The emotional health of a family starts with the creation of a sacred family space, the family meeting. Structuring the meeting and institutionalizing it in the life of the family as a ritual is where we begin to grow a great family. The key word is ritual. All families have their own unique spoken and unspoken traditions and these serve to bind the family together. The family meeting must be established as an essential family ritual. Rituals, by definition, are practiced with a high degree of consistency and importance. Therefore, parents, as role models, are responsible for taking the leadership role in scheduling and explaining to the children the reasons for the family meeting. Parents are the primary force in creating the family meeting as a ritual because of their ability, through the scheduling process, to make meeting time a high priority in the life of the family. If done properly, meetings become highly need fulfilling, thereby providing positive experiences for all members of the family.
There are two types of meetings, the regular and the ad-hoc. The regular meeting should be held at least once a week and is oriented to family maintenance, proactive problem solving, and teaching/learning. Maintenance time is devoted to receiving feedback on how well family rules and practices are operating and to making needed adjustments. In addition, maintenance also serves as a good time for family members to report how things are going in their lives.
Proactive problem-solving concerns the anticipation of a potential problem which a member of the family thinks will occur in the future and should be dealt with before the fact. One type of proactive problem solving is advance planning for a specific event. Examples include planning a family trip, behavioral expectations for an upcoming family reunion and preparing for the holiday season. The other type of proactive problem solving focuses on day to day routines. These include setting guidelines and rules for issues such as homework, bedtimes, sleeping at a friend’s house, curfews, household chores, cell phone usage, etc. Boundaries based on consistent and understandable rules provide children with a structured world which is predictable and secure. This helps children to meet their need for power, by promoting self-awareness, and their need for freedom by establishing parameters within which they can then manage aspects of their own lives. The teaching/learning segment of the meeting provides an opportunity for the family to discuss a broader issue that might involve the acquisition or imparting of new information. Initiation of these activities is usually undertaken by the parent, yet as confidence increases over time children tend to take more of a leadership role. A good example of a teaching/learning meeting would be a discussion on drugs and alcohol. Utilizing the family meeting for talking about a “hot topic” serves to neutralize the awkwardness for parent and child.
There are no strict guidelines as to the best time and place for a meeting. Some families will choose to hold them immediately after a family meal at the dining room table. Others might choose a weekend morning. The key is in making the effort to hold the meeting and to plan a backup time if some unforeseen event causes a meeting to be canceled.
The initial meeting should have two goals. First, the reason for having a meeting must be communicated. This is not a shared decision because attendance is not an option for the children. Therefore, parents must be very clear in stating that the meeting is an attempt for all members of the family to work together to make their family a safe and special place. Parents should talk about their own needs to feel successful as parents and should also mention that the meeting format represents an opportunity for the children to have a forum for input into family decision making.
An ad-hoc family meeting can be called my any member of the family and is usually devoted to a specific issue that requires a timely resolution. Parents should take responsibility for finding the time to schedule the ad-hoc meeting even if it is a child who is requesting that a meeting is needed.
The family meeting process provides the structure that will go a long way in keeping a family emotionally healthy and strong.
by Dr. Richard C. Horowitz, Parenting/Family Coach