A family is group of people that are all regulating their needs for closeness and distance simultaneously and continuously each and every day. What a overwhelming job that is, whether you are a family of three or a family of ten! Just imagine if everyday life was like preparing a meal for a vegetarian, a meat and potatoes kind of person, someone who is lactose intolerant, and a person who eats seafood only, and the meal is supposed to be shared harmoniously and each dish delicious and timed perfectly. You also have to determine who will be the chef and who will assist with the chopping, and if one person will cook everything or one prepare the main dishes and another the sides, and who will set the table and who will clean the pots and pans. Do we have music playing while we make the meal or do we need quiet to concentrate on our process? Do we use the time at the table to have conversation or do we each quietly reflect on our days? Meeting varying needs for nourishment is much like meeting the competing emotional needs of family members. Read on as I offer 4 tips to healthy family togetherness.
#1) Allow opportunities for each person’s preferences to be honored.
Be sure that the the person with the loudest voice or the one most likely to get upset, or the one that always has a plan does not become disproportionately in charge of deciding for the whole family. Adaptability is a skill that serves a person well in his/her life, but we tend to see that sometimes the person with the lowest level of adaptability is rarely challenged to accept the preferences of others. Conversely the person who is most comfortable deferring to the preferences of others misses out on learning how to identify what he/she really wants which can be an essential element of creating a fulfilling life.
#2) Carve out physical space where each person has access to what he/she needs to self soothe.
If you need a quiet place to read, or a place to play drums without driving the whole house away, or a place to journal, or a place to hit a speed bag, or furniture fit for snuggling or desks cleared off for working, be sure that you get creative about how you organize space so that each person knows where to go to regroup. If each person in a family is able to self soothe, then it becomes much easier to tolerate togetherness without it becoming overwhelming or frustrating. It’s also important for each person to come to understand his/her rhythms of closeness and distance. That does not mean that one person never has to attend family meals or never has to spend time entertaining him/herself but simply that each person has some influence over when and how they engage with the family and when and how they disengage with the family. A special note about disengaging: be cautious about an overabundance of disengagement through technology, the here-but-not-here of our current culture. If family meals are held sacred a few nights per week, then make that a technology-free 30 minutes, parents included. The need to for space can become confused with what is actually a fear of being out of touch with the digital world or a habitual checking out that is conditioned rather than coping.
#3) Kids can benefit from differing parenting styles.
Barring an abusive or neglectful manner of parenting, there can be room for more than one way of doing things. More than likely your children have differing temperaments and therefore may naturally respond differently to the same methods of parenting. You can use the feedback of how the family is adjusting and when things run more smoothly as evidence of when to make modifications and which person’s strength in an area of parenting is most helpful. If parents make a decision to approach places where their styles deviate as complementary and not qualify things as the right way or the wrong way, then children may just get the best parts of what each partner has to offer.
#4) Be a family that fosters empathy.
Demonstrate empathy as often as is available to you, be a role model for empathy to your children as well as take note and make mention when you see them communicate or behave with empathy for each other. Common ways of describing empathy is walking in someone else’s shoes or seeing through someone else’s eyes. If empathy is a regular practice in your home, family togetherness will be a more satisfying experience for all members because each person’s experience and emotions will be accepted, even when there is disagreement. It means that each person is loved here which is not the same message as anything goes here. A family can have order and empathy at the same time.
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