How are our kids spending their days? Soccer practice, violin lessons, SAT tutoring—not to mention school and homework. Plus, they're somehow finding nine hours a day to tap away on their devices. By scheduling and structuring our kids' lives and allowing them massive amounts of screen time to "decompress" after all the structured activities, we teach them that filling their days and their minds with information and distraction is more valuable than connecting with themselves and with others.
Left unchecked, that absence of connection could result in anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation and lack of self-worth—which in turn could lead to self-destructive behaviors like substance abuse and eating disorders. Kids self-medicate to ease the pain of disconnection, or parents medicate them to alleviate the visible symptoms.
So how do we head off this vicious cycle? Creating meaningful connection with our kids is one of the most powerful factors in supporting their mental and physical health. And doing so might be easier than you think because a little goes a long way.
Here are seven ways to integrate mindful moments into everyday family life.
1. Turn off the car radio when you're driving the kids home from school.
Have them turn off their phones, too, if they have them. Then see what fills the space. It might be an unexpected conversation about what happened during the day or a joke-telling session, even a good cry if your child is going through a rough patch.
Or you might drive home in companionable silence, which has its own benefits: A 2006 study found that two minutes of silence was more relaxing than listening to supposedly relaxing music, based on changes in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.
2. Eat dinner together as a family a few times a week.
Rachel Fortune, M.D., a pediatrician and medical director at Newport Academy’s Connecticut campus, says that eating even two or three family dinners during the week has a powerful positive impact as far as keeping lines of communication open with kids. Studies suggest that eating dinner together regularly results in better health and improved resilience for kids, stronger relationships between parents and children, and lower rates of depression and high-risk teenage behaviors.
3. Share "rose and thorn" moments at the dinner table or before bed.
If "How was your day?" doesn't do the trick, try this playful approach to get your kids talking: The rose is the best moment of that day; the thorn is the most challenging. (You can also add a "feather" for the most surprising moment of the day.)
Make sure that everyone shares, not just the kids. Hearing your thoughts and experiences—within appropriate boundaries—helps your children see you as people, not just parents, Dr. Fortune says.
4. Leave an entire weekend unscheduled.
Revolutionary, right? Make a conscious decision to leave your calendar open and then act on whatever comes up spontaneously, whether it's bowling, baking, or just lying on the lawn with books. Or let each member of the family choose one activity that you'll all do together. (Be vigilant about not allowing the weekend to turn into an opportunity for overdoing screen time.)
5. Breathe together.
Yoga teacher Jillian Pransky, who specializes in restorative yoga for deep relaxation, has a ritual she performs with her husband and teenage son before meals: They take three long, deep breaths together. In just a few seconds, Pransky says, they get centered, realign with each other, and collectively induce the nervous system's relaxation response, creating greater calm and clarity.
6. Get outside as a family.
Research is providing increasing evidence of the mental and physical benefits of time spent in nature. Being outdoors (particularly in the woods) exposes us to naturally occurring chemicals called phytoncides, which have been shown to reduce blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol, and improve immune function. One study noted that extended time in nature, away from social media and email, enhanced creativity and problem-solving ability by 50 percent.
All these benefits are conducive to improved self-esteem and self-connection—which naturally lead to better relationships.
7. Take a yoga class together, or invest in a private session for the family at home.
Moving in sync together and practicing staying in the present moment activate what are known as mirror neurons—the neurons in the brain that fire in reaction to others' experience, providing a neuro-scientific understanding of empathy. "Yoga and mindfulness practice foster greater connection because of their focus on cultivating attention," says Angela Wilson, a yoga teacher and researcher. "By training the mind to stay focused on what's happening in the moment—whether it's your internal experience or another person's experience—we build our capacity for empathy."