Family meetings can also be a good time for parents to bring up various discipline issues that are a continued source of frustration. But in order to prevent this from being seen as a lecture session, and to ensure they accomplish your goals, do your best to stick to this formula:
1. State the complaint.
Give the parent two or three minutes to air their grievance without the children interrupting. Take what time is necessary, but try to state your point briefly and concisely. Rambling on for longer than a few minutes tends to make it feel like a scolding or lecture session to children.
Express the problem using both facts and emotions whenever possible. For example: “Running in the house is against the rules because it’s dangerous. There are too many things to trip on and too many sharp tables and countertops that could cause a serious injury.” Then: “It worries me every time I see you run in the house because I remember a news story about a little girl who was doing just that when she fell and hit her head, and then a few hours later she was dead from a brain aneurysm. It also makes me upset that I have to tell you several times. When you don’t listen, it makes me feel like you’re disrespecting me as a parent and don’t care about my feelings.”
Or take the case of a teenager sneaking out and ignoring all the household rules: “I’m extremely frustrated that you continually break rules of the house and ignore what we tell you. It seems obvious to me that you desire your independence and think our demands are silly. But I don’t think you’re accurately assessing the risks that are out there for someone your age. It’s not that I think you’re irresponsible, but I remember myself how many opportunities there were to do something stupid, and how difficult it could be to always make the right decision, especially around friends. It’s not about distrusting your character as a person, it’s concern about the environment you’re in, which can cause even the best of teens to make serious mistakes that will haunt them the rest of their lives. It also sets a bad example for your younger siblings, who then feel they don’t have to listen to anything I tell them.
“Most of all, I don’t think you realize how much it worries me every time you sneak out at night and I have no idea where you are. It causes a lot of stress and anxiety. I want to allow you the freedom to grow up and become more independent, but we have to find a solution where this can happen without you disrespecting our authority. We’re still morally and legally responsible for everything you do, and if anything were to happen, I could never forgive myself.”
2. Get the child’s perspective
Behavior is seldom random or meaningless. And especially when kids repeatedly engage in behavior that drives you crazy, it’s because that behavior is filling some sort of purpose, need, or desire. Yet parents often don’t take the time to try and understand the child’s perspective.
Family meetings provide the opportunity to change this pattern. So once the parent is done talking, allow the kids a chance to respond and give their side of the story. You might ask probing questions such as: What were you thinking at the time? How do you see things? What were you feeling? But otherwise don’t interrupt them. Show them the same courtesy by listening intently without interrupting.
A teenager who continually rebels or breaks the rules may be frustrated because she feels she’s treated like a child, and that there’s no way for her to earn your trust or additional freedom through responsible behavior, so she might as well rebel. Getting your child’s view of things is a necessary step towards effectively resolving the issue.
There may also be instances when children don’t have an immediate response, especially when it comes to teens and older children. That’s okay. Don’t force it, as this will usually just lead to an argument. Instead, say something like: “You don’t have to answer right now. If you’d like to think about it some, you can answer at the next meeting or even sometime during the week if that’s more comfortable for you.
3. Try to compromise to come up with a solution
Some parents see compromise as a dirty word. When children push their instinct is to push back to “show them who’s boss.” But compromise can be your best asset when it comes to securing prosocial behavior in kids. Children are not slaves, they are young human beings who dislike being ordered around for no apparent reason as much as you would. There are some areas where there can’t be compromise, and you should let your kids know as much. But in most instances there are also places where a compromise can be reached, and doing so will earn you more compliance and less argument when you really do need to put your foot down.
So ask everyone directly: “What can we do to solve this problem?” Then try to negotiate a solution in the style of a U.N. convention or a board room solving a business problem. For example, a solution to the running in the house issue might be to set aside a specific safe spot where they can jump up and down or otherwise release energy, and have them come to you whenever they’re feeling restless. The rebellious teen might be soothed through negotiating a specific system wherein she can earn more freedom and privileges through responsible behavior.
You should also come up with a penalty together for future rule breaking: Anyone who continues to run in the house after the first reminder will be given 30 minutes of quiet time reading books or doing a puzzle. Or: If I find you missing and don’t know where your are, the police will be called and you’ll loose further freedoms.
4. Know what’s appropriate for this venue and what isn’t
Most common discipline issues can be addressed during family meetings. But parents will also need to use their discretion in deciding what topics are appropriate for this menu and which need to be handled in a more discrete way. There may even be times when you want to call a separate meeting in secrecy with just you and the child in question.
If your attempts at this come off looking and feeling like an intervention, or if the family member in question feels singled out and attacked, this will render your efforts counterproductive. Improperly handled discipline issues may also add fuel to sibling disputes. If it has the aura of a child being “chewed out” in front of the family, his or her siblings may then proceed to use this parental disapproval as a weapon, drawing an aggressive retaliation from the child who felt attacked. Two things will prevent this from happening:
Before you start you might expressly state that this time the incident(s) in question involved one particular child, but next time it could be someone else. State that you want everyone to listen because it applies to everyone, even if they weren’t the offending party this time. Better yet, if it’s possible to discuss the topic without naming names, do so.
Keep it civil and productive. If you calmly discuss a topic without condemning the child in question and then try to come up with a solution that works for everyone, there is no ammunition for siblings to use. If you gripe and complain and yell at one child, then there is.