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Catholic Family Fuel: Lessons from family dust-ups and melt-downs

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October 21, 2011

By Sean Reynolds

Looking back over nearly 30 years of marriage, the toughest times were always when our family was stretched thin. We were either too busy or focused on the wrong things, or both. The result? Individually, and as a family, we became emotionally fragile, brittle and inflexible, hypersensitive, sometimes hurt and angry and wondering how we got into such an ugly place.


We grew harried and ragged when over-busy work schedules prevented evening meals together; when the flu brought us to a standstill; when worries of all sorts corroded our conversations with edgy and sometimes icy overtones; when the normal weekend family chores like laundry and shopping went by the wayside due to swim meets, soccer games, scouting weekends and work commitments; when our parents’ failing health broke our hearts while demanding loads of time, attention and care; and when all of the above and then some would converge and collide on a given weekend.


Lots of families have had far more to contend with, so there’s nothing special about this list other than it was ours. Maybe a few of the lessons we learned from our many family dust-ups and melt-downs might help families in similar straits:


Doing too much. I recall it was a Jesuit priest who told us about “overshoot and collapse.” Here’s the idea: when our plans outstrip our capabilities and resources we overshoot what’s possible by a small margin, and everything seems just fine, at least for a while. Then (much to our surprise!) the whole thing collapses because we’ve gradually depleted ourselves without noticing.  If there’s little or no “slack time” in our family lives, and we’re running from one commitment to the next week after week, we’re likely in an “overshoot and collapse” scenario. And one thing’s for certain:  the unexpected will happen, and when it does, there will be far too little time and energy available to adjust. Collapse is all but inevitable.


Benjamin Franklin had this great advice, “Do everything in moderation, including moderation.” Consider a given week. Between work, school, athletics, chores, family commitments, etc., etc., is our family (over)programmed to the breaking point? Hint: if most evenings and weekends are spent transporting children to athletics practices and events, with little or no time to eat together, talk and regroup, “collapse” may be right around the corner!


Do the right things. Take out a sheet of paper and draw two big circles.  In the first write down the top 10 things that absorb your family’s “disposable time” — that is what’s left after non-negotiables like work, school, homework and meals (and if work is eating your family alive, maybe it should be negotiable). Then, in the other circle, write down the top 10 things that are most important to you as a parent for the well-being of your family and its members. (By the way, this is a great exercise to do with your spouse or even better, in a family meeting.)


Now compare the two circles and draw some conclusions. If the two circles line up, your family’s beliefs likely are in line with your family’s behaviors.  If the two circles have little relationship with each other or are in conflict, it’s time for a family meeting.


In a healthy family, the second circle will have words like communication, meals together, family play and fun, support and love. In a Catholic family, that list will expand to contain words like faith, Eucharist, service, prayer, faith formation, fellowship, etc… Such are foundational to healthy Catholic families, and if they’re not there in some form in our both circles, we’ve somehow missed the mark. Our task, then, is to make sure what’s most important (circle two) is what we’re authentically living and modeling with and for our children (circle one).


Granted, this demands serious self-discipline and tough-love parenting in an entertainment-saturated, option-overloaded culture that idolizes busyness, but the payoff is the peace that comes from aligning our actions with our beliefs — and modeling that kind of integrity for our children.


When depleted, H.A.L.T. So what to do when all the warning signs of overshoot and collapse are there (short tempers, frustration, exhaustion, etc…)? It’s time to stop, pull back, assess and re-order our family life and priorities. Trouble is that we may be so frayed by the symptoms that we can’t get to the underlying causes. At that point a counselor might help.


One such counselor during a very tough time shared this gem with us: If you’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired — HALT! Don’t try to work out conflicts or hurt feelings but postpone your conversation until you’re not hungry, angry, lonely or tired. In other words, halt, before you say something you’ll regret. It’s good to remind ourselves and our kids to halt, cool down and think it over, and come back later when we’re ready to talk without doing harm. Jesus said to forgive seven times 70 times. If we learn to halt, step back, assess and re-order our family priorities, we hopefully won’t be in need of quite that much forgiving.  


Reynolds is director of the archdiocesan Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry.

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