Making changes, one behavior at a time

From strengthening relationships to achieving a healthier lifestyle, we all have behaviors we’d like to change to create a more satisfying life. But when we have families, establishing more positive habits can prove tricky. To get your family motivated, begin by focusing on one behavior at a time and make changes in a fun, collaborative way.

“One of the biggest opportunities we have that we often don’t take enough advantage of is role modeling, and that can be done by parents or by kids,” says Shelly Summar, a dietitian at Children’s Mercy Hospital. “Instead of telling people what not to do, we want to show people what to do and help set up environments to make it easier to do that.”

Here are some tips to do just that:

Curb sibling battles

Nothing makes a parent want to pull her hair out more than listening to her kids battle it out day and night. Refocus how your kids treat each other by rewarding cooperation. First, define what it means to treat each other with respect and kindness. Then, using a token point system, reward behaviors that fulfill your expectations.

“It’s important that the behaviors are very specifically identified and reinforcement is very immediate,” says Dr. Jane Sosland, a child psychologist at University of Kansas Medical Center. For example, you might say: “I really like the way you answered your sister there.” Or, “I really like the way you guys are cooperating.”

Keep track of points earned by using a sticker chart; a jar with marbles, cotton balls, or poker chips; or beads on a string.

To encourage teamwork, your kids must have an equal number of points to redeem for a special reward. When each child has earned 20 points, he earns an outing to a prized destination.

Get more active

Aiming for a healthier lifestyle? That’s easier if your family is involved. Invite them to help you make a list of activities you can all enjoy together at least once a week.

Ideas could include visiting a nature center, strolling through a museum, going for a bike ride, spending the day at the zoo, or swimming at your local community center. During extra busy weeks, plan simple activities like shooting hoops, playing hopscotch, or tossing a ball in the backyard.

Connect more by disconnecting

These days, family time competes with an array of extracurricular activities and screen distractions. Become intentional about making space for unplugged time together, whether through a regular evening meal or by creating traditions like a weekly family game night.

Summar, who has two teenage girls, says that her family has enjoyed a “Sunday Fun Day” tradition for years in which the family plays games together, laughs, and talks.

“In a fun situation, you can find out a whole lot more rather than sitting down one-on-one and drilling them,” she says.

Grow more intentional about screen time

Rather than disappearing down individual digital rabbit holes, use technology together to strengthen communication skills and creativity. For example:

• Invite your child to Facetime or Skype with grandparents

• Show her how to start a private blog about one of her favorite subjects

• Take digital photos together and collaborate on a photo book or a calendar

• Make a vacation video using the app “One Second Every Day”

• Seek video games that entertain, educate, and encourage critical thinking

• Connect with your kids by playing their favorite video games with them

Not only do kids like teaching their parents how to play games, researchers at Arizona State University found that gaming together generates conversation opportunities.

“Our research is finding that sharing this experience cultivates family bonding, learning, and well-being,” says Sinem Siyahhan, assistant research professor at the university’s Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics.

Eat a more wholesome diet

Plan well-rounded meals, beginning with meals you know your family will embrace. Half the plate should be covered with a fruit or vegetable and the other half with grain and protein. Encourage family buy-in by including your kids in the planning and preparation of meals.

Replace common snack foods like chips, cookies, and snack cakes with colorful fruits and vegetables, beginning with the ones your kids like, such as carrots, celery, natural applesauce, watermelon, blueberries, or canned peaches in a light syrup or juice.

As you set out to make healthy dietary changes, avoid setting up barriers for yourself that will make success more difficult like limiting yourself to fresh organic fruits and vegetables.

“That’s a really difficult goal to achieve,” Summar says. “Make sure the goals you set are realistic, like ‘I’m going to go to a farmer’s market once this summer.’ ”

And, Summar adds, don’t feel bad about purchasing canned fruits and vegetables. They are good alternatives when fresh produce isn’t handy.

Above all, remember that changes come easier when they’re rewarding — and that goes for kids and adults.

Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines and her husband are the parents of two boys. Her latest book is “Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.”

Ways to successfully integrate new habits

•Think positively.

•Set specific, realistic goals.

•Address obstacles that will hamper your efforts to achieve your goals.

•Setbacks are common. Try again.