Grab the Good: Five habits of happy families

Let’s face it, when it comes to difficult jobs, parenting is as hard as it gets.  It can be lonely, isolating and frustrating, while filled to the brim with love, laughter and blessings every day.  Refresh your parenting skills by implementing these happy family habits right now.


According to clinical psychologist Pamela Dockstader-Ortiz, undistracted communication is a top strategy of happy families. 

“We can start by practicing better self-awareness in the moment so that we can be truly present when interacting with our family,” Dockstader-Ortiz says. “This will convey to the other person that you are giving them 100 percent of your attention, that you are genuinely interested, and that they matter!”  

She also recommends keeping a family notebook, where each member uses a different color pen, to keep communication lines open during the busiest of schedules.


I treasure the traditions my husband and I have established at home, and Dockstader-Ortiz agrees. 

“Traditions are important because they offer a sense of identity, belonging and togetherness…. and are unique in each family.”

She adds that traditions need not be elaborate or complicated – eating a regular family meal counts as a tradition as well. Find small ways, like holiday baking or family walks, to create distinctive traditions for your family to cherish for years to come.


Boundaries define personal limits and promote self-reliance in children. 

“One of our goals as parents is to help our children to differentiate, and become autonomous and separate individuals,” says Dockstader-Ortiz. “We can do this by promoting and supporting their individual thoughts and ideas, and likes and dislikes.” 

Supporting kids in this way and celebrating their uniqueness fosters kids’ self-esteem.   


In our home, learning and demonstrating respectful behavior is a family rule, but like most, it occasionally gets broken. Life comes into play and we lose our focus, but we shouldn’t, because respectful behavior is a cornerstone of happy family interactions.

“Each moment and situation in our day to day life offers opportunity to guide and teach our children life lessons about values, beliefs, as well as right from wrong,” says Dockstader-Ortiz. “We have the ability to model pro-social behavior for our children to learn — leading by example begins at home — and the earlier the better!”  


Happy families understand that playtime is integral in family happiness. 

“Playtime with our children is so important because there is a time to be a parent and then a time to level the playing ground, so to speak, by relating to our children and nurturing the relationship on a whole different level,” says Dockstader-Ortiz. 

She advises keeping family fun free of expectations, criticisms and judgments in order to foster independent thinking, imagination and creativity.

Molly Logan Anderson is a writer, wife and mom of three who lives in the Chicago suburbs.  Intent on finding good in every day through her blog and website, she hopes to help others do the same.  From good family, to good advice, to good causes and good style, Molly is writing about it.

Ron Reflects: I know this is the time when families start getting ready for school again. Is this a time of rejoicing for mom and dad or did the summer go too quickly? Share by clicking the reply button.

Think Ahead and Avoid a Meltdown

Clearly, that wasn’t what he wanted to hear. The mother muttered fiercely, “Get up off the floor!” When that didn’t produce a positive response, she turned to coaxing: “Please be a good little boy for Mommy.”

Next came the bribery attempt: “If you mind now, I’ll buy you that video you’ve been wanting.”

Out of desperation came the threats: “Get up now or you can forget about TV and treats for the rest of the week! I’m counting to three, and you’d better be up before that!”

The little boy holle-red, and the mother seemed to stall as if predicting an even more embarrassing tantrum to come. A pregnant silence blanketed the aisle, and then the mother gave in and handed the boy a candy bar.

Parents often find it difficult to follow through and implement disciplinary techniques.

Typically, parents cave in on rules and don’t follow through with consequences. Unfortunately, children quickly learn that acting out can often earn them what they want. That’s not the only problem that arises when parents are too permissive. Failure to follow through with consequences robs children of the opportunity to develop resiliency and the self-confidence to solve problems and handle disappointment.

So what’s a parent to do?

Start with recognizing attention-seeking behavior. We identify those actions by making ourselves aware that when we feel annoyed, our child is displaying attention-seeking behavior.

Children crave attention, so making a big deal out of minor misbehavior will only reinforce that it’s an effective way to get your attention. If parents ignore such behavior, the children soon realize this isn’t going to get the attention they seek, and the behavior will fade away in time.

Begin thinking ahead about your child’s needs by maintaining a child-friendly environment. If you plan to do the weekly shopping — something that is ground zero for misbehavior — prepare some activities that will occupy your child during this outing. Small children can identify the fruits in the produce section by describing the color, shape and size of each object. Older children can help locate items on the shopping list.

Some quality time spent organizing some distractions can turn a high-tension task into a bearable outing for an antsy child — and, in turn, prevent the need for discipline on the parent’s part.

Utilizing choices with children offers them some control over small decisions and will help even a younger child feel that his desires are being taken into account. For example: “Do you want bananas or apples?” “Would you like to check out two books or three?” This approach validates the child’s feelings and will often prevent his need to whine or act out to be heard. Choices are also invaluable in teaching children about making good decisions.

If your 6-year-old insists on wearing a sweatshirt in 98-degree weather, he’ll probably make a different decision next time, and the parents will have the burden of enforcing discipline taken off their shoulders.

Children under the age of 4 are easy to distract when you take their focus off the heated subject at hand. For instance, your toddler refuses to get into the stroller. As a parent you can argue the issue, but how about belting out a few lyrics to “Itsy Bitsy Spider” instead?

Your preschool-aged twins are fighting over a toy. You could just take the toy away from them, but what about giving them some Play-Doh instead? It may seem simple, but for young children, distracting them is better than scolding anytime.

Parents can take control of their children’s environment by setting some rules to ensure that before misbehavior happens and discipline is needed, they have some well-thought-out guidelines to follow.

Step One: Be realistic.

 Parents must first recognize what their child is developmentally capable of understanding before expectations can be established.  For instance, 3-year-olds lack the maturity and the social experience to share well with other children. As a parent, if you insist on sharing regularly, your child will likely rebel, and you will find yourself fighting for cooperation.

Step Two: Know yourself.

 Know your limits. Only set rules that you’re willing to be inflexible on, like no hitting. As parents, we may dream of a world where our children pick up after themselves every day — but if you know you’ll give in when they push back, scrap picking up after themselves as mandatory or amend the rule in such a way that you can manage it. For instance, you might say that picking up after themselves must happen, but you’ll help as needed.

Step Three: Make it official

  Establish a regular family meeting that includes all family members. Use it as an opportunity to establish house rules that everyone can agree upon. Allow everyone — including children — to participate in the procedure.  By allowing children to offer up ideas and help with designing the list and selecting the place to post it, parents are validating their children’s place in the family.

Children who take part in this process are more likely to follow the agreed-upon rules. If they break a rule, parents can direct them back to the agreement they helped create.  

There is no manual to refer to when our children are born. We simply must rely on what we were taught, but we also must be willing to learn as we go. If we, the parents, flounder when our children have a major meltdown, the behavior will continue; but if we plan ahead, we put the odds for good behavior in our favor by being prepared and keeping the environment child-friendly.

Debbie A. Heaton is an author, parent educator, and a master’s level therapist currently employed with The Parent Connection, a member of Arizona’s Children Association Family of Agencies. The Parent Connection utilizes the Adlerian approach to parenting.

What to Do When Co-Parenting Doesn’t Work

In a good-enough divorce, exes work through feelings of anger, betrayal and loss and arrive at a place of acceptance. Frustrations over the other parent’s values and choices are contained and pushed aside, making space for the Holy Grail of post-divorce life: effective co-parenting.

Co-parenting is possible only when both exes support their children’s need to have a relationship with the other parent and respect that parent’s right to have a healthy relationship with the children.

But some people never get to acceptance. They become, essentially, addicted to anger. They convince themselves that the other parent is incompetent, mentally ill, or dangerous. They transmit this conviction directly or indirectly not only to the children, but also to school staff, mental health professionals and anyone who will listen.

High-conflict exes are on a mission to invalidate the other parent. No therapist, mediator, parenting class, or Gandhi-esque channeling will make an anger-addicted ex take off the gloves and agree to co-parent.

If this scenario feels familiar, and you are wondering how you’re going to survive raising kids with your high-conflict ex without losing every last one of your marbles, I offer you this counterintuitive suggestion: Stop trying to co-parent!

Try Parallel Parenting instead.

What is Parallel Parenting?

Parallel Parenting is radical acceptance. It means letting go of fighting reality. Divorce is terrible enough, but to have a divorce that is so hellish as to make co-parenting impossible is another kind of terrible altogether.

It’s helpful to conceptualize Parallel Parenting as an approach many Alcoholics Anonymous folks use when dealing with the addict in their lives: they stop going to the hardware store looking for milk. Why are you trying to have a reasonable conversation with someone who isn’t reasonable, at least with you? Stop expecting reciprocity or enlightenment. Stop needing the other person to see you as right. You are not ever going to get these things from your anger-addicted ex, and you can make yourself sick trying.

How to Practice Parallel Parenting

You tried to co-parent so your kids would see their parents get along, and to make them feel safe. That didn’t work. Now you need to limit contact with your ex to reduce the conflict in order to make your kids feel safe – and to keep yourself from going nuts. So how do you do this?

1. Communicate as little as possible
Stop talking on the phone. When speaking with a hostile ex, you will likely be drawn into an argument and nothing will get resolved. Limit communication to texting and e-mail. This way you can choose what to respond to and you will be able to delete knee-jerk retorts that you would make if you were on the phone.

2. Make Rules for Communication
Hostile exes tend to ignore boundaries. So you will have to be very clear about the terms for communication. E-mail or texting should be used only for logistics: travel plans, a proposed weekend swap, doctor appointments. If your ex tends uses e-mails to harass you, tell him you will not respond, and if the abuse continues, you will stop e-mailing altogether.

3. Do Not Respond to Threats of Lawsuits
Hostile exes frequently threaten to modify child support or custody arrangements. Do not respond! Tell your ex that any discussion of litigation must go through your attorney. This will require money on your ex’s part: phone calls between attorneys, disclosing financial statements, etc. It is quite possible that your ex does not really intend to put her money where her mouth is, so don’t take the bait.

4. Avoid being together at child-related functions
It’s great for your kids to see the two of you together – but only if they see you getting along. So attend events separately as much as possible. Schedule separate parent-teacher conferences. Trade off hosting birthday parties. Do curbside drop-offs so your child doesn’t have to feel the tension between you and your ex.

5. Be proactive with school staff and mental health professionals
School staff and therapists may have heard things about you that aren’t true – for instance, that you are out of the picture or mentally ill. So be proactive. Fax your custody order to these individuals so they understand the custody arrangement. Even if you are a non-custodial parent, you are still entitled to information regarding your child’s academic performance or mental health treatment and the school and therapists want you to be involved. Talk to school staff and therapists as soon as possible. Do not be defensive, but explain the situation. When they see you, they will realize that you are a reasonable person who is trying to do the right thing for your child.

6. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Parallel Parenting requires letting go of what happens in the other parent’s home. Although it may drive you crazy that your ex lets 6-year-old Lucy stay up until midnight, there is really not much you can do about it. Nor can you control your ex’s selection of babysitters, children’s clothing or how much TV time is allowed.

Your child will learn to adapt to different rules and expectations at each house. If Sienna complains about something that goes on at Dad’s, instruct her to speak to him directly. Trying to solve a problem between your ex and your child will only inflame the conflict and teach her to pit the two of you against each other. You want to empower your child, not teach her that she needs to be rescued.

Parallel Parenting is a last resort, to be implemented when attempts at co-parenting have failed. But that doesn’t mean you have failed as a divorced parent. In fact, the opposite is true. By reducing conflict, Parallel Parenting will enhance the quality of your life and most importantly, take your child out of the middle.

And isn’t that what a good-enough divorce is all about?