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Building Family Bonds: social wellness begins at home

A sense of belonging and connection is a basic human need – maybe even as much as food and shelter. There have been many studies about the benefits of social support, all showing that having a supportive network of family or close friends has been linked to better health, a stronger immune system, and more resistance to disease. Not surprisingly, the lack of social stability has been linked to a variety of physical and psychological illnesses. If you want to build a stronger bond within your own family in order to create a more supportive network, how do you start? Really, the best place to begin is by giving support and friendship, because when you give it, you also are very likely to receive it.

Think about the time you spend with your immediate family. Do you find that even when you are physically in the house together, you spend much of that time alone or isolated? You might all be in different rooms doing different things, or you might even be in the same room, but each person is doing his or her own thing like watching TV, playing video games, or surfing the internet. Interacting with your family members is what strengthens and enriches your bonds. Here are five ways to start building those bonds:

1. Meal times – This may be the only time during the day that your family can gather together, so make it count! Depending on how busy your family is, try to get together for dinner at least four or five nights per week. It’s important to get rid of distractions (no television, no phones), which makes it easier to carry on substantive conversations. Discuss what happened during the day, upcoming plans, and ongoing activities. Try to keep mealtime positive – there’s a time and place for resolving family issues, and keeping difficult topics off the table (so to speak) will ensure that everyone will look forward to this time to bond each day.

2. Busy times – Even when work and travel make it difficult to spend time together, you can always tend to your bond with family members by letting them know you’re thinking of them. Leave a note for your child and tell her something you love about her, send a text to your spouse telling him how much you miss him, and if you were away on a business trip, bring back a small souvenir to let your family know you were thinking of them even when you weren’t together. Physical presence is important, but you can always build your emotional bond even when you can’t be together.

3. Down times – Bedtime and playtime are particularly important between parents and their children. Reading a bedtime story is a great way to express your love for your kids, as well as an opportunity to instill the love of reading. Remember that your goal is to be interactive. Ask your kids questions about the story as you read it, and allow young children to point out pictures or ask questions. As they get older, they can read to you or you can both take turns reading. This is also another part of your day that can involve the whole family. Even if your kids don’t share a room, gathering the whole family on one bed can easily become the part of the day that every family member happily anticipates the most.

Depending on the age of your children, you might not get an opportunity for playtime every day. But you can schedule it in occasionally with older kids, and they’re probably more likely to be on board if you make it fun for them. Throw a ball with your aspiring baseball player, play Xbox with your gamer, or work on a crossword puzzle with your bookworm. Jigsaw puzzles and board games may not be as popular anymore, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try to entice them with some old school fun!

4. Family causes – We all know the importance of raising children who care about others. One way to teach them and also work on your family bond is by picking a social issue and creating a common focus for the family.

Talk to your kids and see what concerns or curiosities they might have. For instance, if your family wants to learn more about caring for the environment, you could set up a recycling station in your house where you can sort bottles, cans and paper. You could plant a tree in the yard together, go on a hike, or start a garden. Working together on a social issue can be educational and it could even spark new interests in your children.

5. Adventures – Family adventures can be big or small, but when you go on adventures together, you will strengthen your bond and also create lasting memories together. Talk to your family members about what their idea of an adventure is (and don’t forget to include your own!). You might get a surprising variety of results – from catching fireflies to traveling to another country!

A family adventure allows you to get to know more about what inspires each person, gives you lots of opportunities to research and plan together, and ultimately provides an experience that you all are likely to remember for a long time.

The above tips work for families of all different types. Your older kids might actually enjoy some extra attention, and your younger kids will appreciate being involved in family planning. Couples without children can still enjoy playtime (board games, video games) and create new traditions that are special just to them. The important thing is that you continue to find ways to enjoy one another’s company, thus reinforcing the support structure in your family.

What are your favorite ways to bond with family members? Do you have special activities that bring everyone together? Share them in the comments, so I can learn from you too!