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De-Stressing Family Life

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Jordi Labanda

When we think of scientific research, we generally think of big issues: curing cancer, using DNA to convict criminals, saving animals from extinction. We don't necessarily think of the day-to-day lives of American families as fodder for study. But, in fact, researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles are devoting the next couple of years to filming and documenting the everyday routines of 30 middle-class, dual-income families living in and around Los Angeles.

"We're there in the morning when they get up and parents are shepherding children out the door," says UCLA anthropology and applied linguistics professor Elinor Ochs, Ph.D., the team's leader. "In the afternoons we follow parents as they go to the grocery store, pick up the kids from school, and shuttle them here and there to activities. We also capture their evening routines -- getting dinner on the table, paying bills, monitoring homework, doing the laundry, and getting kids ready for bed."

In one unusual aspect of the study, the researchers collected saliva samples from the participants at different times of day. The samples were tested for levels of cortisol, a chemical indicator of human stress levels. The team was then able to determine how work and school tensions affect family life and which hours tend to be most stressful for parents and children.

As the UCLA scientists buckled down for this landmark study, Child decided to undertake some family-stress research of its own. We asked families across the country: What is your toughest time of day? Parents had no trouble responding. The two times most often cited were first thing in the morning -- when everybody has to be roused, dressed, and out -- and that awkward time after school and work, just before dinner.

Unlike the UCLA researchers, we set out to provide practical solutions. We sent in experts to observe households in action and make recommendations. In the interests of science, my family and I volunteered to be the first of three to go under the microscope. The result: important lessons for all families.

Beth Weinhouse and David Galef of Oxford, MS, and their son, Daniel, 6

The scene: On a typical morning, the alarm goes off at 7 a.m. and my husband, David -- an English professor -- and I stare blearily at each other to decide who'll be the one to wake up our son. Daniel is not a morning person -- far from it. We've tried putting an alarm clock next to his bed, making him laugh with waking-up spells á la Harry Potter ("Leviosa!"), and even just plunking him down at the breakfast table, all to no avail.

Daniel dawdles over breakfast and would much rather chat than chew. David and I spend the next 45 minutes pleading with him to finish his breakfast, put on his clothes, and brush his teeth. We barely make it out the door on time.

The expert: Anne Strand, a psychotherapist and teacher in Oxford. Strand is a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy in Alexandria, VA, a diplomate in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors in Fairfax, VA, and a certified Imago Relationship Therapist.

What happened: Strand had arranged to be at our house at 6:45 a.m., 15 minutes before we wake Daniel. She would watch the entire pathetic routine and then give us her suggestions. Of course, Daniel chose that morning to wake up on his own at 6:30 a.m. But even given that change of events, the flaws in our habits became increasingly apparent.

In the middle of eating breakfast, Daniel decided it would be interesting to see if he could drink milk with his mouth closed and somehow absorb the liquid through the skin of his upper lip. In spite of the impressive milk mustache he developed, he wouldn't concede that any milk getting into his mouth was getting there through a small opening he'd left between his lips. I started to argue with him, then turned to analogy: "What if we filled your bathtub with milk and you climbed in? If you could absorb liquid through your skin, you'd be as big as a beach ball."

That subject of discussion was followed by another and another until finally -- after looking at the clock for the umpteenth time -- David and I refused to talk with him anymore unless he finished his breakfast and got ready for school. Naturally, by the time that was done there was no time left for more conversation and Daniel departed for school annoyed.

The analysis: Strand told me she approved of how I'd avoided a circular argument with Daniel -- an endless repetition of "Yes, you cans" and "No, you can'ts" -- and convinced him with an analogy. Not bad for 7 in the morning! But my gloating was short-lived because this exchange pointed to one of our biggest morning problems. "You all talk a lot," she said bluntly. And she pointed out that in all our talk, instructions tend to get lost.

The therapist noted it was important to make sure we have Daniel's full attention before giving instructions. "Make face-to-face contact and look directly into his eyes," she said, adding that we could even put a hand on his shoulder while speaking. That would help him to focus better on what was being said.

In addition, Strand suggested that even though we obviously all enjoy talking with each other, we should save it for times when we're not so rushed. "If he's eating breakfast quietly, don't distract him with conversation," she advised. She also said that it may help for David and me to take turns being in charge. That way, there's one less person talking and less chance of Daniel's getting conflicting instructions.

As for rousing Daniel out of bed, Strand respected our son's biorhythms and didn't try to convince us that an earlier bedtime would be the solution. Instead, she said that maybe he would wake up better to light than sound. She suggested trying an alarm clock that uses flashing or gradually brightening light. Or failing that, we could simply leave his window shades up and see if the natural light helped him awaken better.

Two months later: Raising Daniel's window shades has made a world of difference. Most mornings now he gets up on his own. When mornings turn dark again in the winter, we'll consider buying a special alarm clock. David and I have also started dividing responsibilities in the morning, which helps. We take turns getting up with Daniel, letting the other sleep a bit more. Daniel is still a slow eater and still chatty in the morning, but with just one of us there to talk to him and issue instructions, things definitely go more smoothly.

Lisa and Dave Blitt of New Providence, NJ, and their children, Alex, 7, Rebecca, 5, and Jeffrey, 2

Lisa admits the "meltdown before dinner" is her toughest challenge of the day, especially when the weather isn't good enough for the older kids to be outside. During the hour or so before the meal, she's trying to keep all three of her children entertained and also get dinner on the table by the time her husband, Dave, who works in industrial real estate, comes home. "They can't all play together because Jeffrey is too little," she says. "And the two oldest ones sometimes fight. I really hate to put them in front of a video, but I'll do it when I have to."

The expert: Patricia B. Dobrydnio, a family therapist in private practice in Summit, NJ, and a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

What happened: Jeffrey was so interested in Dobrydnio that he forgot what he was upset about. Soon afterward, Dave came home from work. He spread out his paperwork on the dining room table and announced that he had to prepare for an upcoming conference and needed to concentrate. The kids wandered in and out of the dining room, while Lisa and Dave kept reminding them that "Daddy needs to work."

Dave's arrival did have the effect of drawing Alex out of his room. He asked several times if he could watch TV. When Lisa said no, he asked if he could play with his Game Boy. After making sure he hadn't been playing with it upstairs, she acquiesced. Rebecca continued to quietly work on a kindergarten project.

Jeffrey, on the other hand, needed attention. He had spent the day with his maternal grandmother and was more clingy than usual. Lisa took lots of opportunities to pick him up and give him hugs. She also let Jeffrey "help" with dinner, asking him to open a bag of snow peas. "There were peas all over the floor, but that's how a 2-year-old opens a package of vegetables," says Dobrydnio.

The analysis: The therapist took a sanguine view of the hectic atmosphere. "Sure it was chaotic, but any home with three kids is going to be when the mother is busy making dinner," she says. Dobrydnio also approved of the way Lisa dealt with Alex's anger: "What she did was appropriate. Sometimes kids need space to work things out on their own."

Nevertheless, Dobrydnio had some concrete tips for the Blitts. First, she suggested that when Dave brings work home, he do it away from the rest of the family. "I recognize that he probably wanted to be around everyone after being at work all day," she says. "But it was distracting for him and the kids."

Even though the children got along when Dobrydnio was there, she realized that isn't always the case. So she recommended that when the kids are squabbling, Lisa send them each to a separate location with age-appropriate activities. "It's good that she doesn't usually allow TV at that time of day," Dobrydnio says. "It would be difficult to find a show to keep all the kids interested." If the 2-year-old was enjoying something, the 5- and 7-year-olds would be bored. But if the older children were watching something they liked, it would probably go over the head of the toddler, who might get frustrated and have a tantrum.

Finally, Dobrydnio proposed that if her presence made such a dramatic difference in the afternoon dynamics, perhaps the Blitts should consider hiring a local teenager occasionally to play with the children while Lisa cooks dinner. It would be especially helpful for those evenings when Dave has to bring work home and can't help distract the kids.

Two months later: Lisa and Dave have incorporated some of the therapist's strategies and report that they seem to be working. For one thing, Dave no longer brings his work home. Now he stays at the office until he's finished and comes home a little later, when he's able to devote his full attention to his family. "On those evenings," says Lisa, "I give the kids an early dinner. Then I make a nice meal for us later, after the kids have eaten and everyone is calm. We don't have family togetherness on those nights, but I don't think that's so bad once in a while."

Lisa hasn't hired any babysitters. But she has been inviting more company for dinner and says that having other people in the house helps keep the children in line. "We do sometimes get a meltdown before bedtime," she says, "but it's shorter. And we've had a great time with our guests."

Kathleen McDonough and Michael DuBois of San Anselmo, CA, and their children, Keenan, 8, and Lucas, 5

The scene: "What makes most mornings so awful is that Michael, who's a wine broker, and I both have our own businesses, so we're checking our voice mail and e-mail, filling our briefcases and gym bags, plus trying to feed the children and get them organized for the day," says Kathleen, a physical therapist.

Michael and Kathleen try to give their kids a lot of warning about what has to be done, including posting job lists. But these tactics aren't working. Even though Keenan is in third grade, he's still not great about being responsible for his own stuff. "If I don't remind him, he'll do something like forget a library book that's due," says Kathleen. "I hate to feel like I'm repeating the same instructions all the time. But even when I do, it still seems as if they're surprised by what I'm saying."

The expert: John H. Frykman, Ph.D., a San Francisco-based marriage and family therapist and author of Making the Impossible Difficult: Tools for Getting Unstuck. He is a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

What happened: "Knowing that someone was going to be here made me get my act together more than usual," Kathleen admits. "I had my briefcase and gym bag all packed. And the boys didn't gang up on me, both refusing to do something."

Even so, there were glitches. Lucas declared he didn't want to go to Creekside, his before- and after-school program, but he wouldn't say why. When he refused to put on his clothes, Kathleen said, "If you don't get dressed, I'll breathe my morning breath on you!" Then the boys started running around the house, and their parents had a tough time getting them to stop.

The analysis: "Kathleen and Michael are very creative and good with their language skills," says Dr. Frykman. "I loved the way Kathleen told Lucas she'd breathe on him to make him get dressed! But I picked up on a few things they could do better. They're small things, but they're important."

One way to break the kids' foot-dragging habit is to give the illusion of choice, advised Dr. Frykman. Instead of telling them to do something, give them a decision to make. Rather than saying, "I told you to put your clothes on," try: "Do you want to get dressed now and then finish eating or sit at the table for a few more minutes, then get dressed?" That way, the outcome isn't in doubt, but it seems as if the kids have some power.

Dr. Frykman also suggested that Kathleen and Michael try to respond to their kids' good behavior and not just to problems. When Keenan does his chores without being told, for example, they can say, "It makes me feel good when I see you doing this."

Finally, the therapist observed that Kathleen and Michael make a common mistake among parents -- they ask their kids "why" questions a lot ("Why don't you want to go to Creekside?"). The problem, according to Dr. Frykman, is that "why" questions aren't really perceived as questions but accusations. And that has the effect of making the person who's being asked the question feel defensive. Relying on "why" questions can also lead to stalling because the child may feel there's something wrong with him and not want to respond. Over time, it can lead to low self-esteem. His suggestion: Instead of asking a question, make a comment ("That's interesting that you don't want to go to Creekside"). And then see what the response is.

Two months later: Both parents are intrigued by Dr. Frykman's tips for changing their language, but they haven't tried them out yet. Michael now gets up earlier and leaves for work just as the rest of the family is rising. He also tries to make the kids' breakfast before he goes to work. "My new routine makes it easier for me and Kathleen," he says. "If I stay, I'm in the other room trying to crank out phone calls or e-mails and then I end up becoming part of the distraction and whole hubbub." For her part, Kathleen now makes sure to pack her gym bag and briefcase the night before. Lesson learned: Small changes can make all the difference.

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Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the October 2003 issue of Child magazine.