As Elizabeth Rees drove her daughter and two of her daughter’s friends to a library reading group recently, the Alexandria mother of three admits that she felt like a chauffeur at first. But she had a change of heart after hearing sounds of laughter.
"They were giggling and so sweet in the back," said Rees, the associate rector at Saint Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria. "Suddenly that moment of grace turned it all around and I felt privileged to be there. I think that sort of thing happens all the time if only we are paying attention."
What are the keys to paying attention and creating a happier family life? Experts say it’s important to stop trying to do everything 100 percent and make other things a priority. They offer their top tips for creating balance.
"With three young kids, a two-career marriage and way too many activities, I find this balance as hard as everyone else and am absolutely preaching to myself," said Rees.
EXPERTS SAY living in a competitive area like the Washington, D.C., region can make creating balance even more challenging. "I see children who are stressed to always be the best," said Dr. Bruce Pfeffer, a Potomac, Md.-based child psychiatrist.
Parents play a critical role in helping children create a healthy balance of work and play, he added, explaining that "parents must serve as rudders to guide their children [toward the] peace of mind that comes with a supportive home environment, emphasis on gaining joy in life, along with appropriate goals and achieving."
Michael Moynihan, head of the Upper School at The Heights School in Potomac, Md., agrees. "The most significant obstacles to harmonious family life today are over scheduling and over connectedness … resulting in families that are pulled in many different directions for activities, and when they have those brief moments together, are often plugged into various electronic devices," he said.
Make finding uninterrupted family time a priority. "The solution is to schedule family time such as meals together — without electronic devices — and to protect this time from other activities," said Moynihan.
Rees suggests being present and engaged. "So much of life is spent in work and preparation and accomplishments that it’s hard sometimes to live in the moment," she said. "Maybe some days the only time you have together is in the car. ... Try to remember to make the most of even those moments."
Bethany Letiecq, Ph.D., an associate professor of human development and family science at George Mason University, said "It’s also important to find joy in the mundane and to give one’s self and others a break ... to be patient, empathic and compassionate with yourself and with your coparent. ...But that doesn’t mean not holding everyone accountable to the family system, which is also critical."
"Parents might consider the importance of quality time versus quantity of time spent together and prioritize what they value most," said Colleen Vesely, Ph.D., an assistant professor of early childhood education and human development and family science at George Mason University. "Be purposeful. Children will likely remember quality time spent with a parent who was fully present than whether the house was perfect or the laundry folded."
Rees encourages stressed parents to give themselves time alone as well. "I am part of a prayer and listening group on Tuesday nights. We come together and have a time of silence and share where we are in our lives. For me, that’s my chance for renewal, refreshment, and it makes me return home with a completely different attitude. … For others, it might be a walk in the woods or coffee with a good friend, or an hour at the gym. It’s hard to make space for yourself, but it can make a big difference in how you treat the people around you."
When it comes to building a harmonious family life, which elements matter most? "Love, obviously, is essential," said Rees. "But that’s a big and amorphous word and really has to be much more about how we live than what we feel when it comes to daily relationships. When we are stressed or worried or tired, our closest relationships are the ones that take the biggest hit. It is in those all-too-frequent moments that we have to work the hardest at things like kindness, respect, thinking of how the other person feels."
The willingness to forgive oneself and one’s family members is also vital to family harmony. "We all do and say things without thinking all the time with our families," said Rees. "They bear the brunt of all the weight we carry. Try to remember that in the heat of the moment and put aside petty grudges."
Sometimes, says Rees, it’s small, often overlooked actions that can have a major impact. "Little things matter so much in family life," she said. "Replacing the soap in the soap dish, or asking someone about their day and really caring about the answer, or giving a hand when you see someone struggling. When my husband hears my car in the driveway when I return from the grocery store and comes out to help carry the bags … I notice and I feel cared for."
Letiecq said, "With myriad external stressors and pressures on family systems, it is really important that families … work together to model positive coping strategies and moderate conflict and anxiety levels. Parents can model healthy conflict resolution practices and support their children’s positive coping and adaptation. This often takes a lot of work, learning skills that we may not have picked up from our own family systems [such as] practice, cooperation and patience."
"Learn and implement effective communication skills," said Rees. "Share what you are feeling with those all-important ‘I statements’ that we know about but find so hard to use in the heat of the moment. Stop what we are doing when there is something we really need to listen to, and then really listen with empathy and love. … Not just thinking it, but saying ‘I love you,’ ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘I forgive you,’ ‘thank you.’"
Manage expectations. "Reasonable expectations seem like a big piece of this, for ourselves, for our kids, for our partners," said Rees. "Remember to step back and think about what really matters and try to place less importance on the rest."
Parents are a child’s best role models for dealing with setbacks. "Parents must help their children be resilient when goals are not met," said Pfeffer. "Sometimes the best growth can be gained by resilience after a disappointment."
LAUGHTER HELPS A LOT, too. "Try not to take things so seriously and to see the humor even in the mistakes and the impossible moments," said Rees.
Practice gratitude. "Lately, I keep reading about the link between practicing gratitude and feeling happiness. I find it true in my own life," said Rees. "When I consciously look for things to be grateful for, I am much more aware of the moments of love and beauty in my life. So practice gratitude for each member of our families, for the good that we see in them, for the moments that we have with them. When, after a long day, I get to sit down and read a book with my arms around my kids, I try to remember to thank God for that moment.
"There really is not one ‘right’ way to parent a child or engage in family life," said Letiecq . "Every parent-child relationship, every family system is unique in terms of what each person brings to the relationship: temperaments, interests, skill-sets, personality traits, personal histories, past familial experience, health issues, etc. … There is a range of parenting styles, but what seems most important is to do what works best with your child’s temperament and what is going to be most supportive and least stressful for the entire family."