Let’s talk: How to hold family meetings

Keep it short. Everyone gets a turn to talk without interruption, without criticism.

Far from the workplace, the agenda requires an informal check-in regularly. All corporate voices are heard down to the 3-year-old. It’s the family meeting – what more therapists and parent education groups suggest for anchoring relationships in the sea of busy schedules.

In fact, Eastern Washington University faculty in children’s studies have noticed more parents holding these short meetings weekly or monthly – not necessarily at dinner time. The sessions let each member talk about the week, individual plans and any concerns.

“It’s just an opportunity to bring everyone together very intentionally to have face time with one another, literally, but also to strengthen the bonds,” said Deanna Trella, EWU director of children’s studies.

“Everyone has the opportunity, ideally, to voice any concerns that they have, to identify things that are going well for them … It’s intentionally bringing families together and to start thinking about themselves as a unit that works together to maintain the home, to maintain healthy relationships.”

Healthychildren.org recommends that meetings happen at a regular, pleasant time, such as over a shared dessert or before family game night.

Such roundtables can help build children’s skills in communication and cooperation along with self-esteem. Children start to see that their opinions matter, and that they play a role in the family.

The Center for Parenting Education, a national resource group, also encourages regular family meetings where, “the children are treated like valued members of the family whose ideas are listened to and considered.”

If kids feel they have a voice in matters, they are more likely to feel engaged about contributing to the family, Trella said. “I think it creates more family harmony.”

It’s similar to how adults in the workplace feel better about having a say in what they do at a job, she said, instead of being delegated tasks.

Family meetings work best if they’re kept short, Trella said.

“Avoid a very long meeting, and avoid one person commandeering the entire conversation,” she said. “Avoid a laundry list of what to discuss.”

Sticking even to informal talking points can be tricky, without wiggles or groans. And among family members prone to interrupt, some parents employ an object passed around that the speaker holds, whether it’s a talking stick or stuffed animal.

“In families where there are issues with a lot of talking over people, and people maybe not listening, it’s about creating habit,” said Mary Ward Lupinacci, a lecturer in EWU children’s studies who has worked as a behavior specialist and school counselor.

“You can use a talking stick, a wand or stuffed animal, and when someone is holding it, it’s their time to talk.”

If family members really need to air topics or even grievances, that should be encouraged, Ward Lupinacci said. If a subject drags on without an apparent resolution, parents can opt to postpone the matter until another family meeting.

Also, she said parents can model discussing frustrations in more positive ways.

“The thing that comes up when I’m working with families over and over again is the issue of time and schedules,” Ward Lupinacci said. “I have so many parents I work with who will say, ‘We had this issue; my kid had a meltdown in the grocery store, but we were in such a hurry that we couldn’t deal with it. We couldn’t process it because we were going to be late to our next activity.’ ”

By day’s end, the moment for teaching is usually lost, she said. Ahead of family meetings, all members can take time to process something that didn’t go well. They can take some ownership about their roles, then give voice to that.

“Maybe a couple of things happened during the week that we wished would have gone differently, so we take some time to process them, and then we come together,” Ward Lupinacci said. “The emotions aren’t quite as high, and you can really take advantage of teaching moments in an intentional way. It’s predictable. Kids like things that are predictable. It’s more proactive, rather than always reacting.”

She also likes that the family meetings encourage a voice for kids in a safe space.

“The things we teach and model for our kids within the family unit really can have some of the most lasting impacts on their abilities to communicate and problem-solve when they’re out in the world without us,” Ward Lupinacci said.

She said some families frame talking points and feelings around “highs and lows” in recent days. Others use terms to talk about “a rose and a thorn” or “a peach and a pickle.”

Parents should consider children’s ages around what to expect, like keeping things short and fun for preschoolers. From teenagers, parents shouldn’t be surprised by push-backs or apparent disinterest.

“As parents, it’s identifying that kids are going to have different investments in these meetings,” Trella said. “Little kids might be really excited because they get a voice. Older kids might be unwilling to participate, so it’s identifying that hook.”

Parents should just push through any teen reluctance without patronizing them, she said, because it’s a natural part of development for them to pull away somewhat and seem more interested in friends.

“Whether they show it or not, they’re very much keenly interested in staying engaged in families,” Trella said. “They still need parents; they still need guidance; they still want to be engaged even if they are slamming doors and pushing away.”

Some kids might enjoy having a journal to write ideas or goals for family meetings. Parents should try to keep a balance, however.

“We don’t want to overdo it in a way that everyone dreads it,” added Ward Lupinacci. “Keep a balance of fun, and meaningful and deep. We can’t force kids to talk about things if they’re not ready. The more we push if they’re not ready, it becomes more of a performance.”

Other tips include:

Keep meetings to 20 or 30 minutes, or shorter for little kids, unless the family wants to continue.

Someone should write brief notes on main points, goals and agreements.

Everyone should understand that parents have the final word in difficult decisions.

To stay upbeat, one question to ask kids is, “What’s the funniest thing that happened at school?” Or, “What’s the best thing that’s happened to you this week?”

Avoid controlling everyone’s participation. Let everyone join but don’t expect a lot from children who are 3 and younger. Anticipate a few challenging moments.