All families who come into my office, no matter what their particular issues are, all share one common characteristic; their family system is experiencing stress. In addition, most families have not been able to sit down together and effectively address each other’s concerns. Indeed, few families do; while it is common in many settings for people to meet together to solve problems (volunteer organizations, work, etc.), few families regularly set aside time to address concerns. As weeks fly by in a rush of work schedules, carpools, and sports practices, problems can often build up. Making time for family meetings can help families focus on improving the family atmosphere and family relationships, and head off problems before they build up. Here are some ideas for making meetings work:
Make sure all heads of household stress the meeting’s importance. If the meetings become “mom’s thing” or “dad’s thing”, meetings can sometimes devolve into power struggles and even increase tension. If all caretakers cannot come to an agreement on the meeting’s priority, it is often best to make “talk time” something more informal.
Try to make the time consistent. Making your family meeting an established part of your family’s weekly routine is a statement that the meeting has value and is a priority. While making sure that everyone can be there at the same established time can sometimes prove impossible, your family will still benefit if most people are able to attend each week.
Encourage attendance, but don’t push. It is important to be positive and stress the importance of the meeting, but if a child or other family member does not attend, do not plead or “consequence” them; it is important that the meetings become part of positive growth and problem-solving, and that attendance not become another power struggle. Heads of household should say that everyone’s participation is valued, and merely leave it at that.
Leave electronics out of it—except to enhance attendance. Try to hold the meeting in a room free of electronic devices. Set an expectation that no phones will be answered. This does not mean, however, that a family member who is traveling cannot call or “skype” in.
Start, and end, with something fun. A (brief) funny story, game or song can improve the atmosphere for everyone.
Plan for the week ahead. The average weekly schedule of a family today is likely to be jam packed, leading to stress and sometimes conflict. Taking a few minutes to plan out the week can reduce tension and stress. It also helps to take time to ask about how all the obligations are going, and check to see if anything needs to be dropped, rearranged, or carried out most effectively.
Make time to discuss what is working in the family. Using the family meeting as an opportunity to share things that are going well will likely increase the likelihood that what is working will continue. You might ask people to share fun times or accomplishments, or ask family members to notice the accomplishments of others, ask people to state things that others have done that they appreciate, or just to state the things that they are grateful for. Sometimes families who are just starting out with meetings address only positive things for a time, to make sure that the atmosphere of the meeting is established as positive.
Solve problems constructively. Once a positive atmosphere has been established, it can help to begin problem-solving by asking children questions such as “what would you like”, or “is there something you would like done differently”? As adults bring up concerns, it is important to focus on one problem at a time and limit blaming or accusations. Conclude every discussion about a problem with strategies for improvement.
Involve everyone. Make sure to keep children engaged. It can help to keep non-distracting items like crayons and paper out, so that they can stay attentive and not be too distracted. Involve them in the discussions. What do they think could work better? Finding a healthy and constructive way to give children a say can decrease power struggles. If your family tends to have a lot of members talking over one another, maybe utilize a strategy to give each member time to talk. If someone else in the family tends to have a hard time expressing themselves address that as well.
Keep things brief. Twenty minutes is usually long enough for most families, sometimes less when there are young children. Consistency over time is most important. As the ritual of these brief meetings that stress celebration, cooperation and problem-solving become established, many families find that the effects over time can be transformational.
–Posted by Marin Rieger