Stress less

How to regain control of the family schedule.

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Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, September / October 2013

The arrival of autumn signals a time of change. The days grow shorter, the leaves turn colour and the temperature drops.

And as the rhythm of nature shifts, so too does the pace of family life, as children and parents alike move on from their summer routines and embrace the busier fall schedule.

Of course, trying to keep track of all the music lessons, hockey practices and other after-school activities amid a hectic work week is no simple thing. Factor in the time needed to complete routine household tasks such as making healthy lunches and cooking nutritious dinners, and it's easy to see how life can quickly get out of hand.

Fortunately, with a bit of planning and some tools, even the busiest of families can learn to balance life's demands. Achieving balance in our lives reduces stress and anxiety, increases that feeling of control as adults and provides a sense of security to children.

So how do families keep the chaos to a minimum and enjoy the benefits of feeling organized and on top of it all? Here are a few tips:

Create a family calendar

Families need a large calendar that everyone can see and use.

Children of all ages can learn to use a calendar to check what is happening and what is coming up. With the use of stickers, even young children can be shown how to check the calendar for their day-to-day activities. All classes, lessons and appointments should be added to the calendar as soon as possible so everyone can see at a glance what is happening. The calendar will also help families to anticipate extra-busy times and scheduling conflicts that need to be changed, and also prepare them for other tasks that need to happen in advance, such as gathering supplies for a project.

Plan ahead

It is a good idea to sit down as a family at least once on the weekend to check the upcoming week on the calendar. When children establish the habit of checking the calendar daily, they will have fewer questions for their parents and will begin to take greater control of their own time management. When scheduling activities for the family, don't forget to factor in generous travel and preparation time, especially if kids need to suit up for a sport or class. Make sure there is adequate time left for meals and meal preparation. It is easy to get caught up in signing on for activities only to realize afterward that every suppertime is rushed and stressful.

Don't forget free time

It is also important to keep blocks of free time for children. If every evening is booked until bedtime, you may want to re-think the number of activities that your family is doing. Free time is very important for both children and adults, as it allows time for relaxation, spontaneous fun, just hanging out together, or talking and socializing with friends. This downtime can also provide an opportunity for family members to spend time on their own to pursue personal interests such as reading, writing, listening to music or going for a walk and just thinking about things. Young children need time to enjoy free play.

Create a "to-do list"

In addition to the family calendar, it is a good idea to have a large whiteboard where family members can add their "to-do" lists along with a deadline date. For example, this list might include buying a birthday gift for a friend, which needs to be done by a certain date. Colour-coded markers, one for each family member, can be used, or divide up the calendar space up so that each person has some space of their own. Whiteboards are available at the dollar store and are an easy way to keep track of reminders and messages.

Get organized

If you have young children in child-care or school-age children, ensure that there is a designated space for backpacks and lunch kits. Wall hooks are a handy way to keep them off the floor and children will get in the habit of leaving them in that same spot. Notes to parents from daycare and school are easily misplaced and also need a designated spot such as a clip on the fridge - one for each child. Keep a package of brightly coloured sticky notes handy to use for last-minute reminders and messages for family members.

Share the load

Sharing the load is another important strategy for managing busy families. Research shows that families who experience less stress are families who have clear expectations about what is happening and what is expected of them. For example, older children may be expected to make their own snack after school, but parents may also wish to make it clear that their children are expected to clean up after their snack. These conversations are important to have ahead of time so that frustrations and disappointments are kept to a minimum. Delegate age-appropriate tasks to each family member and be clear about what you are asking for and when you want the tasks completed. Carpooling is another way to share the load; save on time and gas by taking turns to drive children to events when possible. Keep addresses and phone numbers of other families handy for last minute changes.

While all of these tips will help to make things run smoothly, flexibility is also a necessary ingredient for coping with family demands. People get sick, appointments get cancelled and sometimes we just forget things. Go easy on yourself and model a resilient response to these unexpected changes by taking a minute to re-evaluate how this change will affect your day and what can be done to work around it. Children watch carefully how their parents handle these kinds of stresses and learn ways to cope with them in their own lives.

Adequate sleep is another key ingredient to managing life's ups and downs. When we are well rested, we are better able to problem-solve and adapt to changes as they arise. Make sure you and your children are getting adequate sleep. Designate a place to park the cell phones and decide on a reasonable time to shut down computers before bed.

Finally, remind yourself to keep things in perspective. The reason we get involved in all of our activities is to enrich our lives by learning new skills, working toward goals and sharing our achievements. By taking the time to get organized ahead of time, families will be able to enjoy the journey by spending time on the things that matter most, sharing a laugh along the way and celebrating accomplishments together.

Laurie McPherson is a mental health promotion co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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