time consuming activities, but even if it is just once a week, family dinner can really increase connection. Cooking is not required; take-out eaten together at the same table creates the same amount of connection.

Start Noticing: Notice when your child is doing something you like and point it out. This is a simple point of connection, but the more connection you are putting in your child’s bank, the closer and happier they will feel. It also increases self-esteem and a sense that “I can work hard at things and succeed.” Maybe make a mental note to yourself to notice at least one thing each child does that is helpful and/or successful that day and point it out to them. If you haven’t by bedtime, think back through the day for something helpful they did and share it with them while you are getting ready for bed.

10 Minutes a Day: This is my favorite one! Whether you are back at work and your kids are back at school, you all will be soon, or even if you are at home together all day, this activity is for you. When you come back together after a long time apart it can be important to connect before doing the “business” part of coming back together (put your shoes there, what homework do you have?, your teacher emailed me today, I need to start dinner etc.). Take 10 minutes when you all come back together just to listen to whatever your children have to say. It may seem silly, but just chat together about what they learned, who was nice and who wasn’t, what they liked, what they didn’t and just reflect and listen without imposing any other agenda on your time together. If you have more than 2-3 kids, this may need to be more like 20 minutes together. Just enjoy that time without an agenda, and I will bet that the rest of your evening will go more smoothly because you started your time together by being connected. It is a little bit like magic.

A fresh start can be an opportunity to assess what has been working well and where we want to grow. As you think about 2020, how was the quantity and, more importantly, the quality of your family time? I hope this post encourages you to think of small ways to revitalize your family time.

One important note: It can be difficult to connect and be present with other people if you are not taking care of yourself. We have to put on our own oxygen masks before helping our children with theirs! If you feel drained, try to rejuvenate and recharge before interacting with your kiddos. Schedule something that will help you to feel calm and relaxed; it can be simple, like taking a walk, journaling, or listening to some music. Take some time to unwind, and you will find that you have more energy to connect with others. Self-care looks different for all of us; see if you can start to notice what helps you to feel present and calm.

(1) Harvard EdCast: The Benefit of Family Mealtime, https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/20/04/harvard-edcast-benefit-family-mealtime
Hannah is a past ALCS therapist who is sadly no longer a part of the ALCS team. She is currently a full-time stay at home mom, but still enjoys leading TBRI trainings on occasion. If you are interested in scheduling a training, you can reach out to ALCS administrative staff and they can connect you to Hannah.

Further Resources
The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind by Dan Siegel
The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family by Dr. Karyn Purvis
The Connected Parent: Real-Life Strategies for Building Trust and Attachment by Dr. Karyn Purvis
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