Marriage and family therapist Ally Wold of Excelsior’s Waterside Family Therapy spent the first part of her career at St. David’s Center’s day program for kids on the autism spectrum. So when she started her own practice in 2015, that formative experience inspired her to specialize in family relationships.
“I’d see these parents come in; they’d show up completely exhausted,” says Wold. “Their routines are completely focused on their kids. I wanted to find ways to reach out to these parents and help them with their own self-care.” While her specialty is families with kids with special needs, she’s developed some strategies for proactively building healthy relationships for all families, by keeping things fresh and exciting for family members of all ages. Wold, a Lake Minnetonka native and a mom and wife herself, shares her ideas for getting outside the normal routine. Because whether it’s an elaborate night out on the town or a relaxed night in with sweats and board games, it’s always a good idea to take time to enjoy life together.
For Parent(s) + One Kid
It goes without saying that kids feel extra-special when they have a parent (or two!) all to themselves for a few hours. Set aside a time to catch up with each of your children, one-on-one, with one of these fun and easy ideas.
Book a mom-daughter date with a Miss Princess mani or pedi at Excelsior Nails & Day Spa. It’s a pampering service in a mini spa tub, geared toward girls up to age 9. Sit side-by-side and enjoy a hot soak—and a fun new polish color—while you chat.
Tonkadale Greenhouse does kids’ workshops that are fun, seasonal ways for any parent-child combo to get creative together without breaking the bank. Home Depot locations in Chaska and Plymouth also offer occasional Saturday Kid Workshops, where you’ll complete a make-and-take DIY project under expert supervision. “Keep in mind that for elementary and middle school-age kids, it’s important to be thoughtful about their interests,” says Wold. (So make sure they’re on board first!)
Plan a themed day at home with a menu or decorations based on your child’s favorite movie, book or hobby. On Pinterest, printable templates and ideas abound, but don’t let that intimidate you. “We have so many resources these days—it’s so much easier than it used to be to get creative. But sometimes that puts a lot of pressure on parents,” says Wold. Take a deep breath and dip in a toe; kids appreciate the effort, even if you’re not Martha Stewart. #NailedIt
For Families with Special Needs
When you have a family member with special needs, it’s even more important to take a break from routines once in a while to enjoy each other’s company and share a laugh.
Check out sensory-friendly performances at Stages Theatre—with softer lighting and lower volumes—designed specifically for guests on the autism spectrum. The actors (and other families who attend) expect the audience to include a variety of ages and developmental levels.
Get out of the house and get active. Bowling with bumpers and ramps is great for kids with limited motor skills, and both Orono and Minnetonka pools have adaptive options for open swimming. Check out Pavilion Turf Tots in Hopkins for an indoor open field with slides and balls. It’s a great way to move and play, especially in the long winter months.
At home, invest in a sensory table such as the Space Saver by Jonti-Craft so kids can touch and interact with colorful pasta, sand, or other tactile substances that can be changed quickly and keep kids interested and occupied. “Make home fun—that’s huge,” says Wold.
For Moms + Dads
It’s still important for parents to find some time alone, sans kids, to keep their relationship ship-shape. (This is Valentine’s month, after all.) The name of the game is to get out of the routine and focus on each other, even though it takes some effort, says Wold.
Create what experts call “shared meaning.” Do something active or interesting together to create memories you can share in the future. (Wold suggests cross-country skiing to take advantage of local parks, even in the cold weather.)
Keep it fresh, even from your couch. “Here again, there are so many distractions in our lives. It’s easy to get into a routine, do chores, get tired and end up watching TV all night,” says Wold. “So be mindful. Play a game, build a fire—do something to make it feel like you did something different.”
Connect Every Day
While Valentine’s Day is surely a great excuse to celebrate loved ones, those positive relationships start at home—and have to be nurtured all year long, especially in today’s fast-paced world.
“With all the demands and constant connection we have with others, simply be cognizant of how much you’re working and answering the phone around your kids—it all takes a toll on our relationships,” says Wold. “If you’re feeling disconnected, find ways to reach one another and get back to genuine interaction.” That could mean setting aside work and screens during certain hours of the day or designating a 24/7 screen-free zone in the house.
And for many kids, words have a huge impact on how they perceive home and family relationships. “Find a way to say ‘no’ less,” urges Wold. She says young kids hear negative directives too often and can’t distinguish negative from positive attention. “As a parent, when you focus on a negative behavior, they’ll focus on that behavior. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have rules or boundaries, but try to create a space at home that’s completely safe, where kids can run around and be themselves without parents having to say ‘no.’ Also, try to use ‘you can’ language whenever possible to give alternatives and frame the choice in a positive way.”
Getting kids involved in planning, no matter what’s on the docket, increases their engagement and excitement about what’s going on. “Kids are drawn to what’s novel,” says Wold. Even if you decide on a low-key family night at home this Valentine’s Day, enlist them in the planning. Kids can develop a special Valentine’s menu, play music, light candles, or build a fort where you can watch a movie or eat together. Wold says, “Turn what you’re doing at home into something special and exciting.”