“To err is human, to forgive, divine”
Alexander Pope, 1711
No time in recent history has brought families together, or separated them farther, as during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. While many of us have not been able to comfort and nurture our loved ones in person, neither have we been able to escape the nearly constant togetherness of those with whom we have been quarantined.
Anyone who has spent a rainy vacation weekend sheltered in a tent or hotel room will tell you too much togetherness can drive us apart. In short, all this ‘togetherness’ does not, necessarily, create ‘connectedness’.
We humans are quite social and we do “run in a pack”. I think even the most introverted homebodies are yearning for some social connection after a year of being sequestered at home. However, when confined by space and time we tend to rebel against our situation and this can often manifest in short tempers, terse, acerbic – sometimes hurtful, remarks and hurt feelings of those who are in the path of our emotions.
So, how can we improve our behavior in our home environment? Here’s some helpful tips to “keep calm and carry on” while maintaining peace on the home front.
Gratitude and Acceptance
To maintain harmony within the family, there are two phrases that need to be heard most often in the home; “thank you”, and, “I’m sorry”.
Expressing gratitude and accepting, admitting, and apologizing for, our errors or misbehavior are core tools and requirements of building deep connections with others.
Maintaining an ‘attitude of gratitude’ keeps us mindful of not only ourselves but of others around us. When we are mindful of others we are accepting of them being just as imperfect as we are, ‘perfectly imperfect human beings’. Showing gratitude for even the simplest things done by other family members goes far in nurturing them and creating harmony in the home.
More powerful, still, is our ability to acknowledge our own failures. Whether by children or adults, accepting and admitting when we are wrong puts all family members at the same level of equality. When we admit our wrongs we show that we are, simply, human and not perfect. Apologizing, or saying, “I’m sorry”, is one of the best ways to reset harmony that has been lost.
But, showing gratitude for others and admitting when we are wrong is only a good start. There are many tools that can be used to create, and maintain, and nurture, harmony in the home. One of the best tools to use is the family meeting.
If family members are on edge because of emotional tension, contention and argument or, there are major differences of opinion about rules, routines and the proper care and feeding of home life, a family meeting may be in order. Family meetings give all members of the household a voice and an opportunity to be heard and helps to build respect between family members.
Use these guidelines when scheduling, and holding, a family meeting.
- Get everyone to agree on the time and place. Pick a time to meet when all members can attend without cramping anyone’s schedule.
- Have members generate some issues or topics to be discussed. Don’t be surprised if there are no topics at the ‘first family meeting’. You will probably be provided more than you need at the second.
- Set a time limit for the meeting, whether 10 minutes (probably too short a time) or an hour (maybe too long?). Thirty to 40 minutes is usually about right. Get everyone’s agreement.
- Give each member a fixed period of time to talk uninterrupted, 5-7 minutes. Set a timer. Once all have had their time, open it up for discussion, ensuring that no one is talked over – one voice at a time. If there is trouble with this, the use of a native American tradition of the ‘Talking Stick’ is helpful. It can be as simple as a pencil but whomever is holding the ‘stick’ is the only person allowed to speak.
- Select a leader or ‘facilitator’. This can be helpful to a teen or child who is not feeling they have a voice in the family and wishes to be heard.
- The family meeting is a great place to get the family, as a group, to agree upon the ‘rules of the house’, the general behavior that is expected within the home. This is also the time to set up consequences for when a family member’s behavior deviates from the guidelines. Again, get all participants to agree to the ‘rules’. This may take some negotiating.
- Summarize or recap the meeting with; ‘what is your take away from the meeting’ and ‘what will be beneficial to you and the family as a whole’?
- Schedule the next meeting. Like any organization, the milestones laid down in the first meeting will need review and amending over time. This is what the meeting is for. The rules of the house for a four year old will be different when they are 13 (the 13 year old will tell you this).
Now that you have the meeting and house rules in place, what to do when our family members behave badly?
Parents are often frustrated with how to establish consequences for behaviors from their children, especially teenagers, that they want either diminished in frequency or completely eliminated.
The best way to resolve this is to discuss the behavior that is negatively impacting family life. We can use the family meeting format to address the issue or, if it’s just the behavior of one child, have a sit-down discussion about it. Outline the ‘bad’ or harmful behavior and why it is unacceptable. The child needs to understand the ‘why’ before we can assign any meaningful consequence for ‘misbehaving’.
Once the child understands why the behavior is unacceptable, have the child create a reasonable consequence for the behavior should it continue. As children, or teens, will often do, the consequence they offer may be too weak or ineffectual. If so, offer your critique and suggestions so it can be altered. The child creates, the parent edits.
As with the family meeting, create a future point in time to review and revise based on a few weeks of ‘practice’. Don’t expect immediate compliance. Think of how many of us fail to fully stop at a stop sign. For many of us, it took getting two or three tickets before we learned we are not immune from the traffic laws. Children are no different. They will test the limits of the agreement, and your patience, until they learn these new boundaries.
Remember, gratitude and mindfulness lead to acceptance of others and the understanding that they’re just doing the best they can with what they have to work with. We are all imperfect people in an imperfect world. Knowing that we have tools that can help maintain healthy lines of communication and build respect between family members will help build a strong and healthy family unit.
MAPS, MSW, LCSW
Michael Hugo has combined clinical social work and spirituality his entire career. His understanding of family systems assists in facilitating communication between youth, parents, teachers or other authority figures.
Michael also works with couples assisting them with improving communication, identifying the points of connections and resolving issues utilizing the Gottman methods.
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