With four boy children aged 10, eight, six and a half, and almost five to get ready for school each morning, followed by running the gauntlet of domesticity in the afternoon, family life was beginning to resemble a well-shaken bottle of pop; explosive and with everyone running, shrieking for cover.
The power struggles were growing exponentially and the future stretched before me; a house full of teenage boys and a stressed, harangued mother. It did not look bright.
The final straw was being forced to park up during a school run as their antics were making driving conditions dangerous. Looking at my sons’ petulant faces mid-rant, I realised the roadside was probably not the best place to have such a conversation.
That afternoon, I called a family meeting.
Fully expecting to be met with resistance, I was pleasantly surprised to see them flock to the table.
Aoife Lee, parent coach and founder of Parent Support, (www.parentsupport.ie) encourages her clients to hold family meetings and finds they work well.
“They are a great opportunity to have the entire family assemble,” she says. “They can be regular or for times when you feel they are simply needed.”
The benefits of such a gathering are many, as Aoife points out.
“Not only do they create a space for everyone to communicate, they also provide support for all involved. Children learn that talking through the trickier times does work. It also allows them an opportunity to have a say in certain parts of family life, making decisions and even problem solving, all of which can really boost their self-esteem.”
Emily Rainsford Ryan from Athy, Co Kildare, calls regular meetings with her children when she feels things are out of kilter or if someone is in dispute with another person.
“Usually it is the three older boys [17, 14, and 11] who are present but we have had the younger ones [seven and four] attend too. For us, meetings help get things out in the air and aired, rather than them festering.”
Opposition and strife in the family unit are inevitable, especially when younger children want to regain some of the control they feel they are losing. Often, it is the very proximity of family members sharing the same living space that sparks off disagreements. So is calling a meeting just going to fan already glowing embers? How do you create boundaries and, perhaps more importantly, how do you have people respect them?
Pauric Dooley is a teacher at St Augustine’s School, Blackrock, Co Dublin. He weighs in with some tips on how to regroup when the focus becomes lost.
“As you’d expect, at times the meeting might have to be stopped if an issue arises between individuals. Often though a gentle reminder of ‘what should be happening now?’ can get everyone back on track. This can allow those aggrieved to share their thoughts and others to have empathy. Regardless, it is important that the outcomes are clear and everyone is in agreement with whatever changes are suggested.”
In Emily’s house, while meetings are taken very seriously, “they are always heated — who likes being corrected? Parents with their failings are not let away with anything either! It really is in the following days, when we all calm down and have processed what was said, that the discussion is much clearer.”
Aoife Lee adds: “Boundaries are created by reminding everyone the family meeting is not the time to be unkind or disrespectful. Have a good idea beforehand about what you might like to discuss. Allow everyone time to talk and have their say. When we feel listened to we feel appreciated and understood.”
Holding a family meeting can be a daunting task, especially if you are worried about things getting out of control. If someone is reluctant to attend, invite them to give it a try but don’t push. Keep the meeting short — 20 minutes is perfect initially.
Aoife outlines some further tips to help your first family pow-wow run smoothly.
“Create a space like the kitchen table or sit together in the living room — with the TV and phones off to avoid distraction! Some nice snacks might go down well. And when you’re done, finish up with each person sharing one thing they like about each member of the family. This can be a really lovely way to wind down on a positive note.”
So what did I learn from our first family meeting? It is by no means the answer to my short fuse and detonation switch, but it’s a start. In fact, I have already been asked when’s the next one.