Get­ting the whole fam­ily back on track

Sheila Way­man

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Family - Sheila Way­man sway­man@irish­

The beauty of good fam­ily habits is that they en­cour­age ev­ery­body to do the right thing with­out ne­go­ti­a­tions and rows. They just be­come the way things are done in your house­hold. That’s once they are in­grained, of course. It takes 66 days, on av­er­age, from the time a new be­hav­iour is in­tro­duced to it be­com­ing au­to­matic, ac­cord­ing to a sci­en­tific study con­ducted at Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don.

Some of the 96 par­tic­i­pants took as few as 18 days to form a new habit but for oth­ers it was up to 254 days – de­bunk­ing a pop­u­lar myth that do­ing some­thing for 21 days in a row was all that was re­quired.

So it’s no won­der you are still strug­gling with your new year res­o­lu­tions. Try­ing to make too many dras­tic changes is also set­ting your­self up for fail­ure. The se­cret to long-term suc­cess is lit­tle changes – and, more im­por­tantly, start­ing as you want to go on when chil­dren are still very, very small. You don’t re­ally know the mean­ing of the word “role model” un­til you be­come a par­ent and see your bad habits re-en­acted in front of your eyes.

So, what are some good habits for health­ier, hap­pier fam­ily life? We en­listed a few ex­perts – pae­di­atric di­eti­tian Ruth Charles, clin­i­cal psy­chother­a­pist Joanna For­tune of So­lamh and foren­sic psy­chol­o­gist Mau­reen Grif­fin of MGMS Train­ing – to help us draw up the fol­low­ing sug­ges­tions.

1 Eat to­gether as a fam­ily around a ta­ble

Be­tween work, com­mut­ing, sport and leisure com­mit­ments, it is hard to sit down to­gether for din­ner ev­ery night but, if you don’t aim to do it as of­ten as pos­si­ble, it will rarely hap­pen. The proven ben­e­fits range from health­ier eat­ing to im­proved re­la­tion­ships. Ban all phones, too.

2 Use serv­ing bowls

Al­low­ing chil­dren to help them­selves to food at the ta­ble means they are more likely to try things and reg­u­late their eat­ing ac­cord­ing to their ap­petite.

3 Eat a rain­bow

If you have got the daily five fruit and veg un­der your fam­ily’s belt of good eat­ing habits, add a bit of nu­tri­tional fi­nesse by mak­ing sure they span a range of colours. As Ruth Charles ex­plains: “The colour usu­ally de­ter­mines the vi­ta­mins and an­tiox­i­dants present, so in­clude red, or­ange, yel­low, green and blue/pur­ple choices ev­ery day, eg some tomato, but­ter­nut squash, turnip, cab­bage, black­cur­rant.”

4 Avoid drink­ing your calo­ries

The best fam­ily drinks for hy­dra­tion, den­tal health and your pocket are plain wa­ter and milk, says Charles. While few are un­aware now of health warn­ings about sugar-laden soft drinks, it is also bet­ter to eat, rather than juice, fruit. And for adults, al­co­hol’s “for­got­ten” calo­ries can sab­o­tage healthy eat­ing.

5 Con­sume more “whole” foods

These are foods that look the same in your hand as they did when they were first made, is how Charles puts it, such as milk and eggs. Avoid­ing pro­cessed foods means you will eat more nu­tri­ents in their nat­u­ral state and also cook from scratch.

6 Make a weekly meal plan

As bor­ing as it may sound, this saves time, money and in­creases your changes of stick­ing to a well-bal­anced diet. Re­sort­ing to take-aways in last-minute des­per­a­tion for food and in­spi­ra­tion is the sort of spon­tane­ity most of us could do with­out.

7 Walk to school

Too far, no time, bad weather, not safe . . . The rea­sons chil­dren don’t walk to school trip off the tongue, but it’s worth re­assess­ing the lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenges that ap­ply to your fam­ily to see if, even just one day a week, they could per­haps walk at least some of the way?

8 Un­plug for fam­ily ac­tiv­i­ties

It might be once a day or just once a week but switch off the wifi and do some­thing to­gether as a fam­ily dur­ing which no­body looks at their de­vices, ad­vises Mau­reen Grif­fin.

If it’s watch­ing a TV pro­gramme to­gether – no other screens al­lowed. Some parents swear by an app called Screen Time that al­lows them to set time lim­its on their chil­dren’s de­vices or re­strict use of cer­tain apps.

9 Keep screens out of the bed­rooms

It is not just chil­dren who need screen-free nights, says Grif­fin. Sci­en­tific re­search sug­gests we would all get a bet­ter night’s sleep with tele­vi­sions, lap­tops, tablets and mo­bile phones out of sight and out of earshot – an im­proved love life too, per­haps.

10 Let chil­dren choose a chore

Does get­ting them to do jobs around the house re­quire a lot of nag­ging? In­stead of al­lo­cat­ing tasks in the ef­fort to give them a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity rather than en­ti­tle­ment, why not ask them to pick some­thing?

It has worked for our fea­tured fam­ily here, the O’Con­nors of Cork, where the el­dest boy vol­un­teered to get his lit­tle brother dressed ev­ery morn­ing. It’s not some­thing his mother Caro­line would have thought of ask­ing him to do but it helps her and he en­joys it.

11 Adopt the 15-minute rule

Make sure you spend at least 15 min­utes ev­ery day play­ing with your child, says Joanna For­tune. This should be a dis­trac­tion-free, un­in­ter­rupted 15 min­utes. Play is the lan­guage of chil­dren, help­ing them make sense of the world, and don’t worry if you don’t con­sider your­self “good” at play­ing – chil­dren are the ex­pert, let them show you.

12 De­brief at the end of the day

Ev­ery day, ask each mem­ber of the fam­ily to share their “best bit of the day” along with “the bit they wish they could change”.

This, says For­tune, “shows even the youngest fam­ily mem­bers that every­one has highs and lows. It al­lows parents to hear at least two bits of in­for­ma­tion about their child’s day and en­cour­ages so­lu­tion-fo­cused think­ing and pro­cess­ing of dif­fi­cult ex­pe­ri­ences daily with­out them build­ing up.”


Keep week­ends calm

Parents who work out­side the home of­ten try to over­com­pen­sate by pack­ing the week­end with highly stim­u­lat­ing ac­tiv­i­ties for their chil­dren.

For­tune, how­ever, urges parents to re­mem­ber that, some­times, sit­ting next to you do­ing ab­so­lutely noth­ing means ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing to your child. “Keep it sim­ple, go for a walk to­gether, make a snack to­gether and then pull the du­vets from the bed and curl up on sofa to­gether watch­ing a movie, make Play-Doh, read a book to­gether, sing, dance, laugh and just be.”

14 Do some­thing kind ev­ery week

It is re­ally im­por­tant to work on chil­dren’s de­clin­ing em­pa­thy lev­els, which For­tune at­tributes to the im­pact of screens and so­cial me­dia, by en­cour­ag­ing them to think about oth­ers.

You could grad­u­ally build up a care pack­age and then let your child give it to some­one who is sleep­ing on the streets; let them see you buy a cup of tea and a sand­wich for some­one home­less; be­friend el­derly peo­ple in the com­mu­nity; en­cour­age your child to do­nate toys to good causes.

“Build­ing em­pa­thy is the great­est gift any of us can give our chil­dren in to­day’s so­ci­ety,” she adds.

15 Set­tle for ‘good enough’

Re­lax – no fam­ily is per­fect. Re­mem­ber that as a par­ent you’re hu­man, not a ro­bot, says Charles. Get­ting it right most of the time is the best we can as­pire to.

The se­cret to long-term suc­cess is lit­tle changes – and, more im­por­tantly, start­ing as you want to go on when chil­dren are still very, very small


Nu­tri­tion­ist Caro­line O’Con­nor in Pas­sage West, Cork, with her hus­band, John, and their chil­dren Finn (3), Ai­dan (7), De­clan (9) and Alice (1).

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