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Do You Have a Family Constitution?

The amount of time and energy we place on talking about the constitution seems to gain greater importance as we see how other societies not privileged to have a unified code descent into chaos. When a group of people are not governed by a cohesive set of rules, anarchy ensues.
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One of the main topics of conversation that contribute to the politically-charged climate of Washington, DC these days is the constitution. From marriage equality, to abortion, to executive orders, it seems like the thread that binds political discord is how to view and understand the founding document of our republic.

The amount of time and energy we place on talking about the constitution seems to gain greater importance as we see how other societies not privileged to have a unified code descent into chaos. When a group of people are not governed by a cohesive set of rules, anarchy ensues.

The role of a constitution in averting pandemonium applies to another, significant cluster of people: your family. Allow me to share a case I worked on several years ago that highlights this point. Jane, a married 42-year-old mother of three, came to counseling for assistance with what she referred to as a "chaotic home." During the initial therapy session, Jane elaborated on the sense of disarray in her home and particularly emphasized the tension that existed between her children. She described how her children, two boys aged 15 and 12, would sometimes play nicely together but overall had a vitriolic relationship that often included physical fights. Jane was particularly concerned with the brutality that existed between her boys that would often begin as play wrestling but would rapidly descend into an aggressive fight. As Jane noted, "I think it would be better if they played other games together that do not involve any physical fighting even in play."

I asked Jane about bringing her boys into session. When the boys and I met they talked about their relationship and some of the games they liked to play. They both seemed to enjoy wrestling with each other. However, older brother, David, noted that sometimes he felt that his younger brother, Justin, takes the fighting too seriously to which Justin responded, "Well, you're just a wus." David seemed embarrassed by Justin's comment and apologetically told me that Justin, "sometimes becomes like this." He also said that their mother hates it when Justin "goes overboard." Justin disagreed and said that "Dad has no problem with it so whatever."

I asked about other things that their mother and father disagreed about to which the boys responded with a list of other parent disagreements including video games they are allowed to play, TV shows that are acceptable, and overall family manners. Based on the conversations with the children, it became evident that Jane and her 46-year-old husband, Mike, had very different ideas about family and parenting.

After some initial ambivalence and convincing, Mike agreed to join his wife in session. I initiated a discussion about the family's leisure activities which revealed that the boys and their father often watch wrestling on TV together much to the dissatisfaction of Jane. Jane also revealed that her husband did not find the boy's relationship problematic and would often say that "the boys have a much better relationship than I ever had with my brothers." Jane commented that she also felt that her children had a better relationship with each other than she ever had with her older siblings, but she still felt that "just because I had it bad it does not mean my kids need to suffer." When I asked Jane to elaborate on how she "had it bad" growing up, she described one older brother in particular that was extremely abusive towards her in the past including subjecting her to physical pain.

When Jane confronted Mike about the wrestling, he responded, "What's wrong with a little fighting?" This disparity in parenting approaches created a sense of confusion for the children exemplified by them not knowing what was permitted and what was not when it came to sibling engagement and aggression.

An important facet of healthy families is having parents who convey partnership and consistency in their childrearing and offer similar massages in their parenting practices. Parents who support each other and work together on parenting decisions are more likely to have adaptive and cooperative children than parents working against each other in parenting. When parents disagree about parenting practices it creates uncertainty for children in many areas of their life including family rules, procedures, and standards. Children are then uncertain about what is permitted and what is not.

Working together with a spouse on developing similar parenting ideas is known as co-parenting. Developing a co-parenting plan necessitates open communication between parents and a willingness to be influenced by the childrearing ideas of partners.

Let's get back to Jane and Mike. In a series of joint sessions, Jane and Mike were able to explore their goals of parenting and were able to develop a consistent set of parenting guidelines including rules governing TV watching and sibling interactions. I helped them create a family constitution based on these agreed-upon family rules. This constitution was actually written down and hung on the kitchen fridge. It took some time for the children to get used to the new family rules and even more time to get used to the fact that their parents were finally on the same page when it came to family issues. Sporadic ensuing sessions were used to help both Jane and Mike follow the family constitution consistently. Both Jane and Mike reported that the family constitution created a more peaceful home environment for all.

The relative calm and tranquility that we enjoy in the United States of American can be attributed, in part, to a founding document that serves as the foundation for the guidelines that govern our society. Families need a similar governing set of rules to create a sense of calm and tranquility in the home. So gather the founding members of your family for a convention and start crafting a family constitution.