Q: With two working adults and three teens in the house, I feel like our family is more disconnected than ever; everybody seems to be on their own schedule. What's one thing we can do to stay close?
Jim: I'll ask this: How often does your family have dinner together? I know it's challenging -- it sure is in our house -- but it's one of the best time investments you can make.
The statistics speak for themselves. The largest federally funded study of American teenagers found a strong link between regular family meals and academic success, psychological health, as well as lower rates of alcohol and drug abuse, early sexual activity and suicide. A 2005 Columbia University study found that teenagers who eat with their families at least five times a week are more likely to get better grades and less likely to have substance abuse problems. A University of Michigan study found that mealtime is the single greatest predictor of better achievement -- more than studying, sports or other school activities. And research conducted at the University of Minnesota found that adolescent girls who ate with their families regularly were at far less risk for anorexia and bulimia than girls who didn't eat with their families.
I could quote studies all day, but I think we all know that it's just common sense. It's a beneficial thing for families to spend time together whenever possible.
Q: Should I be concerned that my son is still sucking his thumb? It's an embarrassing habit in a boy his age (almost 5). I've done everything I can think of to get him to stop, but nothing seems to work.
Danny Huerta, Vice President, Parenting and Youth: Research supports the fact that we tend to rely on familiar habits when we're under stress. However, we also have the ability to intentionally create new habits when stressed, so this could be a great opportunity to learn about what's stressful for your 5-year-old and teach him some new ways to handle it.
The difficulty is figuring out what is causing stress in your son's case, because even boredom can cause stress. Some of us can handle a lot of stress and some only a little; everyone has a different threshold.
Provide your child with some alternatives to handling stress. As he embraces other tools you give him, celebrate! For example, every time he chooses a squeeze ball or Play-Doh over his thumb, then you put cotton balls in a jar or tallies on a sheet. When he reaches 10, then maybe it's time to do something fun together, such as a trip to the park. Regardless of what you choose, it needs to be something he sees as a fun celebration, not a reward. You are helping him learn to celebrate the hard work that goes into conquering and managing stress. What a great life skill!
The key is having patience and consistently providing new ways to deal with stress that match your child's interests and temperament. Calmly redirect the behaviors and help your son realize there are many different ways to make him feel better. If he continues to suck his thumb as the months or years progress, you will need to meet with a professional therapist to help assess what is causing him to constantly self-soothe.
Keep in mind that thumb sucking can just be a habit with roots in infancy, and not connected with deeper psychological problems. Many parents get anxious when it continues past babyhood, long after "other people's" children have stopped.
If you'd like to discuss this issue at greater length with our staff counselors, call 1-855-771-HELP (4357).
Jim Daly is a husband and father, an author, and president of Focus on the Family and host of the Focus on the Family radio program. Catch up with him at www.jimdalyblog.com or at www.facebook.com/DalyFocus.
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