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The family way
7:00am Saturday 24th November 2012 in NewsXtra
Family life doesn't always go according to plan. Agony aunt Suzie Hayman talks about her new book - Teach Yourself How To Have A Happy Family Life - which guides mums and dads through all manner of challenges, from establishing routines with babies and tots, to coping with teenage conflicts.
By Lisa Salmon
Happiness may be the greatest gift that we possess, but in the hectic whirl of modern family life, it's often a lost treasure.
Parents get so wrapped up in the trials and tribulations of bringing up kids, from the slog of sleepless nights with a newborn to the challenges of teenage conflict, that the pursuit of happiness can become a forgotten luxury.
But happiness should be at the core of family life, argues agony aunt Suzie Hayman, whose belief in the power of being happy appears to be shared by Prime Minister David Cameron, who created a national 'happiness index' which published its first results in July.
Hayman, a trustee of the parenting charity Family Lives, has written the book Teach Yourself How To Have A Happy Family Life in a bid to help get families back on the road to happiness.
She says that for many families who are just 'getting by', low-grade conflict or stress is seen as normal.
"But both are not just uncomfortable," she warns, "they are destructive and painful and ultimately extremely damaging."
Indeed, she points out that many of the ills in today's society, such as anti-social behaviour, vandalism and crime, stem from unhappy childhoods, and certainly a report by Unicef last year concluded that British children are among the least happy in the developed world, because of a lack of contact with their parents and too much emphasis on material gain.
Hayman hopes her book will help combat this unhappiness both by encouraging more family time together, and tackling the many flashpoints in family life, right from starting off as a new couple to living with grandparents, with a view to steering towards a happy ending.
She stresses that certain ground rules are needed in a happy family, such as routine, children doing chores, boundaries and rules, but points out that once they're in place "it's like having a safety belt and you're then free".
She adds: "It's not marching in step, it's using parenting skills that lead to people communicating and feeling they can talk to each other, having time together and prioritising the important aspects of family life."
She champions routines not just for obvious situations such as bedtimes and before school, but for when parents want kids to do as they've asked without it ending in conflict.
To avoid meal times rows, for example, she says before starting cooking a parent should make eye contact with their child, touch them and say their name rather than shouting from the other room. Then tell them when the food will be ready and ask them to repeat what has been said.
Check with them every five minutes with a countdown, repeating the eye contact, etc. When you say the meal's ready, descriptively praise them if they come straight away, telling them exactly why you're pleased with them.
If they don't come after you've given them a hug and said how hungry they must be, go and eat and ignore them, and don't be drawn into an argument. Be upbeat and calm, and Hayman says the chances are the child will join you - at which point, you still descriptively praise them.
"It feels clumsy and artificial and awkward at first," she warns.
"After a few repetitions and successes, you'll see how useful this way of doing things is."
Clearly, this isn't happy-clappy preaching, but down-to-earth, sensible advice that steers away from family conflict - although Hayman stresses that it all takes time and effort, and concedes that every so often parents will 'lose it', forget about being the parent they want to be and shout, snap and be impatient and unfair.
But she says this is unlikely to scar children for life, as long as the loss of control is a one-off and you're doing your best.
It's important to get the balance right between guiding children firmly and listening to their needs, wishes and opinions, she says, and the teaching and communication strategies needed are often - but definitely not always - the same whether the child's an infant or a teenager.
With teenagers she suggests regular family discussions to help deal with disagreements, shared family meals, and no electronic media in bedrooms.
She suggests 'idea storming', where parents and teenagers give themselves a time limit to write down their own solutions to a specific problem. After time's up, discuss the ideas without criticising them.
Hayman says "a gem of a solution" can often be found in this way, and it makes the whole family feel involved and much more likely to try to make the solution work.
"I get so many letters from parents asking about discipline and how to solve conflict, and I tell them that the premise they should be starting from is, 'How can we be happy?'
"I don't think that's a wishy-washy, trivial concept. If people are happy, so much flows from it - you're a more effective partner, parent and worker, your children behave better and do what you want them to."
She stresses that giving children what they ask for - be that chocolate, an iPad or a late night - doesn't make them happy, as often what they really want is their parents' attention and proof of love.
"I think the best present parents could give their children this Christmas is either just time, or a board game that they can all play together as a family."
She adds: "A happy family does have plenty of chaos and people running around screaming - with laughter.
"I know people have a lot on their plates because life is so busy, but if you make an effort to try to improve life, within days you'll find things are so much easier. Putting in that initial effort pays off in saved time, saved wear-and-tear, saved conflict and saved angst.
"You won't believe the difference - it's transformational."
:: Teach Yourself How To Have A Happy Family Life by Suzie Hayman is published by Hodder Education, priced £10.99. Available now.
Ask the expert
Q: "My 10-year-old son wants to cycle to school, about a mile away in a residential area, but I'm worried that it's too dangerous. Am I being too cautious?"
A: Julie Townsend, deputy chief executive of Brake, the road safety charity, says: "It's brilliant your child wants to cycle; it's fun, healthy, and environmentally friendly.
"But we understand your concerns about safety. Many communities are plagued by fast traffic, with few facilities for cyclists.
"To help you decide, work out if there's a safe route. Check out if there are off-road or separate cycle paths, or if not, very quiet streets with little traffic and low speeds.
"If he needs to cross busier roads or junctions, tell him to get off his bike and use pavements and crossings, and be confident he will.
"Try cycling the route yourself, and with him the first times, to make sure it's safe.
"If you decide the route is safe, ensure he wears reflective, high-visibility gear and a properly fitting, quality helmet. His bike should be well maintained, with lights for dull weather, although it's safest for him not to ride in the dark until he's older, with more experience.
"If the route to school isn't safe, you can still help your son start enjoying cycling and building experience. Cycling training is great for helping kids understand how to keep as safe as possible - ask the school or council about it. You could also offer to take him for bike rides on local off-road routes or on holiday: a great way to enjoy cycling together.
"Finally, if your neighbourhood isn't blessed with safe routes and low speeds, start a campaign with other parents and your son's school."
:: Road Safety Week is November 19-25. For advice on campaigning for 20mph limits and other measures for safe walking and cycling, visit www.go20.org (from November 19).
Warm and dry
Splash About Apres Splash All In One
This thick cotton towelling all-in-one, which contains bamboo charcoal to help block the spread of infections, will keep baby warm and dry after a bath. Suitable from birth to 18 months, £19.99, available from www.splashabout.com
Baby Boum Hooded Bath Towel and Wash Mitt
This large hooded double-lined baby towel and matching bath mitt are made from a cotton-rich super soft terry fabric. Available from www.amazon.co.uk, £16.71.
Coochi Coocoose Baby Bathing Apron/Towel
Soft cotton adjustable towel that mum or dad wears like an apron as they bathe baby, leaving hands free and clothes dry, before lifting baby out of the water and wrapping baby in the hooded towel. Available from www.babyandmore.co.uk, £24.99.