### Optimizing Family Time: Strategies for Strengthening Bonds Across Distances

Ironic, isn’t it? Just as we come to appreciate the significance of family time, our children seem to develop social lives and extracurricular commitments. Exactly when we yearn to spend more time with them, they become increasingly elusive and, let’s admit it, more hesitant—even when their schedules are clear.

When I’m not reflecting on the dwindling years I have left with my teenagers at home, I’m endeavoring to coordinate the agendas of our bustling family of six to incorporate quality time together. Yet, this task is far more challenging than it sounds. Both my husband and I work full-time, and three of our four children hold after-school jobs. They participate in sports almost year-round (specifically bowling, football, and basketball), in addition to various other school-related extracurricular activities: marching band, pep band, choir, and STEM Club. And on top of all that? Homework, friends, and even girlfriends. With so many competing priorities, finding quality family time becomes a daunting task, especially during the teenage years.

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“Establishing stronger connections through spending quality time together will deepen your bonds from adolescence into adulthood,” parenting coach Jennifer Martin explains to SheKnows. This time is not only beneficial for the future but also for the present. According to a comprehensive longitudinal study cited by The Washington Post, “The more time teenagers spend interacting with their mother, the fewer instances of delinquent behavior they exhibit. Additionally, when teens engage in family time with both parents, such as during meals, they are less likely to partake in substance abuse, risky behavior, or illegal activities. Moreover, they tend to achieve higher scores in mathematics.” Interestingly, teenagers are the age group that significantly benefits from spending more time with their parents.

Given that most parents aim to prevent substance abuse and risky behavior among teenagers, and with the realization dawning on many of us that family time is slipping away, expert suggestions on how to increase family time, even amidst challenges, are invaluable.

First and foremost, redefine “family time.”

We often perceive “family time” as a planned event, such as a group outing or a movie night. However, quality moments can also arise from everyday activities.

Dr. Joel Frank, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Neuropsychologist at Duality Psychological Services, suggests, “Family time doesn’t have to be extravagant. It can be as simple as sharing meals together. Make a commitment to have at least one family meal each day. This could be breakfast before the rush to work or school, or a peaceful dinner where you can discuss the day’s events.”

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Martin concurs, stating, “Whether it’s ‘Pizza Friday,’ a family cooking night, or taking turns choosing a favorite restaurant, one of the simplest ways to connect is over a meal. Family dinners have become less common due to our hectic schedules. Finding a night each week when everyone’s schedules align may be challenging, so shifting it to breakfast or lunch on a weekend can also be effective. However, quality time extends beyond sharing meals; maximize it by collecting phones in a basket, turning off the TV, and preparing interesting or fun topics for discussion. This can add a deeper layer of connection to an otherwise routine activity.”

Schedule it in.

In a busy family where everyone is constantly on the move, gathering everyone together can feel nearly impossible and requires planning. Schedule family time in advance on the calendar, treating it like any other event or appointment, and commit to it without exceptions or scheduling other activities on that date. While it may seem odd to schedule what should occur naturally, it is often necessary.

“Rarely do families find downtime where everyone convenes,” notes Martin, emphasizing the importance of formalizing family time. If an unexpected opportunity arises for everyone to be together, she proposes, “Invite everyone to gather in the family room to watch a show or play a game. Enhance the experience by offering a treat, extra screen time later, or a special reward for the winner to make it engaging.”

“Scheduling family time serves as a reminder to reconnect with one another,” mentions Dr. Joshua Stein, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist & Clinical Director at PrairieCare.

Involve everyone in the decision-making process.

“Instead of dictating what family time should entail, observe your kids, especially teenagers, to discern their interests. When you notice their preferences, inquire and show genuine interest,” advises Licensed Psychologist Dr. Hannah Yang of Balanced Awakening. “Based on the insights gained during your interactions, collaborate with your kids/teens to plan specific family activities. Inquire about their preferences and suitable timings. Following this preparatory connection process provides the best chance for high-quality family time.”

Dr. Frank emphasizes the importance of involving kids in the decision-making process rather than imposing activities on them. Given that teenagers are navigating rapid changes in their lives and forming their identities, ensuring they feel included in the family unit is crucial. Take an interest in their world, whether it’s their music, art, or sports interests. Engage them in planning family activities, be it a movie night or a weekend hike. This inclusivity fosters their sense of value and enhances their willingness to participate.

“Empowering children to choose activities or share their expertise alters the traditional power dynamics and allows them to take the lead,” adds Dr. Stein. “Consider activities that capture their interest, such as video creation or developing a graphic novel. Instead of comparing it to your own youth, provide them with the opportunity to shine and showcase their uniqueness.”

As parents, this may entail engaging in activities that may not align with our preferences, such as participating in a Nerf war or learning a TikTok dance. However, the reward of spending quality time with our children, which excites them, outweighs any initial reluctance.

Ensure the quality of your time together.

In an era dominated by screens, merely sitting in the same room staring at devices does not constitute quality time, even if everyone is present.

“Ensuring that family time is meaningful is crucial,” emphasizes Dr. Frank. “Put away those screens and actively engage with each other. Whether playing a board game or engaging in heartfelt conversations about various topics, being fully present in the moment is what truly matters.”

Foster open communication with your children.

One advantage of having older kids and teenagers is their enhanced capacity for understanding. While they may not fully grasp the emotional depth of parenthood yet (that realization typically comes with having their own children), they are not oblivious to the sentimental value of family time.

“Communicate to your preteens and teenagers that the time spent with them is limited and precious, emphasizing the significance of the moments before they depart for college or work after graduation,” suggests Martin.

Addressing personal barriers.

Work and other commitments often overshadow family time, making it challenging to prioritize. However, while work pays the bills, these fleeting moments with our children are irreplaceable.

“Life is fast-paced and demanding. Creating space in our schedules and minds for meaningful interactions can seem daunting. Yet, upon reflection, we recognize its importance,” states Dr. Stein. “Reminders, such as reminiscing about past joyful moments or sharing family inside jokes, can be helpful. If your partner is preoccupied, acknowledge their busyness while expressing how essential they are to you and the rest of the family. Approach the situation with understanding rather than criticism. Consider saying something like, ‘Our time together is always special, and we’ve been so occupied. Can we schedule some family time tonight or tomorrow?’”

Increasing family time in a scattered family dynamic is undoubtedly challenging. Yet, it remains one of the most valuable gifts we can give to our children and ourselves. After all, we need to create more memories to cherish once they leave the nest.