Effective Family Meetings

Utilizing meetings for planning, negotiating and problem-solving is a well-established corporate practice. These days, however, the practice is also being touted as a critical tool for family life. And because family members are busy people — occupied with work, school, personal, social and communal activities — deliberately setting a time and date to discuss important family matters can be a practical way to ensure that regular communication does take place.

Here are some simple tips on how to run effective family meetings:

Include Everyone
Although everyone doesn’t have to attend the entire family meeting, everyone should have the opportunity to be present at different points. For instance, if dinner meals are being discussed, the whole family should be invited in order to give their input on a matter that will affect each of them. However, when that matter is resolved, some of the younger kids might be excused from the meeting while parents discuss curfew with a couple teenagers. Then, the teenagers may be excused, while husband and wife discuss some issues concerning the family budget. The concept of the meeting is to offer a regular forum in which any issue can be discussed and dealt with. Not all family members have to be present at the entire meeting, but anyone who is directly affected by an issue is invited to be part of that particular discussion.

Discuss Problems, but Share the Good Stuff Too!
Family meetings are excellent venues to discuss issues (“Let’s plan our outing for the long weekend”), air grievances (“I can never find a clean glass in the cupboard”), and resolve difficulties (“He always wakes me up in the night with his crying”). They can also be a forum for progress reports and celebrations (“I just want to bring to everyone’s attention that Jason has been doing a wonderful job of organizing the recycle materials every week”) as well a venue for encouragement and emotional support (“It’s frustrating when you have to spend so much time on homework and there seems to be so little time for relaxation.”) Maintaining a balance of pleasant and difficult topics can help family members look forward to meetings. On the other hand, using the time to discuss only problems and difficult issues usually leads to a reluctance to show up after awhile.

Give Everyone a Chance to Speak
It’s a family meeting, not a state-of-the-nation address, so don’t let one person hog the spotlight. Give each child time to share what he or she feels like sharing by asking each one individually “is there anything that you’d like to talk about today?” Remember: no matter how simple a disclosure may be, the opportunity to communicate openly with loved ones is a priceless thing. Once your child is talking, try to sit back and listen. A helpful rule at family meetings is that a person is allowed to present an issue in a certain time period (i.e. 5 minutes maximum) and during that time period, no one is allowed to talk, interrupt, ask questions or do anything other than sit back and listen. After the person is finished presenting their issue, they can take questions for a few more minutes and then the discussion begins.

Follow Rules of Communication
Follow some simple rules to help keep the meeting productive and emotionally safe. For instance, you might stipulate: no swearing, no bad language, no raised voices, no name-calling (in other words, no hurting people’s feelings); be brief, say the problem only one time; give practical ideas (not ideas that can’t be implemented).

Follow a Process for Problem Resolution
After an issue is raised, ask each member of the family, one at a time, to make a comment or suggestion. The person with the problem can also be invited to make suggestions about how it can be solved. After all suggestions have been brought forward, the person with the problem can ask for time to think about the ideas or can pick the idea that is most pleasing right now. If no one can think of solutions to a problem, you can have a list of helpful resources (family doctor, grandparent, trusted family friend or relative, therapist, spiritual advisor) to whom the problem can be described in order to get further input and ideas as to how it might be solved.

Never Let a Meeting End without Some Form of Resolution
This is the family meeting equivalent of “never let the sun set on an argument.” The last thing that you want is to create tension in the family because a meeting was used for bashing, but not healing. If an issue has been raised but it can’t be completely resolved within the time period of the meeting, then at least outline the next steps that the family will take. You may even set another family meeting to discuss the issue, to give it the proper attention and focus.

Lastly, Don’t Have Too Many Meetings!
Have you ever heard of the term “meeting paralysis”? In companies, this is the situation when nothing gets done because people would rather discuss things than fix them! Family meetings are invaluable, but don’t get stuck with just talking and rehashing issues. Solve problems and support each other. It’s living the closeness that comes after the discussion that makes family meetings so worthwhile.

Parents Disagree about Discipline

It is common for any two people from different family backgrounds to have experienced their own discipline differently and therefore to have different thoughts and feelings about discipline. For example, one person may come from a home where discipline was harsh. He might react to that experience by repeating it with his own kids, feeling that although it was painful, the results were obviously successful. Or, he might react to it by vowing never to discipline his children at all. This person’s parenting partner might have come from a home where discipline was appropriately balanced with warmth and love. The partner might feel comfortable copying this “authoratative parenting style” in the family. These two parents may have trouble working together; for instance, the harsh-history parent may have no tolerance for any kind of discipline of his children, no matter how mild, reasonable, or even necessary, it might be.

The Cost of Fighting About It
The trouble is, that when parents fight about discipline, children know it and feel it. The result is often “triangulation” in the family – a situation in which the child and more lenient or more reasonable parent form an alliance against the “mean,” stricter parent. The so-called “mean,” stricter parent may actually be the healthier parent, the one who is using reasonable discipline methods. However, when pitted against a no-discipline parent, the perceived “mean” one may lose the child’s affection. In other cases, the “mean” parent really is unreasonably strict and harsh. In general, kids don’t like to be disciplined and therefore, whichever parent does it less is likely to be favored by them. This can then rob the so-called “mean” parent of ALL parental power. The nice-parent-child team discredits the other parent to the point where the child may virtually lose one parent as a life resource. While the lenient parent might be trying to protect the child from the stricter or even harsher parent, he or she may accidentally end up robbing the child of the other parent altogether. When the situation leads to divorce (see below), the child may even lose his home. Except in the case of true abuse, trying to save the child from the other parent is harmful for the child.

In addition to the effect of triangulation on the child, there is an obvious effect on the marriage. No parent likes to be disempowered by the other. Resentment builds, sometimes to the point where divorce ensues. Even if the marriage lasts, there is often bitter animosity due to triangulation.

However, triangulation isn’t the only problem that can arise out of fights about discipline. Even if the child is close to both parents equally (or distant from them both equally), the fighting itself is an intense stress in the home. Children are always troubled and sometimes even traumatized by parental conflict. They often feel deep sadness and fear – sometimes for safety of themselves or their parents, and sometimes for the sustainability of the family unit. When the subject matter of the conflict is THEM (as it is when the subject is discipline), they may feel guilty in addition to being fearful or sad. When parents fight a lot, children can become depressed and troubled in many ways. Their physical health, mental health and ability to function may all be affected. For instance, many children get stress-related headaches, stomach aches, rashes and other physical symptoms when their parents argue about discipline. They can get depressed and/or anxious and develop an array of nervous habits and acting-out types of behaviors (such as being more argumentative themselves). Their schoolwork can suffer as well.

How Not to Fight about it
When parents have radically different views of what should happen in discipline, they need to work to get more on the same page. It could be that each parent has to move a little away from his or her own position and a little closer to the partner’s position. There are different ways for this to happen.

Parents can take a parenting course together. Learning philosophies and strategies from an objective outsider is often far easier than taking instruction from one’s spouse. While this outsider may be a parenting insructor in a group setting, it can also be a private practitioner (such as a family therapist, psychologist or other mental health professional). Choose a professional who has a special expertise in parenting in order to get the most helpful guidance. Parents can also read and discuss a parenting book together (have a book-club a deux) or look up questions and answers on-line together.

Another strategy to attain a meeting of the minds on the subject of discipline, is to refrain from criticizing your partner’s parenting EVER. If you don’t like what your spouse is doing, approach him or her with curiosity and a desire to understand rather than with complaint and criticism. For instance, suppose your spouse gave your son a negative consequence on Monday for failing to come home by his curfew (“you’ve lost your cell phone for a week…”). On Tuesday, you see that your spouse has returned your son’s cell phone to him already, clearly failing to follow through with discipline. Avoid approaching your spouse in a confrontational manner – “If you never carry through, he’ll never learn”…etc. Instead, you ASK your spouse what made him or her change his mind. Ask this with genuine curiousity, not with bitter sarcasm. Greet the answer with Emotional Coaching (empathic listening and naming of feelings). For example, imagine that your spouse explains, “I felt bad for him. He really needs that phone.” You might respond with, “You’re such a good mom/dad – you really care about him! I’m just wondering how we’re going to help him come home on time – I get so worried when he stays out past his curfew – I really want us to be able to get this through to him. What do you think we should do about it?”  If every disciplinary difference of opinion is handled in a caring, respectful manner, the parents will be able to negotiate their differences and find ways to do what’s best for the kids – eventually.

Finally, parents who are too harsh or too lenient in their discipline styles tend to love their children and are trying to do what they think is best for the child. Because of this, most people can see the wisdom of applying the 80-20 Rule. The 80-20 Rule is the ideal good-feeling to bad-feeling ratio of parenting communications to children. Laughter, praise, gifts, physical affection, empathy, and any other good-feeling communication needs to happen 4 times for every 1 bad-feeling communication like giving an instruction, correction, complaint, threat of punishment, actual punishment and so on. Moreover, the bad-feeling communications need to be only mildy-bad-feeling. Otherwise, they can completely wipe out the positive effects of the good-feeling communications, no matter how many there might have been. Full details on the 80-20 Rule are available in Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice, by Sarah Chana Radcliffe.

Other Parent is Too Strict

It is quite common for one parent to think that the other parent is too strict. The overly strict parent may be the biological parent of your child (i.e. your current spouse or your ex-spouse). Just as easily, the overly strict parent may be the child’s step-parent (i.e. your spouse from your recent re-marriage). No matter who it is, watching this person parent your child (or children) is a painful experience for you. You think that this person is unduly harsh or demanding and may be damaging your child. What can you do about it?

What is Too Strict?
Few parents feel that they, themselves, are too strict. In fact, most parents think that their own perspective on setting rules and boundaries for children is “just right.” If the other parent does it differently, that other parent is seen as “too lenient” or “too strict.” We use our our own values as as the golden standard!

In fact, there is a more objective way to determine whether or not a parent is too strict. We can look at how the children are doing. We need to look at three main areas:

  • the quality of the parent-child relationship
  • the child’s behavior and performance
  • the child’s emotional health

Let’s look at each of these individually. If a parent is too strict, this will affect the quality of the parent-child relationship. Children resent parents who are overly strict. They feel closer to those who seem to understand them and respect their natures and their limitations. Take the case of 17 year-old Sandra, for example. Sandra’s father insists that she come home at 9p.m. on the weekends, whereas her friends are typically allowed to stay out till midnight. Since her father’s strict rule ruins Sandra’s social life, she resents him – in fact, she says she “hates” him. Sandra feels that her father doesn’t understand how important her social life is to her and when she tries to explain it to him, he seems more interested in his own rules than in her happiness and well-being. As a result, her affection for the man is seriously compromised. An overly strict parent will not be able to have a warm, loving relationship with his or her kids because the parent’s standards convey lack of empathy for the child. Even if the parent applies strict rules and standards out of love, as most do, it is not the love that the child experiences, but rather, the unreasonableness of the rules and standards. True love has to take the child’s feelings into account.

The second criteria for overly strict parenting is the effect on the child’s behavior and performance. When a parent puts reasonable boundaries and limits on a child in a loving and flexible way, the child thrives. For instance, parents who limit computer time, insist on homework time, impose a bedtime and demand punctuality for school, actually help their children learn to function well – providing all these fixed times are appropriate and reasonable for the child’s age and personal limitations (this is where flexibility comes in). However, when parents raise the bar too high with overly strict rules and regulations (i.e. the computer time is virtually non-existent, the homework time is excessively long, the bedtime is unreasonably early and the morning routine is so tight as to be unpleasant), children often react with poor behavior of various types. When a child becomes sneaky, manipulative and/or dishonest, it can be an indication that the rules are too many and/or too strict. Children have to survive somehow and one way is by breaking the rules constantly. However, since overly strict parents also tend to be punitive, the kids become experts at devious behavior. On the other hand, in homes where the standards are reasonable and the child can breathe freely, there is no need for deceptive behavior; the child is able to comply with parental demands without resorting to lies and games. In short, the more deceptive your child is, the more likely it is that a parent is being overly strict.

Finally, we can look at the child’s emotional health. When parents are warm, understanding and reasonable, children thrive emotionally. On the other hand, when parents are intimidating, rigid and unreasonable (overly strict), then children can manifest various types of stress reactions. Some kids develop eating disorders. Some develop addictive behaviors. Some have anxiety. Others get depressed. Some don’t seem to react at the time they are dealing with an unreasonable parent, but later on in life, develop trauma syndromes or personality problems related to the dysfunctional home in which they grew up. Although children suffer stress and emotional problems for many reasons (some of them purely biological, others triggered by social and academic stress or personal traumatic experiences), living for a couple of decades with an overly strict parent is a definite stressor and can trigger both emotional issues and physical stress syndromes like headaches, stomach problems and other health problems.

If Your Spouse is Too Strict
Parents who are strict usually love their kids and have no desire to hurt them. They just want them to grow up “right.” They cannot see the damage they are causing. However, one thing is clear: you cannot get your spouse to lighten up by reprimanding him or her for being too strict. Criticizing the strict spouse for his or her parenting approach simply makes the person feel unsupported. The spouse is likely to turn against YOU for “siding” with the children.

Instead of attacking your spouse for overly strict parenting, PRAISE him or her for wise and compassionate parenting. No one is strict on every issue all the time. Let’s say that your overly strict wife decides to let your son sleep over at a friend’s house on a school night. You can say something like, “That was really nice of you. I know that Jay really appreciates that. He’s lucky to have a mom like you!” Of course, do this in a way that sounds genuinely appreciative and definitely NOT sarcastic! By attending to appropriate parenting behaviors, you can reinforce this kind of parenting and help extinguish overly strict tendencies.

Another step you can take is to talk to your spouse about how much the kids love him or her. This helps the overly strict parent relax into more relationship-oriented (as opposed to rule-oriented) parenting.

When your spouse is overly strict to children in front of you, don’t intervene unless there is an issue of physical or emotional abuse (of the kind that Family Services would call “abuse”). If you disagree with his or her intervention, but it is not abusive, then let it go – until you have a private moment with your spouse. When clearly out of earshot of the kids, you can then talk to your partner. Start off by describing what you think is right about your partner’s intervention (i.e. “I’m so glad you laid down the law about homework time! These kids need to apply themselves more seriously to their schoolwork.”) Only AFTER naming the positive side of your parnter’s intervention, should you go on to attempt to modify the overly strict side of it (“I’m just thinking that 3 hours might be too much for them right after school and I was wondering how you would feel if we knocked that down to two hours, with one hour before dinner and one hour after dinner. That would leave them time for their extra-curricular activities which I think are also important for their development. What do you think?”). This sort of approach is far less confrontational than direct accusations (“the kids are going to hate your guts if you lay down rules like that for them”). As a result, it has a better chance of helping your partner learn to address the child’s needs and feelings as he or she is setting rules and limits.

Parenting After Divorce

Mothers and fathers often disagree on matters pertaining to parenting. It happens when the parents are operating within the context of an intact family home and it also happens when parents have gone their separate ways through separation or divorce. However, dosage unlike their married counterparts, order divorced couples lack the trust and friendliness that is  at the foundation of marriage.

Power Plays
Let’s take an example. Nine year old Liam is terrific at karate. He’s been active in this sport for several years already and has won competitions and prizes along the way. The recently divorced parents differ on their view of this activity. Mom thinks karate is fantastic and encourages their son to practice frequently and reach for the top. Dad thinks that Liam should put his energy into league sports (as he himself did at that age): hockey, baseball, soccer, basketball and so on. In order to encourage Liam in this direction, Dad tells him that “karate is for sissies; only weirdo’s do it.” Liam, not wanting to be a sissy or a weirdo,tells Mom that he wants to quite his lessons and do team sports.

Mom is furious. She thinks Dad is playing “team sports” with her, trying his hardest to win Liam over to his side. “If he was really thinking about Liam’s welfare, he’d let our son continue doing what he’s good at. Why does he have to make Liam feel bad for doing something that he clearly loves?” For his part, Dad claims sincere best interests for his son’s welfare. “Boys have to be on teams,” he says. “I don’t want my kid being a social misfit. He’s gonna need that karate just to beat up the kids who make fun of him.”

Working Together
As previously mentioned this sort of dispute can happen just as easily within marriage as without. How would happily married folks solve the dilemma?

First of all, there would probably be a conversation between the partners. Ideally, Mom would express her view and Dad would listen and ask lots of questions about it. Then Dad would express his view and Mom would listen and ask lots of questions about it. This “listening and questioning” technique would likely uncover some common ground, such as wanting their child to be successful, happy, accepted, busy, productive and so on. Because the conversation would be mutually respectful, good will would prevail. The good will would allow for some sort of reasonable compromise. “Why don’t we continue to let him do karate, but cut down his lessons once or twice a week, and sign him up for basketball on the other nights. He could try both activities and either pursue both indefinitely or choose his own favorite.”

The very best thing for divorced families to do is to imitate the processes found in happy intact homes. The parents don’t have to love each other in order to conduct respectful conversations for the wellbeing of their kids. They just have to care enough about their kids to do it.

The Divorced Child
When one or both parties cannot or will not communicate respectfully, it is the child who is at risk. Let’s say that in our current example, neither parent is willing to change their point of view. Mom is the one who has been taking Liam to karate – should she continue doing so or stop?

Mom needs to ask herself which action on her part will contribute most to her son’s mental health. If she battles it out with Dad because she so firmly believes that karate is the best choice of leisure activity, then Liam suffers from witnessing yet more parental conflict. Moreover, if he sees that Mom is vehemently pro-karate while Dad is vehemently anti-karate, he will be torn down the middle, wanting Mom’s approval, wanting Dad’s approval and knowing that he cannot have both. In addition, both parents will be modeling a strong case for stubborn behavior, something that they will not be happy to see in Liam later on. Taking the issue to court would be costly and traumatic to the family and by the time it was settled, Liam would probably be an adult! In this scenario, Mom may choose to lose the karate battle for the sake of her child’s wellbeing. Now that Liam feels self-conscious about karate, she can empathize with his feelings using emotional coaching: “It makes sense that you wouldn’t want to do a sport that’s for sissies Liam. If you feel you’ve had enough of karate for now and want to try something different, that’s fine. It’s good to have variety and try different things.” In this way, Liam’s passion for karate is sacrificed for the sake of his overall mental health and development. He gets to feel good about himself and safe in his little divorced world. When he gets a little older, something may rekindle his interest in karate and he may decide to pursue it at that time. Whether this happens or not, however, his mom will have done the very best for him by reducing conflict and divided loyalties.

Divorced parenting involves many such sacrifices. The big picture must always take priority over the particular small issue. This requires tremendous maturity and self-control on the part of divorced parents. It hurts to feel cornered, trapped and powerless in one’s parenting. Despite the pain, wise divorced parents put their child’s needs FIRST. They do what’s best for the child. Supportive counseling can help divorced parents work through their own feelings of frustration, anger and loss that inevitably occur during parenting conflicts.