How to improve communication in the family?

By: James E. DelGenio MS, LCPC
Senior Staff Therapist,
The Family Institute at Northwestern University

Family meetings for better communication

Once upon a time, families ate dinner together. There was no eating in front of the TV; no texting or answering the phone and no internet. This was a time when families discussed what was going on in the household i.e. news, upcoming events, behavior issues and general discussions. Dinner used to be the natural time for families to discuss their lives, upcoming events and issues of importance.

Today, I find that families rarely eat together, missing the opportunity for family discussion. Child activities including little league, football, soccer, music lessons, dance lessons, and all kinds of after school activities have come to interfere in this essential family event. Families have become ships in the night passing one another as they head out the door. The idea of after school activity is potentially a good one: keep the kids busy and you will keep them out of trouble. However, what has been lost is the sense of family and the opportunity for imparting values and good communication.

When I was a child, dinner time was always between 5 and 5:30pm. I had a lot of freedom but I also knew what was expected of me. In this case, it was “be home by 5pm” for dinner.

We would hear stories, news and discuss family issues. Today parents have become dependent on dual incomes in order to maintain the lifestyle they want to give their family. Both parents feel the need but also the desire to work to maintain a certain lifestyle. However, they often have to work late and have conflicting schedules. This creates a disaster for the their relationship. They too, are ships passing in the night.

Many couples today report they feel disconnected, their communication has suffered and, in turn, so has the level of intimacy they share. This will ultimately lead to bickering, conflict, infidelity and possibly divorce. How sad that an important family event has disappeared without realizing the major negative impact on the family. Even when couples do realize the problem, there is little that can be done since they are trying to stay afloat financially.

Family Meetings: One way to reclaim some of that lost family communication and emotional connection are family meetings. Some families prefer to call them team meetings. Regardless, I encourage families to gather at least once per week to discuss four areas. Ideally, this should be done at the same day and time each week.

There should also be a pre-family meeting for mom and dad to discuss:

1. Issues and connection to one another, such as, affection, gratitude, compliments, and non sexual touch. “Meet and Greet” as it is often referred to, is a hug and kiss when one enters or leaves the home. It is on both to find each other not just the one coming home. This will frequently turn into a family hug, even the dog will want in. This goes a long way in helping maintain emotional connections. In addition, discuss issues with disproportionate work time, me time, family time, and couple time. These will never be proportionate but each should be part of your discussion each week/month.

2. Discuss finances such as bills, budgets, disposable income, spending limits and use of credit cards Assets, savings and retirement should also be discussed periodically.

3. Each plan a date night. Each person plans one date night per month with approval of the other in the pre-family meeting. As far as couples are concerned, I always suggest selecting date nights and putting them on the calendar. You both are expected to plan one date night per month. You select the activity, get it approved by the other and you get the tickets and babysitter. By the way, you each get one veto. In other words, my wife is never going to Chicago Bear game. She hates to be cold; she is just not interested. That’s ok because I’m never going to the opera. Planning is key and date night can’t always fall on the wife to take care of all the details. That takes all the enjoyment away for her.

4. Plan a vacation.

5. Get on the same page for the meeting with the children to ensure parenting as a team.

When the children are included you, of course, want to be a unified front. So, get on the same page with your relationship, parenting, and rules and consequences for the children. How will you handle the morning routine issues in the future. What will consequences be for being uncooperative or breaking the rules.

The general family topics are: News, Compliments, Issues and Feedback. Here are some examples:
1. News: This is a chance to keep everyone up to date of all the family events coming up. The more informed everyone is, the more opportunities to share the scheduled load and the less stress for last minute- must do projects. “We are going to grandma’s house next weekend or Joey has a science project due and he will need craft paper

2. Compliments: Search for things your child is doing well, no matter how small and acknowledge it. It will increase their sense of confidence and self-esteem. Show that you are excited and proud of them. “You did much better getting ready for school on time this week. Let’s keep it up.”

3. Issues: We live in an increasingly complex world that challenges us every day with a wide range of disturbing issues. By initiating conversations with your children you will create an open environment and be able to address the tougher topics i.e. homework, curfew issues, chaotic morning or bedtime routine, alcohol and drug abuse. For example, discuss “the morning routine with Joey outside of the moment because in the moment never works. In the family meeting we say, ‘we all want a more cooperative, peaceful morning to start the day. Let’s try and make that happen.’ This creates a built in reward system even if their is only slight improvement. So you continue that goal until you feel it is consistent enough to move on to something else.

4. Feedback: Listen to your children and allow them the chance to express their concerns, complaints and express their feelings. You will learn more about your child if you open your ears and close your mouth. Try to have some one on one time periodically with each child. Go to McDonalds, and shut your mouth, and open your ears. You will be surprised what a difference it makes in so many ways. It creates a good emotional connection.

I have found that both parents and children love this opportunity. The only concern is that as much as everyone in the house likes this, parents themselves have a difficult time being consistent. They often report that they were consistent initially but the process hasn’t been repeated in weeks. Be consistent! Family meetings are just one way to address poor communication and help nurture relationships within the family.

Zoom Now I can work via zoom with anyone, anywhere in the country and it may still be covered by BCBS Insurance. Check with your BCBS representative for more information. Call James E. DelGenio MS, LCPC, Senior Staff Therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, 847-733-4300 Ext 638.

Disclaimer: This material is meant to be used in conjunction with psychiatric treatment, medication, if necessary, and supportive therapy. Always share this material and your questions about this material with your doctor and therapist.

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