Family Chill Time

The holiday season keeps families on the go, often at breakneck speed, with family visits, cooking, shopping and parties. It’s exciting, certainly, but it can also overwhelm us to the point where we lose track of each other as a family. Here’s a guide to keeping the fun ­– and downtime – in your family’s holiday schedule:



Why You Need It

In the short term, there’s a practical reason to play together as a family: Your kids want to. Do this for them, and they’re more likely to do things for you (i.e., take out the trash, pick up after themselves, turn down the music), says Tony Malinda, a family therapist and father of two. But there are other reasons, too:


• Less stress – When we’re stressed, our bodies circulate chemicals designed to help us fight or run away. But when we can’t run from what’s stressing us – our boss, the mortgage, our homework – these chemicals have nowhere to go. “It’s kind of like a contagious disease,” says Malinda. “It spreads and takes hold immediately.” This can mean parents yelling and kids acting out or retreating into depression.


Rather than retreat and collapse in exhaustion after a tough day, try playing with your family.


“If you get down on the floor and play, it actually recharges you,” says Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in children’s play and the author of several books, including Playful Parenting and his newest, The Art of Roughhousing, co-authored with Anthony DeBenedet, M.D. (Quirk Books, 2010). “Do it even if you don’t feel like it. You’ll feel better afterward.” So will your kids.


• Healthier hearts, bigger brains – Make your play active, and you can snag a few of your recommended 30 minutes a day of heart-pumping exercise. “If you’re doing roughhousing right, you should be sweating just as much as your kid is,” says DeBenedet, who’s also a father of three.


The brain benefits, too. Active play releases a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor that acts as a “brain fertilizer,” stimulating neurons to grow. It releases endorphins (natural stress fighters) and oxytocin (the cuddle hormone), and activates multiple areas in the brain, such as pathways for motor coordination and creativity, forging brain-cell connections. “That’s the best way to get brains to grow,” says DeBenedet.


• Better connections – Play helps families brush up on their nonverbal communication, teaching parents and kids to read each other’s signals. This, in turn, can help kids communicate better and play more appropriately with their peers, DeBenedet says.


The extra time and attention from family play can also build long-term parent-child closeness, and make kids more sure of themselves. “It fuels their self-esteem because they are important to you,” says Malinda. These human connections can be much more important to future happiness than getting into the right college or landing a lucrative job.



How to Get It

The idea of carving out extra time for just about anything can seem daunting. But Malinda says fitting in more family time can start with a simple “yes.” The next time your kids ask you to play ball, listen to them practice piano or finger paint, “say ‘yes’ and just go,” he urges. “Don’t say ‘later.’”


Here are other ways to put more play in your day:


• Get organized – “Anywhere there’s disorganization, you’re kind of wasting time,” says professional organizer Jodie Watson. So if you can get up earlier for a smoother morning, or organize your planning and shopping so mealtime is easier, you’ll have more free time together.


• Hit the “off” button – Another, less conventional, tool for finding free time is the “off” button on almost any electronic device. Anything with a screen, from computers to smart phones, handheld games and TV, can devour evening and weekend hours. “What’s more important to you: Spend an hour on Facebook or spend an hour with your kids?” asks Watson. Power off and tune in to each other instead.


• Multitask – Got chores to do? Dive in together and try to make it fun. When her son was small, Watson took a playful approach to housework and had him “help.” This can also work at mealtime if you get the whole family in on preparation and clean-up (with a meal and conversation in between). “It doesn’t happen quite as efficiently, but you can make it quality time with the family,” Watson says.


• Sneak it in – If you’re nagging your child for 20 minutes to get him out of bed each morning, “that 20 minutes is totally wasted,” says Cohen, a father of two. “Nagging them from the doorway is not a good way to connect with your child.” Instead, he suggests playfully diving into bed with your child. Five minutes of giggling and cuddling should be enough to get them happily up and dressed. “You’ve added five minutes of play, and you’ve actually gained 15 minutes in your life,” Cohen says.


Likewise, a pre-homework pillow fight where you say to your child, “I’m the math problem. Tackle me,” lets your child work out some excess energy and frustration. They sit down more relaxed and focused, and you are spared nagging them to get their work done.


• Take a day off – To get more than just a stolen moment here or there, though, you’ll need to plan. The best way to do this is to arrange a day off for yourself each week. “Really try and empty that free day of any kind of chores or work,” Watson urges, so you can recharge your own batteries and plan time with your family. “If everything you’re trying to do doesn’t fit into six days, you’re trying to do too much,” she says.


In that case, look over the family calendar and ask, “What do we not need to be doing?” Make family time a priority. “If it means that some other things have to go, you may have to make sacrifices,” Watson says.



Ways to Spend It

After all that work clearing calendars, you’ll want to make the most of your dedicated family time. And a good place to start is to ask the other members of your family how they’d like to spend it. Watson recalls her son complaining to her that they never did anything together. Meanwhile, they’d been out hiking, visiting museums and doing other things she considered quality time. When she asked what he meant by “spending time together,” she was surprised by his reply: “If we played board games!”


Multiple family members inevitably mean multiple opinions on what’s “fun.” Malinda’s suggestion: Majority rules. Propose a few alternatives and take a vote. And if one person doesn’t like the chosen activity (including Mom or Dad), “that person’s just going to have to suck it up,” he says. Even when they complain, “90 percent of the time, my kids end up loving it.”


Favorites at Malinda’s house include hiking, matinee movies and barbecues at home.


As their book, The Art of Roughhousing, describes, Cohen and DeBenedet are fans of more boisterous play. Among their favorite roughhousing games:


• Knock Your Socks Off – Everyone gets down on the floor with shoes off and socks on, and you try to get everybody else’s socks off while keeping your socks on.


• Obstacle Courses – Pretend that the carpet is molten lava. You have to get across the room without touching it. Or use masking tape strung across the room to simulate laser beams that you must duck.


• Steam Roller – Parent lies on their back on the floor. Child lies on top of the parent, stomach to stomach. With the parent using their elbows to keep their weight off the child, the two roll along the floor. “Older children love this, because they don’t ever get that kind of close contact anymore. Because they’re too cool for it,” Cohen says.


There are times, of course, when something quieter is your best bet. Malinda says it’s perfectly okay to just snuggle up in front of the TV now and again as long as you’re flexible. “If you’re burned out and you’re saying, ‘Just sit with me,’ be prepared to watch whatever they want to watch,” he advises, adding that his family finds common ground on The Discovery Channel.


Whether your family is watching a favorite show, reading a favorite book, chatting at the dinner table or romping through the yard, one thing you’re likely to discover is that hanging out together feels good. And it’s a good way to balance a busy holiday season.


Christina Elston is a senior editor with Dominion Parenting Media.

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