Want a happy family? Learn to stick together through the rough spots and practice what you preach, says Scott Haltzman, M.D., clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and author of The Secrets of Happy Families: Eight Keys to Building a Lifetime of Connection and Contentment. Dr. Haltzman gives tips on how to bond.
Scott Haltzman: I wanted a book that addresses the many definitions of what constitutes a healthy and dynamic family. I also wanted to emphasize that adults are responsible for modeling behavior to their children, parents and the community at large.
SH: The book is based on a survey of more than 1,200 people. The most surprising finding was that these individuals determined that the most important factor leading to a happy family was resiliency — the ability to bounce back from bad experiences. I hadn’t realized that people knew about, or appreciated the importance of resiliency. But I found that just about every person had a story to tell of challenge, misfortune or loss, and that most pointed to their ability to bounce back from these events as being pivotal to the strength of the family.
SH: Don’t do the things you tell your children not to do! Don’t smoke cigarettes, drink or do drugs (even in private — unless you want your children to do drugs in private). Keep your commitments. Be on time. Tell the truth. Try to see the other guy’s point of view. Be charitable and thoughtful. Don’t engage in road rage. Laugh a lot!
Another area of parenting that presents a real challenge these days is overscheduling and overwhelming children with stimuli. You should limit the number of after-school activities. Ideally, no more than one organized sport and one organized creative pursuit at a time. Don’t let technology interfere with your family connections. Periodically you should have “screen-free days,” where cell phones, computers and TVs are put aside.
SH: The first way to get this message across to children is through role modeling. It’s hard to convince a child that, “we stick together through thick and thin,” if you’ve broken off relationships with your parents, siblings or your child’s other parent. Take a good look at how you treat your family and ask whether it’s how you want your children to act.
Try to focus your attention on helping your kids see their siblings’ point of view — to develop empathy. Your children are naturally inclined to see themselves as the center of the universe, but you can creatively ask them to imagine how others must feel. You can use household issues, their favorite TV show or any current event to foster discussion and ask them to step out of their skin.
Reward your children for being good. Even small acts of kindness should be recognized and reinforced. When kids begin to see that they get more attention for sharing or complimenting than they do for hoarding or antagonizing, they will start doing more of the behaviors that you want. It’s a simple credo: Catch them being good!
What are your secrets to creating a happy family life? Share your thoughts and stories in Comments below.
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