Happy Family Secrets

When it comes to close relationships, it’s easy to get stuck doing the same old thing, getting the same old results, says Zoe McDonald. Why not try one of these 7 surprising expert therapy tricks?

1 YOU’RE SHIPS IN THE NIGHT

You may spend time in the same house, but you don’t spend time together.

Creative mealtimes. You’ve probably heard the stats: regular family mealtimes are linked with both children and adults being a healthy weight (and children having higher self-esteem). Just three family meals a week is enough to show a powerful benefit. But what are the magic ingredients? An analysis of more than 50 families pinpointed meaningful conversation’ and positive tone’.

In her book The Artist’s Way For Parents (Hay House), legendary self-help guru Julia Cameron advises involving children by giving them jobs from food prep to setting the table to choosing the background music. The more you can build enjoyable, creative rituals around mealtimes, the more fun they become and the greater the opportunity for autonomy and self-expression,’ says Cameron. And introduce a family thanksgiving’ habit. It doesn’t have to be religious, but studies show expressing gratitude has a powerful mood-boosting benefit. Children will often have quite random and wonderful examples of things they are grateful for, that take you by surprise.’

2 SMALL CHILD, GROWN-UP PROBLEM

You’ve got a feeling something’s going on your child is worried, stressed, sad, but won’t tell you

Allow them to express their feelings physically. Dr Tina Stromsted, who is featured in Daniela F Sieff’s book Understanding And Healing Emotional Trauma (Routledge), uses Authentic Movement, a form of dance therapy, in her work with clients. (It may work best with under-eights, before self-consciousness sets in.) She says mirroring anger with music that enables them to stamp better still if you join in can provide an avenue for expression and release.

There’s no need to worry about a special technique when you’re trying this at home,’ says Stromsted. Simply being there to witness your child express themselves physically can be deeply affirming for them. Crank up a song that matches their mood and let them move. You are helping them to get to know their feelings in a way that feels safely held and acknowledged.’

At some point, she says, you might then slowly shift the movement to something lighter (with or without music), gradually finding a way to stop. At this point the child may be able to use words to tell you about what they are feeling. Or you could ask, What was that like?’ or How are you doing?’ Lorna Maxwell, 31, tried this with her frustrated three-year-old son. We did a dinosaur stamping dance to some angry music when he’d been aggressive towards his baby sister again. We both ended up laughing and he gave me an enormous hug afterwards. It worked so much better than time-out.’

3 We’re bored’

Despite piles of toys and plenty of organised activities, your children

Walk away. It’s tempting to suggest games to play, or drop what you’re doing to join in with Lego or colouring, but instead, try every now and then to make the boredom their problem to solve, not yours. Being forced to find their own amusement can be a gift,’ says No«l Janis-Norton, author of the parenting bible Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting (Yellow Kite). Just as adults do, children need time to themselves: it teaches them important skills such as resilience and creativity, helping to nurture their imagination and sense of self.

Help to reframe boredom by explaining that it’s your child’s job to make their own fun. Make sure there are plenty of activities they are allowed to pursue alone a well-stocked art cupboard, a garden they are free to play in (if you have one) and easy-to-reach toys. A handsoff approach might lead to a temporary spike in the whining but, in the long run, you’re doing your child a huge favour.’

I had started to suspect that the more I played with my four-year-old and I played with him a lot the more he demanded of me,’ says Julia Holmes, 42. I started to say, Mummy’s working now, you need to play. See what you can draw with these pens .” It took a while, but he’s playing contentedly on his own far more now, sometimes for a full half-hour.’

4 A HAIR-TRIGGER TEMPER

Your home life is littered with snapping and door-slamming.

Not talking. It runs contrary to received wisdom on conflict resolution, but rehashing the same old arguments won’t work either. Alice Leon, 39, says a let it be’ approach saved her marriage. John and I went through a tough time last summer: in the same week, I was made redundant and our first baby was born. John has never been a huge fan of the heart-toheart, but we couldn’t speak without arguing.’ She heard about not talking’ as a strategy and decided it was worth a try.

I’ve learnt to take a step back and, in the process, avoid a massive row.’ Clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd, coauthor of This Book Will Make You Mindful (Quercus), says, Just because one partner is less willing to talk about an issue, it doesn’t mean they are any less keen to resolve it.’ Instead, it’s sometimes better to speak your mind, then resist the urge to discuss the problem. I’ve developed a hit-and-run style for when I want to talk about something I say what I have to as calmly and concisely as I can, then I get out of there!’ says Alice. That lets John think about things at his own pace, no pressure, and he’ll get back to me in a day or so.’

5 Where did the good times go?

When was the last time you laughed until it hurt with your partner, lost track of time on a night out or had the kind of sex that leaves you blissed-out? Somewhere along the way, you lost the joy.

It’s easy to lose sight of your deep connection, the glue that keeps your relationship together,’ says counsellor Val Sampson. Reconnect by slowing down in your approach to time together. This means, simply, just talking; resisting the urge to check your e-mail, read the paper, surf Gumtree and so on. Improving the quality of your nonsexual touching can have profound effects too, she says. For example, if you hug your partner hello, maintaining contact for 30 seconds or more will trigger the release of oxytocin, the bonding hormone.’

6 SCREENS HAVE TAKEN OVER THE HOUSE

You feel everyone spends much too much time in front of one screen or another.

Lead by example. Which means putting down your phone. According to US psychiatrist Dr Jodi Gold, author of Screen-smart Parenting (Guilford Press), It’s as important to negotiate house tech rules as it is to discuss work boundaries or finances,’ she says. It’s the same as starting a diet; you’ve got to be honest about how much you’re eating, what your triggers are, what’s caused you to slip up in the past. Then you can introduce measures for potential black spots: ensure the no phones at the table rule holds by placing devices outside the room and muting them.’

Gold suggests including your kids in setting rules, because not only might they know more about the digital world, they may surprise you with how they can set reasonable limits. Even though you’re tempted, don’t take away the device. The goal is to teach them how to use it wisely,’ she says. Let your phone hang out in another room when doing homework or eating dinner, but encourage your kids to use technology to learn and connect.’ Finally, make sure nobody goes to bed with their phone: buy alarm clocks and set up a family charging centre in the kitchen.

7 GROWN-UP SIBLING RESENTMENT

A technique called Emerge-N-See from a therapy called Radical Forgiveness, designed to help overcome negative behaviour patterns. Holding on to resentment and anger has been shown to be harmful for our mental and physical health,’ says Dr Hagen Rampes, a former UK National Health Service psychiatrist who is now a Radical Forgiveness coach. The beauty of radical forgiveness is it works without the other party (whether a sibling or partner) being involved. All the energy that has been fuelling the resentment and anger is released .’ Emerge-N-See goes like this (it will sound alien, but bear with it) . Start by saying, Look what I created.’ Take responsibility for the situation, but don’t feel guilty. Then, I notice my judgments and love myself anyway.’ It’s normal to attach judgments, interpretations and beliefs to situations. Accept that. Next, tell yourself, I am willing to see the perfection in the situation.’ Finally, state out loud your desire for no more conflict: I choose the power of peace.

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