An excellent way for families to improve harmony, practice communication skills, and resolve conflicts is through family meetings. In addition to being helpful, the surprising truth is that meetings can also be fun—and a good time to celebrate efforts and plan and schedule shared activities.

Since the last thing you want to do is to give your kids (or yourselves) a bad experience when you first start, it is good to ask yourself a few questions and talk these over with your partner:

· Are you able to provide both effective structure and a climate of safety for everyone involved?

· Are family members able to listen to one another and communicate without blaming or attack?

· If not, can you provide enough guidance and structure to maintain sufficient harmony anyway?

Getting Started

Let the children know that you will begin holding family meetings to talk about what's going on in everyone's life. If possible, initiate meetings when things are going relatively smoothly. Get the ball rolling when family members aren’t having lots of negative emotions.

Families with high levels of stress and conflict need to make and cultivate time to be together in positive ways, perhaps re-learning or remembering how being with each other can be fun and rewarding.

Initial meetings are best focused on the positive rather than diving into heavy issues. With a parent facilitating the process, start by going around the circle and having each person share things that are “new and good.” Examples would be, “I like my art teacher a lot.” “I had fun out in the garden today.”

Possible Topics

Although a variety of options are possible, consider the following topics as a starter package. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t cover the whole list. Moving from topic to topic and going around the circle, everyone is prompted to: 1. Share something new in their life that they feel good about
2. Express an appreciation for each family member
3. Share something that was recently upsetting
4. Use “I-messages” to help members work out upsets with each other
5. Suggest other topics to be discussed
6. Make decisions about future events
7. Discuss schedules for the coming week
8. Set personal and interpersonal goals for each family member, - ways to help bring out the best in everyone
9. End on a positive note, with some fun, food or frolic!

The Right Timing

Meetings can be arranged ahead of time or requested at other times by any family member. I recommend that meetings happen initially once a week, but many families like to taper off to meeting every other week.

The length of family meetings is largely dependent on the age and attention span of the children. Meetings with two to six-year-olds can last between 10-20 minutes while those with teens can extend up to an hour if the process is working well. Some families are competing with heavy schedules and do better with regular and pre-arranged times for meetings. Other families like to be more spontaneous.

Mealtime is not the best choice for a family meeting. Although the positive elements described above can also happen during meals, the skills for successful expression of feelings are best developed without the distraction of food.

The Right Place

It usually works best to gather in a circle with everyone sitting at the same level, perhaps on the floor with pillows. Convene your meetings in a neutral, fun place at home, and preferably not at the dinner table.

In selecting your spot, you may not want to meet in rooms where high conflict has occurred. Meet in a safe new setting that doesn’t have a lot of negative associations. Also choose a place that is relatively free of distractions. This is a time for cell phones, computers and TV to be turned off.

Leading the Group

The job of the group leader for any given meeting is two-fold: first, to engage each family member and solicit their input; and second, to keep the process focused and moving so that things don’t get bogged down. In the initial phase a parent should manage the meetings to demonstrate the role that an effective leader plays. After a while, as is age appropriate, the kids can take over this role as well. Try to offer children as much power and influence in the decision-making as they can responsibly handle, but no more.

Making It Fun

Many families have meetings on a Saturday morning and then follow-up with a time where they blast out some fun songs, dance and do weekly chores. An excellent song, Clean Up Time, was created for this purpose and can be downloaded for free from the link below.

When discussing possible solutions to problems or challenges, try a technique from business called “brainstorming.” Each member offers an idea or suggestion without criticism from others. This kind of open forum serves to loosen people’s thinking and can add to greater creativity in finding solutions. As the leader notices the discussion moving off track, he or she might say: "That sounds like an issue we may want to discuss at another time. If family members interrupt, you might say, "We really want to hear your opinion, but could you wait until your brother is finished talking?"

Keep It Positive

Part of what family meetings help teach kids is how to both avoid criticizing and show concern for the thoughts and feelings of others through good, attentive listening. Parents should praise and encourage fair treatment as well as coach members not to interrupt. Parents can also model deep breathing as a way to reinforce patience and consideration. If certain family members tend to drone on and on, however, they should be coached to be more concise so as to not lose their audience.

If things become "too hot to handle" or out of control, you may want to take a break for fifteen minutes or so and try again. Although some amount of negative spewing of feelings can be expected and helpful, sometimes it needs to be curtailed and replaced with some good problem solving.

Who Decides What?

Good topics for group democratic votes are things like where or how to spend weekend, vacation or free time. For larger decisions such as those that have financial implications, parents can have the kids offer their ideas, yet might want to make final decisions behind closed doors.

When making group decisions, family members who didn’t get their way can practice being a “consenting minority.” Example: “Even though I would rather do ____, I will make the best of the situation and have a good time.” In this fashion you are teaching an important lesson—how to move beyond self-centered attitudes and go along with the flow of things in a group.

A final key to successful family meetings is to be adaptable and learn from experience. Use what works to help your family ride the ups and downs of family living and to bounce back after stressful events. Families that know how to adapt well tend to have higher levels of family satisfaction.

Bear in mind that all families have problems. The crucial thing is to face challenges squarely and early, find new solutions, test them out, and be willing to admit when an idea doesn’t work out in practice. This is how we learn, grow…….and have fun with one another.

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