Last updated: Mar 02, 2016
Laura Doss

Ah, family life. Dirty socks on the floor, that empty toilet paper roll (again!)—they can become sources of stress that build into real discontent. Add juggling your kids, parents, partner, and job—all during a recession—and its no wonder were short on fun. It doesnt have to be that way, though. Our simple do-it-today steps will help you build a strong, happy, healthier family.

1. Eat, play, love
These easy ways to reconnect with your family can help create a really positive dynamic.

Fun up family meals. We know that eating together can boost achievement in children, lower the chance for eating disorders in girls, and lower depression rates in both girls and boys. But that doesnt mean meals have to be serious, formal affairs. Simple, humorous rituals are what children remember as adults. Try a monthly “backward day,” serving breakfast for dinner and vice versa, or watch Saturday-morning cartoons together over breakfast. “Silly things that dont cost a dime will bring you closer together,” says Michele Borba, EdD, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.

Stay home, stay together. Tape a note to the telephone that says “No!” to remind you not to spread yourself too thin, especially during the holidays. Its fine to make cupcakes for the school party, but do it with your child. And staying home for a night of reading Christmas books or watching movies may be a lot more meaningful to your family than a flurry of parties or caroling. “Reading aloud, in particular, is a great way to stimulate family conversation,” Borba says.

Be the cool parents. Creating a welcoming space for your kids and their friends is one of the smartest things you can do, so install a basketball goal and stock up on board and video games and healthy snacks. “As your kids get older, they tend to befriend others with similar values and interests,“ Borba says. “You can find out a lot about your child by who they hang with.”

Create (and uphold) boundaries. Families that set strict, clear expectations for their children are happier, according to Scott Haltzman, MD, author of The Secrets of Happy Families. “Kids may tell you they want to be free, but the idea is actually frightening to them,” he says. Make sure your children know and understand family rules.

Have an adventure. A vacation breaks down the traditional way of doing things. In fact, being in a new place increases dopamine (feel-good chemicals) in the brain, which helps bring everyone closer together, Dr. Haltzman says. Research also shows that people who give (time or money) are happier, he says: “Its important that children learn that they are not the center of the universe and that they can have an impact on the world around them.” Volunteer at a local soup kitchen or shelter, Dr. Haltzman says. If time is tight, ask your children to donate a portion of their allowance to a charity of their choice, and tell them youll match it.

Celebrate your history. Sharing details from your family tree will help your kids feel like they belong to something greater than themselves and make them feel more grounded says David Niven, PhD, author of The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families. If your kids dont have the opportunity to talk to their grandparents, look through old photo albums with them and share family memories, stories, and adventures.

Start texting. Although your first inkling may be to skip any technology you dont quite know how to use (or that you think might get in the way of family closeness), theres one trend you should jump on: texting. “Its one of the best ways to stay plugged in to your kids life,” Borba says. “A simple, short ‘How are you? keeps you in their mind.” And its an easy way to say, “I love you” without embarrassment. It may not be the text your kid shows around to his or her friends, but this modern-day version of the note in the lunchbox can help keep your family connected.

2. Stop Fighting About Money, Honey
Couples fight about money more than anything else. Heres how to find peace, from Healths money expert Lynnette Khalfani-Cox.

No secrets. When it comes to your finances, follow the three Ds: disclose, discuss, decide. First establish a financial goal (saving for a house, eliminating debt, starting a business). Next, tally up loans, debts, and expenses, and talk about how you can shrink this number. Also, discuss overall spending behaviors and ways to save, and commit to going forward as a family with your financial goal in mind. “You can diminish financial squabbles when everyone is on the same page, and there are no spending secrets,” Khalfani-Cox says.

Make it a game. Once youre committed to lowering your debt or saving a certain amount, have fun doing it. Comparison shop for everything—and dont stop at the Sunday paper. Thanks to the Internet, coupons and saving codes can save you hundreds of dollars. Try or to find deals on anything from cereal to contact lenses. Or, if you have a specific purchase, try googling “coupons” with the name. For instance, typing in “coupons” and “Dell” for the new laptop youre buying may get results. “It may not work every time, but its worth trying,” Khalfani-Cox says.

Have a little stash. While secret hoarding is bad, some couples like to have their own money to spend on whatever they wish, which is understandable and healthy, Khalfani-Cox says. Set aside some funds each month for yourself (or your partner) only. You can save the money or splurge it as you wish, as long as its part of the big-picture budget.

Get help. If youre not good at managing money or bargaining, have someone do it for you. Visit Web sites like to compare prices on your existing bills with less-expensive options. Or find a money advisor or counselor at National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Keep the “Happy” in Your Marriage
Almost half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce. We hope these simple ways to reconnect can help turn the tide.

Rediscover marital bliss. Yes, theres actually a mathematics of blissful relationships, says psychologist John Gottman, PhD, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington and executive director of the Relationship Research Institute. To make marriage work, he says, you only need to know this ratio: 5 to 1. For every negative interaction—a complaint, a disagreement, an outright argument—there must be at least five positive interactions—a compliment, a smile, a touch, a shared laugh, a favor, a reference to a happy event, an expression of gratitude, and so on.

These happy moments, Gottman says, show that the couple is “working hard to create a culture of appreciation rather than criticism.” By offering simple acts of kindness, a couple creates what Gottman calls “emotional money in the bank,” currency they need to repair the relationship after a conflict. The truth is, he says, even people who argue frequently can be perfectly happy together as long as their positive encounters outweigh their negative interactions. Simple ways to go positive: kiss hello and good-bye, thank each other for performing even routine household chores, look up and smile whenever your spouse enters the room, be loyal (suppress that temptation to correct the timeline of a story hes telling or to recount an episode he finds embarrassing), and let the little things go.

Navigate the joys and jolts of parenthood. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes … mayhem. Becoming parents may seem like the natural next step after marriage, but the surprising truth is that having a baby is awfully hard on a marriage, according to Gottman and his wife, Julie Gottman, authors of And Baby Makes Three. In more than 69 percent of all marriages, marital satisfaction actually plunges after a babys born—in part, because of physical and financial stresses, but also because women and men experience parenthood differently. The Gottmans have identified specific behaviors that help marriages weather the storm of new parenthood. Some of them worth trying:

    For dads: Pitch in; the ultimate aphrodisiac to a new mom is a changed diaper or a nighttime shift.
    For moms: Let dad do things his way; dont criticize if the diaper isnt quite as tight when its his turn.
    For both: Make sure sex doesnt become an afterthought—in fact, schedule it.

Put the romance back into your life. The usual dinner-and-a-movie date, it turns out, doesnt serve married couples very well. It gives you a chance to reconnect or, at least, conduct an uninterrupted conversation. If what you want from date night is a way to fall in love all over again, though, Saturday night after Saturday night at the movies has nothing to offer you, research says. Want to add that spark? Try an entirely different kind of date.

According to Arthur Aron, the State University of New York professor of social psychology who conducted the research, new experiences flood the brain with dopamine and norepinephrine, the same chemicals that are implicated in early romantic love. For married couples, simply doing new things together—trying a new food, taking a class together, visiting a new place, or one of the other suggestions in 10 Ways to Shake Up Date Night—can re-create the chemical surges of new love. And when those feelings are associated with and shared by a partner, the dopamine high results in fresh feelings of love. In other words, your brain cant tell the difference between falling in love with someone new and trying something new with someone you love.

4. Dont Sweat the Small Stuff
Our happy-family kit of tips and tricks will help you deal with (or avoid) some of the common annoyances of family life.

Getting chores done
Solution: “We make a job wheel for cleaning bathrooms, walking pets, doing laundry, doing dishes, setting the table, and sweeping. Each day we move the wheel one spot to the right so everyone is doing a different job every day. Everything gets done, and no one complains … too loudly.” —Ruth Haswell, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

“I text my son the time, place, and where to meet, so there is no room for error—or compromise.” —Patricia Blizinski, Detroit

Messy eaters
“I have toddlers, so before we eat I cover the surrounding floor with newspaper. After the kids are finished, I scoop up the newspaper and everything is clean.” —Amy Johnson, Yardville, N.J.

Those darn socks
“To keep socks from getting lost and misplaced, we initial all of them with a permanent marker. We throw them in a basket after theyre washed, and its up to each person to find a matching pair.” —Norma Kramer, Dubuque, Iowa

No toilet paper!
“I always end up with the empty roll, so Ive filled baskets with extra rolls and magazines and put one in each bathroom.” —Leah Moir, knoxville, Tenn.

Annoying noises
“At dinner, Im outnumbered by crunching, gulping, elbows-on-the-table guys, so I put on the local jazz station to drown them out.” —Mamie Walling, Cullman, Ala.

“Im starving!”
“We post a weekly schedule so we can plan dinners in advance. This way, there is always something thawed in the fridge and ready to heat up, and no meals are prepared for an empty table.” —Kim Socha, Clinton Township, Mich.

5. Stay Sane in the Sandwich Zone
About 44 percent of adults (up to 75 percent of them women) juggle a multi-generational household, a job, and a life. Here, how to keep it together.

Dont go it alone. Alert the need-to-know people in your life (teachers, coaches, boss, car pool) about your family situation and how it may influence your effort or participation. If your parent requires physical help, consider a geriatric-care manager who is trained to deal with specific illnesses and disabilities. For financial help, visit the Administration of Aging or the National Family Caregivers Association.

Square away legal issues. When taking care of an elder, make sure they designate a power of attorney for financial matters and a health-care power of attorney for health decisions, says elder-care expert Carol Abaya, creator of The Sandwich Generation lectures and seminars.

Let perfection go. “You cant do it all, and you cant do it perfectly,” says Donna Schempp, program director for the Family Caregiver Alliance. “Give up the obsessive things like a superclean house and dinner at a certain time, and focus your energyon enjoying the people in your life.”

Be frank with your kids. Tell them everything they need to know about the special needs of their grandparent and how they can contribute to the family. “One advantage to the situation is teaching them values and how to care and be respectful of the elderly,” Schempp says. Doing chores and spending time with grandma or grandpa will help kids learn responsibility.

Blow off steam. Take care of yourself by talking it out with your best friend or a therapist. “You may think youre burdening someone with your problems, but the most important thing to do is to talk, laugh, yell, and complain about the situation,” Schempp says. Also, dedicate at least 30 minutes a day to something you enjoy—gardening, watching a sitcom—to help reduce stress.