Family meetings can help you find ways to function more successfully
Many people use the turn of the calendar year to resolve to improve themselves in different ways -- eat healthier, exercise more, read more, etc. But what if you resolved to improve how your family functions?
"When I work with families, I often say to them at the beginning of a new year, 'If you had a magic wand and could make this family function better, what would the family look like?'" said Clifton Saper, PhD., a clinical child and family psychologist and assistant vice president for behavioral medicine integration at Amita Health Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital Hoffman Estates.
He starts by urging each family member to think about how their improved family would look. "Then I ask. 'What would need to happen in order for your family to look that way? And what part would you need to play?'"
Many of the families that Saper works with in therapy are in crisis. But, he said, any family can benefit from a family-meeting approach to dealing with problems.
Saper said that a family meeting often starts with people pointing out what other people in the family could do differently. Instead, the focus should be on the positive things each person could do -- things like be more appreciative, let other family members know how you feel, communicate more, and be more understanding of how other people might be feeling.
Next, family members should think of specific things they could do that are achievable in small steps. For example, if the goal is to be more appreciative, agree to write down two things every day that you appreciate about your family. Or each family member could keep a journal of how he or she is trying to make a positive change.
In holding this kind of meeting, Saper cautioned, it is important to avoid pitfalls. One common one is that parents often try to set the agenda. Instead, every family member should offer ideas, and then the family as a unit should work to winnow those ideas down and prioritize them.
He also suggested that the meeting should be announced ahead of time, so that people can think about what they want to say. And the meeting should focus more on feelings than on actions.
It is critical that everyone understand where everyone else is coming from. It is unlikely, for example, that teens will decide that one of their goals is to hang out more with their parents. And while children as young as 5 or 6 can participate in a family meeting, young children might have trouble articulating what they want.
Saper suggested checking in on progress toward goals every few weeks if possible. You could use a shared notes function on smartphones or an old-fashioned list on the refrigerator. Little kids might need a chart with stickers to note their progress.
The important thing is to keep communicating and keep recognizing both the goals and the efforts people are making toward those goals. In the end, though, families that make the effort might be surprised at how much easier it is than they thought it would be.
"Generally everybody in the family wants the same things," Saper said. "It's usually not difficult to be on the same page."
• Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of Amita Health, which is comprised of 19 hospitals and more than 230 sites of care, including Amita Health Alexian Brothers Women & Children's Hospital, Hoffman Estates. AmitaHealth has 900 providers in its medical groups, more than 26,000 associates and 7,000 physician partners and serves over 4.3 million residents in the Chicago area. For more information about Amita Health's programs, locations and services visit www.amitahealth.org. If you would like information on children and family services at Amita Health, call (855) 383-2224.