By Sarah Messina, Director of Montgomery County ATOD Prevention

I love family meetings, but as a child, I didn’t have the best experiences with them. When I talk to parents about family meetings, they often might bring up some less pleasant memories. Perhaps meetings were only called when someone was in trouble or there was something major to discuss. It makes sense why a lot of people are not fully all-in on family meetings if their only experiences weren’t wonderful! However, I’ve become family meetings biggest fan and today I’m going to tell you why. Using a meeting structure with your children can be fun, bonding, and also make a huge positive different in your relationship with your children and your family system as a whole.

Let’s talk a little bit about the benefits. As the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Prevention Program Director, I talk a lot about risk and protective factors. It can be scary to think about the things that put our kids at risk for drug and alcohol use or depression and anxiety, but it’s important to be aware of them. Some of the current risks are isolation, pandemic-related issues (I.e people being sick, grieving loved ones lost because of COVID-19), and school stress. Here’s the good news. While you can’t control what happens with the pandemic, you do have influence over the most important protective factor for your children: family connection and the ability to communicate within a family. By having family meetings, you can actually help prevent your children from using substances in the future and build stronger connections and bonds. That’s a pretty powerful way to spend 30 minutes!

Reframe the family meeting as something that is fun. You don’t have to sit down and process big feelings or discuss what’s not working in your family system. Family meetings are most successful when they happen regularly and include some lightness and fun for everyone. Think of the meeting as a way to open up conversation regardless of the topic. By talking about funny and light things, you develop the foundation for them to turn to you when things aren’t as fun! Here are some of the activities I love for a fun family meeting:

  • High Low Buffalo: Everyone goes around the table and talks about the high of the day (something great that happened,) the low of the day (something they wish had gone better), and then a buffalo statement (any random thing you want to say!). The buffalo could be a fun fact or a random phrase or snippet they want to bring up. Kids of all ages really enjoy this game. If you make it a regular occurrence in your meetings, they’ll start to look forward to it and some may even plan in advance something they want you to be aware of. When they’re talking about their high, you can connect with them on that and you also get a gauge for what matters to them and how they’re feeling when they talk about their low. You don’t need to address each thing in real time, but it does offer you insights into their minds and the opportunity to circle back if needed.
  • The Skittles Game: Grab any colored candy and an index card or piece of paper. Write down a topic for each color you have in the batch. Green could be to share something you want for the holidays, yellow could be to talk about someone who is important in your life, red could be to share what food you would eat if you could only eat one food for the rest of time. Then, everyone gets a random bunch of the candy and has to answer according to the color breakdown. You can let your children choose the topics, too! This can be super fun and allows for optimal silliness as well as a look into what your kids think about and want to know from others.
  • Questions: This game has many names but it’s pretty simple! Everyone at the table gets to ask the rest of the family a question of their choice. It could be what’s the best thing that happened to you today or what vegetable would you be? Every person answers and you can either allow discussion or have it be a quick response.
  • A question jar: For a little more structure, grab a jar and put random topics on a piece of paper inside of it. People pick a question out and answer/start the discussion. Sprinkle in some more serious questions and light ones – it’s a great way to start discussion.
  • Roses and Thorns: This is very similar to high/low/buffalo, only it just talks about the good and the hard moments. Roses are the good thing from the day, thorns are the things that didn’t go so well. You can start the meeting with these and come back to it during the week if you are curious!
  • Get creative! There’s no right way to do a family meeting. The idea is to make the family meeting less threatening and to foster communication, however that looks for you!

Okay so once you have your structure and your family meeting, how do you know you succeeded? Many times parents will come back and share with me that it went well but their children were just goofy and didn’t express any intimate information. That’s okay! The idea of a family meeting is simply to give you a platform to be able to talk about things both good and bad, light and heavy, when they come up. The more consistently you do this, the more it will become part of what your family does and how you communicate with one another as a system. Communication is so important. You get to model that you can have conversations that are super deep but you can also have conversations that are surface level and through all of it, you have fun together! Don’t get discouraged if it just feels light and fun. That’s a vital aspect of it.

Once you get into the swing of things, you can add to the format of your meetings! It can be fun to plan a family outing or plan a family night together. Your goal is to focus on something you can all work together on and centers on communicating around a goal. Try to do your best to make sure everyone has a voice in what you are doing. All the games listed above include moments for everyone to talk, and that’s purposeful. This can be especially important for your quieter kids!

Another format option is to plan the week as a team. Some families like to meet on the weekends and talk through what’s ahead and hear if there’s anything in particular your children would like to do or for you to know. Another popular idea is to meal plan together and let everyone pick a dinner or flavor for the week. Especially now that we are at home due to the pandemic, this can be a fun way to spice up the week literally and figuratively. I’m also a big fan of allowing your children to choose their chores during the meeting. Plan ahead of time and make a list of the things that need to get done for the week and then let your children choose what they’d like to do. This can decrease conflict by giving them some power in the choice process.

As your kids get more used to family meetings, you can let them take more of a leadership role! You could have them pick a topic for the meeting or even run it and plan what game to play. There’s no age limit for family meetings, either. The earlier you make this part of your routine, the better, but you can start at any time. My oldest is in her 20’s and when she comes home, she jumps right in and engages with my younger kids during our meeting time. Remember: the goal is all about creating a foundation for communication and bringing some joy and lightness to that space. The more you listen, the more they will talk to you – and the more you’re offering your entire family through connection and strong relationships. Let us know how it goes for you! We’re always here to help.

About the author: Sarah Messina is the Director of the Montgomery County Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Prevention Program at Child Guidance. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who is passionate about helping families and communities thrive. She received a post graduate certification from Capella in addictions. In her free time, you can find her walking her two bulldogs with her family!