I love talking about family chats, which is actually my name for what is formally called ‘planned conversations’ in a parenting environment. Outlining family chats is usually met with a mixture of surprise and pensive reflection. Parents rarely have heard of them, and have hardly ever done them. Despite this, they are really useful. Give them a whirl! They usually end up improving family dynamics, and most people, parents and kids, are pleased they are introduced into a household.

Key points

  • Identify problems and issues your child is having.
  • Don’t overdo family chats, but do them well.
  • Wait until your child is old enough to understand them.
  • Set some “rules” for the family chats.

As a family doctor, I see a lot of analogies between what I do and what is recommended in parenting. This is because an effective GP will act as a guide to the medical world, rather than seeing themselves as an autocratic source of medical information. Similarly, an effective parent will guide their kids through the big wide world, rather than simply telling them what to do and / or doing it for them. In both cases the GP and parent are simply showing respect.

Planned conversations

A good example of this is with planned conversations. If someone is going to the doctor for a sore toe, or a rash on their elbow, they may actually have a hidden agenda; a bigger problem that they may or may not realise they need to talk about. Examples of this would include depression, or relationship problems.

Sometimes when a patient comes for the rash on the elbow, they won’t reveal the bigger issue until the last moment (often because they’re ambivalent or anxious about raising it). This is called a ‘door handle presentation’ as it occurs as the patient puts their hand on the door handle to exit the room!  Door handle presentations are best avoided if possible; they stress out the doctor, who likely thought the consultation was over, and they stress out the patient who is hardly in a good psychological place to discuss an emotional issue.

The way doctors can reduce the chance of this happening is to proactively ask the patient if there are any other problems or issues early on in the consultation. If there are, a planned discussion can occur (either that day or at a mutually agreed later date) rather than both parties trying to rush through the issue. This is where the analogy with parenting comes in.

As a means of identifying any problems your child is having (or to discuss any issues that you may want to with your child), planned conversations are very useful indeed. These conversations allow a ‘space’ where emotionally difficult issues can be raised by both parent and child, and for which the all parties can emotionally prepare themselves. They can take place in a neutral environment, and help all parties understand each other’s point of view. In a family setting, you could call these simply a family chat.

So, what is a family chat, and how and when do you organise one?

Family chats are the planned discussions that we have with our child. They are kind of the family equivalent of a parent-teacher interview or a workplace appraisal of an adult. They are a forum to air grievances and sort out otherwise hidden and buried topics.

Family chats are very useful forums to improve relationships within a family, but need to be approached in the right way. We shouldn’t overdo them, but we should do them well. We should also wait until our kids are old enough to understand what’s going on. This is usually around the age of five, when they are ready for other more structured environments like school.

You can use the fact they are going to ‘big school’ as a reason to introduce family chats—their very own ‘performance appraisal’ (but obviously with a broader agenda than what is simply happening at school.)

Preparation:

  • The adults plan in advance, and talk with each other first (so they go into the chat essentially on the same page). They need to consider their delivery strategy—what exactly they are going to raise and suggest.
  • Time is set aside. It’s important not to schedule chats at times when participants are likely to be tired and lacking focus.
  • The child is also informed in advance, and has an opportunity to prepare. They need to be reassured it’s not an inquisition and they are not on trial or in trouble.

The chat:

  • The environment is prepared (in a neutral territory – not someone’s bedroom), and the TV, computer and phone(s) are switched off.
  • The tone of the meeting should be slightly formal and serious. The meeting should also be brief.
  • The child participates in the chat and what they say is taken seriously.
  • Only problem(s) (the yolk of the egg) are addressed, not the emotional baggage around them (the white of the egg).
  • Everyone needs to be completely clear about what is decided at the end.

The success of these chats is dependent on parents ‘playing by the rules’. Having an inflexible position on something, not being open to ideas, or introducing baggage, such as previous arguments, to the agenda will undermine the process. We’re aiming for an opportunity to increase collaboration, not instruction.

Family chats don’t always succeed at first, and can take some time getting used to (especially the formality aspect). They are more challenging conceptually, especially at first, for your child than for you. However, once everyone gets used to them their positive effect can snowball.