How To Prioritize Family Time — When Your Family Is All Over the Place

Ironic, isn’t it? Around the time we start to realize exactly how valuable family time is, our kids have the audacity to develop social lives and extracurricular schedules. Just when we really want to spend more time with them, they start getting harder to pin down (and, let’s face it, more reluctant — even when they do have a clear schedule).

When I’m not sobbing into my pillow thinking about how few years I have left with my teens at home, I’m trying to orchestrate the schedules of our busy family of six to include quality time together. But it’s much, much easier said than done. My husband and I both work full-time, and three of our four kids have after-school jobs. They’re enrolled in sports pretty much year-round (bowling, football, and basketball, respectively) and then there are the other school-related extracurriculars: marching band. Pep band. Choir. STEM Club. And on top of all that? Homework. Friends. Girlfriends. When there are that many competing factors going on, it can make finding quality family time tough. But it’s critical — especially when they’re teenagers.

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“Creating deeper connections through quality time together will deepen your bonds through adolescence into adulthood,” parenting coach Jennifer Martin tells SheKnows. And this time is not only beneficial in the future, but right now. According to a large-scale longitudinal study outlined by The Washington Post, “The more time a teen spends engaged with their mother, the fewer instances of delinquent behavior. And the more time teens spend with both their parents together in family time, such as during meals, the less likely they are to abuse drugs and alcohol and engage in other risky or illegal behavior. They also achieve higher math scores.” Interestingly, teens were the only age group to benefit substantially from a higher quantity of time with their parents.

Since it’s in pretty much every parent’s best interest to have a teen who isn’t abusing substances or being risky — and since many of us are deep into the realization that family time is slipping through our fingers and we need to cherish as much of it as we can — here are some expert suggestions on how to get more family time, even when it’s hard.

First, broaden your definition of “family time.”

We tend to think of “family time” as an event that needs to be orchestrated, like a group outing or a planned movie night, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. Sure, those things are great bonding opportunities with your kids, but quality moments can happen during everyday activities too.

“Family time doesn’t have to be a grand event. It could be as simple as having meals together,” Dr. Joel Frank, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Neuropsychologist at Duality Psychological Services, tells SheKnows. “Make a pact to have at least one meal as a family each day. This could be breakfast before everyone rushes to work or school or a calm dinner where you can discuss the day’s events.”

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Martin agrees: “Whether it’s ‘Pizza Friday,’ family cooking night, or rotating with ‘you choose’ a favorite restaurant, one of the easiest ways to connect is over a meal,” she says. “Family dinners have gone by the wayside in the hectic schedules we have today. Finding one night a week where everyone’s schedules align may be difficult, so moving it to breakfast or lunch on a weekend can also do the trick. But quality time isn’t just eating together, so make the most of it by putting the phones in a basket, turning off the TV, and putting together some interesting or fun topics to discuss. This can add a layer of connection to an otherwise obligatory activity.”

Pencil it in.

When you’ve got a busy family who’s always on the go, it can feel nearly impossible to get everyone together at once — so it takes some planning. Schedule family time in advance on the calendar, just like you would any other event or appointment, and stick to it: no excuses, no planning other things on that date. It might seem a little weird to schedule something that feels like it should just happen naturally, but that’s often what it takes.

“It’s rare to have downtime as a family where everyone ends up together,” says Martin, which is why making a date of it is essential. But if you do find yourself unexpectedly together, she suggests, “Ask everyone to gather in the family room to watch a show or play a game. Make it fun by adding a sweet treat, additional screen time later, or the winner gets something special to make it exciting.”

“By scheduling time as a family, it creates a reminder to lean back into one another,” Dr. Joshua Stein, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist & Clinical Director at PrairieCare, tells SheKnows.

Let everyone have a say.

“Instead of, as the parent, coming up with an idea of what family time should look like, observe your kids (especially teens) and see what they most gravitate towards. When you notice that they are interested in something, ask questions and show interest yourself,” advises Licensed Psychologist Dr. Hannah Yang of Balanced Awakening. “Then, based on the information that you get during your connections, collaborate with your kids/teens to plan specific family activities. Ask them what they would like to do, and when. You’ll have the very best chance of high quality family time if you follow this connection process beforehand!”

Dr. Frank issues an important reminder as to why we need to get our kids involved rather than just dictating what we’re going to do: they’re teenagers, and the more interested they are, the more likely they’ll be cooperative. “For the hard-to-pin-down teens, remember that their world is changing rapidly. They’re figuring out their identities, and ensuring they feel part of the familial unit is even more critical. Take an interest in their world, such as their music, art, or sports interests. Engage them in planning family activities; it could be a movie night or a weekend hike. This inclusion makes them feel valued and increases their willingness to participate.”

“By allowing the children to choose the activity or share their expertise, it shifts the common power dynamic and creates their chance to lead,” adds Dr. Stein. “Consider activities that hold their interest such as video creation or creating a graphic novel. Avoid comparing it to your youth, but instead allow them to have their moment and uniqueness.”

Yes: as parents, this might mean we have to do something that doesn’t necessarily sound like our cup of tea — like having a Nerf war or learning a TikTok dance. But gaining quality time our kids are excited about is so worth it.

Make sure your quality time counts.

We’re all addicted to our phones, but sitting around staring at our screens isn’t exactly quality time — even if we are all doing it in the same room.

“Ensuring that family time is quality time is essential,” says Dr. Frank. “Turn off those screens and truly engage with each other. Whether it is playing a board game or just chatting away about anything and everything, what matters is being present in the moment.”

Be honest with your kids.

The good thing about older kids and teenagers is that they have a larger capacity for understanding. They may not come close to grasping exactly how emotional it is to be a parent just yet — that’ll come when they have their own kids — but that doesn’t mean they’ll be completely oblivious to the sentimental importance of family time.

“Explain to your tweens and teens that time with them is limited and precious, and that you value the opportunities left before they head out of the house to college or work after graduation,” suggests Martin.

And what if we’re the problem?

Work and other obligations can sometimes eclipse family time, and it can be hard to say no to those things; after all, family time doesn’t pay the bills. But when it comes down to it (cue the waterworks!), we can make money any time, but these precious moments with our kids are moments we’ll never get back.

“Life is hectic and busy. It can feel impossible to clear our schedules or even our minds enough to share meaningful moments. However, inherently when we take a second to reflect, we know how important it is,” Dr. Stein says. “Reminders are helpful, including thinking about past silly moments of joy or fun family inside jokes. If your partner is the busy one, let them know you understand how busy they are, but also how important they are to you and the rest of the family. Don’t be mean or shaming, but just share how you feel.  Consider saying something like, ‘Our time together is always the best, and we have been so busy. Can we schedule some family time tonight or tomorrow?’”  

It isn’t easy to get more family time when your family is often scattered to the four winds. But it’s one of the best gifts we can give our kids — and ourselves. Gotta make more memories to cry over when they move out, you know!