So we find ourselves suddenly spending more time at home with our families than we ever have before. Trying to juggle parenting, schooling, extra meal prep and housework, working from home, and managing the ever-changing health crisis, with little knowledge or preparation. As parents, we often feel like we need to have clear answers and a definite plan when we’re honestly all learning as we go along.
One tool that I recommend to many of my client couples who are struggling with family dynamics to call family meetings. A family meeting is exactly what it sounds like, and can be a fantastic way to create and model teamwork and collaboration. Now if you have twin one year olds, this is probably not going to be super-helpful for them, but even couple meetings can do this trick. I don’t like to give a lot of rules and parameters, because every family is different and needs vary. But here are some ideas that tend to work well for most:
Everyone is invited but no one is obligated to come.
Give notice, and try to make it pleasant- put out snacks, drinks, pens, paper, and a white board, if you have one.
Parents- create a loose agenda of topics to cover, but open to more options from kids.
Begin by thanking everyone for coming. Then explain that the point of the meeting is put our heads together, and think of ideas that will make things run more easily and nicely in the house for everyone. All reasonable requests and suggestions will be written down for consideration.
Recommend that someone who has something nice to say begins. This can be a compliment or an expression of thanks.
Establish some rules of respect such as: waiting turns, no interrupting, shouting, name-calling, insulting, or cursing. Instead, encourage family members to “turn complaints into requests”- figure out what they would “yes” like instead of what they want to criticize. This takes practice, even for adults, so be patient with everyone.
Everyone gets teh chance to speak and be heard. In order or by request. If too many people are talking at once, a parent should assign turns. Some families find a “talking object” helpful; others find it annoying.
Discourage siblings (and adults) from immediately shooting down anyone’s thought- even if it’s unrealistic or silly. It is very comforting to feel heard and validated, even if a request cannot be granted. For example: A 5 year old says: I think we should just call some construction workers and ask them to build us another house in the backyard so we have more room to play. Instead of right away rejecting this fantasy, empathize, validate, and translate: “So you’re saying you wish we had more space? And you would love to figure out a way to get more play area? Yeah, that would be really great. Let’s see what we can try to do about that.” Write down “more area to play.” [Then maybe offer to clear off an area rug to offer as an alternative.]
Don’t let it go on for too long. We want to set this up in a way that people will want to do it again. So don’t let it drag on, especially if people seem to be getting bored or fidgety. Not everything needs to be solved- half the point is just facilitating communication and cooperation.
End off by summarizing and praising: “Great job, guys! So far it looks like what we talked about was: [example list] how to keep the house cleaner, how people can get more privacy, what meals and snacks the most people like, how to say no thank you nicely when someone wants to play a game with you, and how to listen to music without disturbing others. You guys came up with some terrific ideas (you can specify individuals but then try to include each kid). Let’s all try to think of more suggestions to share next time! So glad we did this and so proud of your participation!”
Many families benefit from weekly meetings, but they can be as frequent or infrequent as needed. Don't feel discouraged if they don't go so smoothly at first- these things take time and trial and error. But most couples to whom I recommend this report overall positive responses from their families, so it might be worth a try!