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Health & Parenting

7 Secrets of Low-Stress Families

What did researchers see when they spied on every living, breathing moment of 32 families for four days straight?
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WebMD Feature from "Redbook" Magazine

By Nicole Yorio

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It was the first experiment of its kind: Thirty-two California families opened their doors (their front doors, bedroom doors, even bathroom doors) to researchers from UCLA who wanted to find out how they manage the demands of work and family life. With a three-person crew, researchers occupied families' homes for four days from morning until bedtime, recording every minute spent folding laundry, every homework panic, every dinner table dispute about the yuckiness of vegetables. The researchers conducted interviews with each of the family members and measured their stress levels throughout the day. The families were studied between 2002 and 2005; each had two working parents, two or more children, and a mortgage — a profile that looks like many American households. "When I observed these families, I felt like I was looking in at my own life," says lead researcher Tami Kremer-Sadlik, Ph.D., director of research at UCLA's Center on the Everyday Lives of Families. "I'm a working mom with two children, and I could identify with the women we studied who reported feeling pressed for time and who were trying to balance work and family demands." But among those stressful moments, researchers also saw the key instances of warmth and love that make great families. And as Kremer-Sadlik and other female researchers who had their own families found out, getting a glimpse into the lives of other families gives us a unique perspective on how to better take care of our own. Use what they learned to calm stress and create joy in your house.

1. Low-stress couples don’t divvy up the chores.
For one part of the project, Kremer-Sadlik and a colleague studied how couples’ division of housework was connected to their marital satisfaction. "Surprisingly, it didn’t matter how evenly couples split up the chores," Kremer-Sadlik says. "We found that both spouses were happier when both felt like they were working toward the same goal, regardless of who did more" (and women did more across the board). "The women in happy marriages told us that their spouses seemed to have an understanding of what needed to be done. We observed their husbands setting the table while their wife was cooking, or straightening up without being told what to do." Sound too good to be true? Know that just talking about your joint mission for the family can eliminate much of the "keeping score" conflict. "The happy couples often discussed their shared goals for their family," she says. "There was more of a we-ness there — and that spilled over into chores. Their attitude was more, ‘We do for our family,’ not, ‘I do this for you.’" But with two working parents’ and children’s schedules to coordinate, researcher Darby Saxbe, Ph.D., a 33-year-old mom from Los Angeles, observed many couples communicating only about who needed to do what. "It felt like they were running a business!" Saxbe says. "Squeezing in little moments of fun with your partner — whether you steal a quick kiss or exchange a joke — makes a difference." And researchers noticed that in some homes where the wives expressed more appreciation, the husbands also took on more household tasks.

2. Low-stress families find small moments of togetherness.
Every mom fantasizes about taking the perfect family vacation or spending a blissed-out day with her husband and kids. But real-life bonding time is made up of much smaller events. "I think a lot of us have this idea that we need to create big moments of togetherness, but we saw so many times that families had opportunities to connect throughout the day that they weren’t aware of," Kremer-Sadlik says. Those small moments might be the 10 minutes you spend braiding your daughter’s hair or your time spent cheering on your son at his Little League game. "I remember one moment when a daughter and mom were folding laundry, and the daughter stuck her foot in a sock and challenged her mom to find her foot among the pile of laundry," she recalls. "It was a loving moment of laughing and playing around in the midst of daily life."

Belinda Campos, Ph.D., whose focus in the study was family relationships, noticed the same thing. "There’s this cultural ideal of wanting to carve out quality time," says the 36-year-old from Irvine, CA. "But many families overlooked the daily stuff that keeps you connected." One example was the way families reacted when dads came home from work. "There were two types of behaviors among the families: those where the wives and children greeted the dad with a warm hello, and those where the children never got up from their video games and the wives greeted Dad with logistics like, ‘Did you pick up the chicken for dinner?’" Campos says. "But those seconds after Dad walked in the door may have shaped his mood for the night. It’s such a small thing; that’s the moment to acknowledge that a person is coming into a place where he matters."

3. Low-stress parents are role models — not pals.
Treating your partner with respect is not only good for your marriage — it also actually affects the whole family dynamic. "When spouses showed patience and support, as opposed to being impatient, sarcastic, or critical, their children were more respectful toward them, and the smoother the households ran," Kremer-Sadlik says of her findings from a previous study. "Their mini goals throughout the day, such as getting dinner on the table or finishing homework, ran more smoothly and more pleasantly." The same was true for parents who set the rules for the kids, as opposed to those who let their children help make the decisions. "When parents delegated chores to their children, rather than asking them which chores they wanted to do, there were fewer tantrums and arguments," Campos says. "There was still affection and humor in homes where parents were the bosses, but there was never a question of who was in charge."

4. Low-stress moms make dinner from scratch.
Believe it or not, using processed convenience foods for dinner doesn’t actually save you cooking time. That’s what really surprised 39-year-old mom and researcher Margaret Beck, whose focus for the study was food preparation. "All the families spent roughly one hour preparing dinner, whether they used processed foods or fresh ingredients," she says. The moms who prepared more convenience foods tended to overcompensate by having more courses — either side dishes or separate meals for the kids — which wasted time. And if you want your children to eat what’s on the table: "The kids who assisted in the food preparation always ate what was served," Beck says. "And the mood in the house was lighter and happier when the kids spend cooking time in the kitchen." Talk about a win-win!

5. Low-stress moms take five minutes of me time.
There’s a secret to being fully present and enjoying family life after a demanding day at work: "The findings suggested that when women unwound alone for 5 or 10 minutes, it set a positive tone for the rest of the night," says researcher Shu-wen Wang, a 28-year-old mom from Los Angeles who helped review more than 1,540 hours of footage. "Moms reported unwinding by exercising, gardening, or having a candy bar — not that I recommend that last approach! I always felt selfish taking time for me, especially after working all day, but this study proved to me how healthy it is for moms and their families."

6. Low-stress families watch TV together.
If you feel guilty every time your family plops in front a television after a long day rather than doing something more interactive, don’t sweat it. "Families who watched TV together showed many bonding behaviors," Campos says. "Bonding can be sharing snacks, high-fiving each other if the Lakers score a basket, or guessing trivia questions together during Jeopardy!" Even sitcoms can bring you closer. "When families laugh together during a TV show, that’s a shared moment they have in common, and it creates a memory," she says. So on days where you just can’t muster the energy to recruit the kids for crazy 8’s or kickball in the yard, know that a little TV time can be good for your family too.

7. Low-stress families embrace daily rituals.
"I used to believe that spontaneity and excitement were what kept couples connected, but it’s truly the routine and continuity that set the foundation for making family relationships thrive," Wang says. "Whether it was a couple sitting down at the end of the day with a cup of coffee or parents reading a bedtime story to their children, these little moments are what make family life so comforting and kept couples close." Sometimes, the mad-dash moments seem to define our days, but "it’s only when we find moments to slow down that we can fully appreciate those everyday moments that make a family," Saxbe says. "I remember watching a mom kissing her son and tucking him into bed. The son responded, ‘I want another kiss, Mommy!’ So the mom kissed him again. They repeated this five or six times — it was so sweet! Watching this made me appreciate how lucky I am to have a family I care about and how I how important it is to cherish these little moments of love when they come along."

Originally published on September 13, 2010

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