Family & Education

Let's turn Friday night dinner into Friday night therapy

Family therapist Chana Hughes has tips to make the best of family tensions


Friday evening arrives. The table glistens, perfectly set with gleaming crockery. Family members return from shul to the smell of chicken soup and freshly baked challah. Everyone starts to sing in unison the traditional Shalom Aleichem — wishing “shalom” — peace upon the accompanying angels who have observed peace in the home. The family then sit down to a cordon bleu meal, chatting amicably, appreciating each other and God’s precious gift of life. A beautiful, idyllic scene.

But not quite what happens in many families. All too often, after a tiring week, kids are irritable, and tempers frayed. Children bicker or vie for attention, teenagers can’t believe they have ended up with a family like theirs, husbands don’t get it and mothers roll their eyes with resentment. In fact, it sounds a lot like a family therapy session...

The beauty of Friday nights is how the distractions of the week are temporarily suspended leaving an oasis of time for the family to focus on their relationships. Yet with today’s hectic lifestyles, most people don’t spend much time during the week interacting in an intimate, meaningful way so the unresolved issues simmer until everything comes tumbling out. The calmer space is then used to tell other family members what you really think of them or to finally express your frustrations that you haven’t had a chance to air. To add to the mix, we all have different expectations of Friday night dinners and how nourishing and special they will be. Expectations can be helpful but if they’re held too tightly they will only turn into resentment when they are not met.

A bit of structure is often what’s needed. In a family therapy session, I sometimes mix up the seating. Is a child sitting in between his parents? I ask them to move so that they are next to each other. Parents need to connect as a couple and not just as Mum and Dad. It’s also rarely helpful, although tempting, to try to put a complete stop to all arguments.

Arguing is a Jewish tradition. Famous Talmudic study partners Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakeish argued viciously but were also the best of friends. The trick is not to take the arguments personally and to explore the vulnerable feelings that lie underneath the snappy comments. Sammy complains that he always gets asked to clear in the soup bowls? Maybe he feels low at the moment and needs more appreciation. Jemma lashes out at Mum because she always interrupts her? Perhaps she feels overlooked and needs more love and reassurance.

Seeing a tetchy remark as a request for more understanding takes the heat out of an otherwise rapidly escalating furore. Sometimes a bit of reverse psychology is helpful and giving permission to fight makes it less appealing. Try holding off all arguments until dessert is served at which time everyone has full permission to fight and complain to their hearts’ content. See if the dynamics change when arguing doesn’t meet any disapproval. Finally, sometimes what we need to notice is actually right under our noses.

Some families go around the table, asking each member to share something that they have been grateful for that week or something that they genuinely appreciate. Building on the strengths and resources that you already have as a family will make you see the bigger picture and put all the arguing into perspective.

Family therapy sessions don’t always end with all the difficulties resolved and families skipping off happily into the sunset. But they make people think twice about the meaning of other people’s words and behaviour and open up space to be more curious and less critical, to notice each others’ differences without having to knock them down in the process.

Friday evening draws to an end. The accompanying angels have long since left. The crockery has been scraped and a couple of crinkled napkins lie on the stained white tablecloth. Family members, feeling full and satisfied, express thanks for their meal and make their way to bed. On their way up, they wish each other the traditional greeting: Shabbat Shalom — wishing everyone a peaceful Shabbat, even if it wasn’t quite the way they’d expected.

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