As we enter a new year, it is a time for goal setting and plans for self improvement. The traditional resolutions involving diet, exercise, and quitting smoking are made with the best of intentions and may disappear by month’s end. We often wonder why these pledges are so easy to make and so hard to keep. This column will explore some ideas about ways to initiate and sustain positive changes that will ultimately benefit the whole family.
Some general principles involving effective goal setting may be summarized as follows:
• Keep it small - What is something that can be done today and every day that takes only a few minutes?
• Focus on process not product - Instead of talking about a desired outcome like losing ten pounds, perhaps it is more useful to say I will walk for 15 minutes every day, with the understanding that investing in this daily activity will eventually lead to positive results.
• Make a public commitment - Sharing a new goal with others in the family helps us be accountable. Discussing progress at the dinner table allows family members to participate as teammates and cheerleaders.
4. Find a place in your routine - Changes are easier to maintain when they become part of a routine that occurs at the same time every day.
How could some of these principles be applied to building better family bonds? Perhaps a starting point would be to take a few minutes to reflect and then select three thought-provoking questions that you could ask each family member every day.
In past columns about mindfulness and gratitude we have discussed asking “What are you thankful for today?” Other topics to explore could be “What did you do today that you are proud of?” or “What was the best part of your day?” Or “Who did you compliment and how did they respond?” Posing these questions absorbs a small amount of time, which makes it more likely and possible to develop this as a new habit and ritual.
You may ask what is the point of raising these questions. Are we looking for specific or correct answers? The content of the responses is far less important than embracing the practice itself. This process of communication done consistently facilitates several positive outcomes. Family members experience the sense that their thoughts, feelings, and actions are important to others. They learn to pause and reflect about their behavior and their relationships. Parents have the opportunity to provide leadership and guidance through role modeling. Children sharpen their self-evaluation skills, becoming more aware of their accomplishments. Since the questions are designed to elicit positive answers, the contagious energy which is generated allows everyone to feel better.
What might be the best way to make sure that these questions are asked every day? If parents ask everyone in the family to remind them to ask, this introduces a dimension of shared responsibility. Another possibility is to use what psychologists call a response cost paradigm: If you don’t do what you said you would do, you pay a price. If a parent says something like “If I forget to bring up the questions before bedtime, and you catch me, I will put a dollar in the family fun fund.” This approach is frequently a source of delight for younger children.
Ideally the habit of asking questions promoting positive awareness becomes more automatic if it is incorporated into an established daily routine. Family dinner is a great forum for group dialogue. Even young children can learn to ask and answer the questions. Hectic schedules may render shared mealtime impossible. A second option is a conversation before bedtime. If face-to-face interaction is difficult or impossible, use of text or email offers the chance to develop this sustainable, automatic habit.
Theodore M. Stevens, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in practice at Lakeside Psychological Center, P.C.. 2940 N. Lynnhaven Road, Suite 130 in Virginia Beach. Comments and questions are welcome. Contact Dr. Stevens at 757-486-6515 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.