Debbie Lee, MA, MFT
The Importance of Family Meetings & Checking In With Your Children During Quarantine
My husband and my two boys have been home now for 2.5 weeks and it has been a rollercoaster, for sure. Some days go by quickly and smoothly and I feel we can actually do this and come out stronger as a family. Then there are days when my children won't stop fighting, I feel exhausted and burnt out, we are not following any sort of schedule, and it's only 10am! There are some wonderful things about staying home but it is also hard!
Not to mention all of the emotions. I know I have felt sad, lonely, depressed, anxious, scared, angry, frustrated, helpless and also happy, content, joyful, and even grateful. That is a lot to feel in a two week period for an adult. Now take a moment and imagine how your children might be feeling. Sure, our children are resilient and they are so in the moment that they can adapt to almost any situation but don't forget that they feel emotions, too. All of a sudden they aren't allowed to go to school, see their friends or family members, or go to their favorite parks, museums, libraries, play centers, etc. It's a big change for them and they probably feel the same mix of emotions as we do but depending on their age they may not be able to make sense of their feelings or verbalize them. You might notice your child is testing you more, or they are having more tantrums, or they are cranky more than usual. They might not be able to tell you but they are under stress, too, as they adjust to this new way of life. That's why it is so important to check in with your children.
I'm guessing most of you by now have spoken with your children about COVID-19 and why we are all staying home. If you haven't, definitely begin by taking the time to sit with your children and talk to them about it in an age appropriate way. There are lots of articles about talking to your children about coronavirus so I'm not going to focus on that in this post but if you need resources, here are some good articles:
I want to focus on what to do after you've had the coronavirus talk. During times like this when things feel uncertain and there are so many emotions, it's even more important than ever that your children feel safe, secure, and heard. Keep checking in with your children and ask them how they are doing with the new schedule? How are they feeling now that everyone in the family is home every day? Is there anything they want or need during this time at home?
After that, the most important thing for you to do, as their parent, is to LISTEN! Give your child space to share. Don't dismiss their feelings. Don't interrupt them and tell them it's going to be okay. Listen, acknowledge their feelings, and when they are done you can problem solve or reassure them. Also don't rush them or be surprised if you get a one word answer or no answer. They might not be ready to share right away but they might open up when you least expect it - during dinnertime, bathtime, bedtime or even in the middle of their play. You can ask follow up questions like "Tell me more," "What are you scared of?," "What do you feel sad about?," "How can I help?" but try not to ask too many questions. You don't want them to feel interrogated. You want them to feel your presence, your love, and your care. You want to communicate to them that you are a safe person they can come to and share their feelings with. You will listen, you care, and you can handle their emotions.
Also be sure this time is for your child. You can share that you, too, feel scared or sad at times but focus on them and their feelings and reassure them that you are there for them. This communicates to your child that they matter and that their feelings are heard. Find time to share your own fears or anxieties with a partner, friend, family member, or therapist.
Also be prepared that they may share something they are upset about with you. Maybe you lost your temper the other day when they refused to clean up their toys. Or the stress of homeschooling your children while trying to maintain your job got to you and you snapped at them when they asked for another snack. Or you're so overwhelmed and busy that you haven't had time to play with your kids and they miss you. It can be hard to hear all of this and you'll have your own feelings but breathe and try to stay present with them. It's important for your child to be able to express these feelings to you without fear of being punished or shamed. Listen and validate their feelings. "It was really scary when I yelled the other day, huh?" Take ownership of your part and apologize. "I'm sorry I lost my temper. That probably didn't feel good." Let them know you are going to handle things differently next time and reconnect. "I was feeling rushed and yelled but next time I will slow down and maybe we can clean together." This is called rupture and repair which could be a whole post on its own because you will go through rupture and repair a million times with your kids. The important thing is to allow space for their feelings to be heard and to repair the relationship. Let your child know that you take responsibility for your actions, you hear them, and you will make changes. Ask if they accept your apology or if they need anything from you. Then hug, high five or find some way to connect.
One thing we have incorporated as a family, since the quarantine, to help foster better communication is a weekly family meeting. We've done family meetings before on several occasions but it's usually been when there's an issue that needs to be addressed or when we think it might be helpful to communicate something to our children as a family. But after an entire week home together, my husband and I decided to do family meetings every week. We've now done two family meetings and I love them. It gives us all a chance to sit down together as a family without any distractions where we share and listen to each other. I highly recommend family meetings in general, but especially during this stressful and extraordinary time when we're all home together for an extended period of time, family meetings seem needed more than ever.
So here's how to have a family meeting:
Decide a day and time of the week that works for everyone in your family to sit and meet together for 15-30 minutes every week without distractions.
For our family Friday nights after dinner work best. We've gotten through the week and we're excited for the weekend so it seemed like a natural time to check in as a family.
Set ground rules.
In our family, there are no phones or distractions. My kids are 6 and 3 so that rule is mostly for my husband and me and we let our kids play with toys, if needed. Age 4 is probably when most children are developmentally ready for family meetings so our 3.5-year old is probably a little young but he participates and enjoys being a part of the meetings. When he was younger, we did have family meetings without him when we needed to address something with our oldest. Decide what is best for your children and your family.
The other rule we have is only the person holding the "talking stick" is allowed to talk. Everyone else listens until it is their turn. We let the boys choose the object for the "talking stick" and of course they each chose different objects so we use both.
Decide on an agenda and let everyone contribute to the agenda.
Our children are young so for now we have the same format for each meeting. We each answer the following questions: How are you feeling? Is there anything you want or need? (To help narrow this question, we also ask is there anything you want or need this weekend since we do our meetings on Friday nights.) Is there anything else you want to share with our family? Then our oldest usually adds one last fun question like, what is your favorite dinosaur or what is your favorite animal?
Make it collaborative and let everyone contribute. Make sure there is some sort of format that allows everyone to share openly and honestly.
If an issue is presented, then allow time for brainstorming solutions.
Discuss each option and decide on one everyone can agree to. If everyone cannot agree, then leave it for the next meeting and give everyone time to marinate on the proposed solutions or come up with new ones that might incorporate everyones needs and concerns.
The meetings don't have to be just about issues or conflict.
They can also be a time to share good news, propose an idea to the family, plan a family vacation, or even play a game together. The point of the family meeting is to create time and space to be together, communicate with each other, and learn how to work together as a family. Not all meetings may go well but don't give up. I can definitely imagine difficult meetings when my boys are teenagers but my hope is that we are building a foundation of listening, communicating, problem solving, respecting each others differences, and hopefully growing stronger as a family so that difficult meetings in the future will go as smooth as possible.
Decide how meetings end.
Keep to a time limit so meetings don't go on forever. Anything that wasn't addressed can be discussed at the next meeting. If you're having weekly meetings, a week isn't too long to wait.
Decide on some sort of ritual or tradition to end meetings. In our family, we say one thing we are grateful for before bedtime but I could see us incorporating gratitudes at the end of every family meeting. Get creative and find your ending ritual.
So the moral of this post is your children have emotions and, like us, they need space to share and express their feelings. Help them through this strange period by checking with them regularly and start the family tradition of weekly family meetings. Through these interactions you will create a relationship of safety, openness, and communication with your children that will last a lifetime. So don't stop checking in with your kids or having family meetings when the quarantine ends.