A Three-Point Plan for Parenting Middle Schoolers

Do you have middle schoolers? Are you wondering how to manage these years?

As of today, I have five teens and one pre-teen (plus five young adults). I love teens, they’re interesting, fun to be with, and their worlds are exploding with opportunity. They also need a lot of guidance.

Middle school is a time when kids experience startlingly rapid physical and mental growth. Just yesterday one of my sons called me from the pool and his voice was so deep I couldn’t believe it was him.

Their peers are going through the same process, but my kids, and many of yours, have the added complexity of being adoptees. As kids mature they ask different questions about their stories and ponder the complexities of being separated from their first families. They may wonder, “How did I end up in this family?”

Adoption is always part of their world. Recently my son found an Ethiopian coin and said, “I wonder if this is the exact amount of money my Ethiopian mom needs right now.”

Like mine, some of your teens have an extra layer of not only being adopted but growing up as young black teens in white families. Digging deeper into racial issues and learning from people of color must be added to our parenting plates.

I suggest we focus on three simple things with our middle schoolers:

1. Take every opportunity to connect.

  • feed them – for me, this means making breakfast on school mornings and having substantial snacks after sports practices and games
  • maintain traditions, like Friday pizza night
  • welcome their friends to our home
  • create special moments, like a breakfast date before school
  • be fully present – I need to put my work away before they get home from school
  • gather for family dinner as many nights as possible
  • maintain a variation of your bedtime routines even if they seem too old
  • pause to really listen – put your phone away if that helps (it helps me)
  • in terms of adoption issues, be sensitive, answer questions honestly, and try not to take anything personally

2. Support them as they explore their interests.

  • understand their need to expend energy and develop their interests – my boys need lots of physical activity
  • sports offer structured, supervised time with other adults and peers
  • for kids not into athletics, there are many other activities like Lego Robotics, Boy Scouts, 4H, music, and many clubs
  • youth group – my guys are both old enough now to attend middle school youth group at our church
  • look for opportunities for them to work and earn money to gain financial responsibility
  • support them academically – we’re instituting homework time at the table after dinner

3. Pray

  • I don’t say this lightly; for people of faith, prayer is essential
  • recognize that our teens are facing situations at school we didn’t even imagine when we were teens
  • technology deeply impacts their world, put safeguards where we can
  • but – we can’t shield them from everything; encourage open conversations and trust God
  • remember that prayer is far better worrying
  • pray with them (and over them) before they leave for school and encourage them to pray too

I’m reminded of this quote:

 God acts when we pray and often does more in seconds than we could do in hours or weeks or sometimes years.  John Piper

Take every opportunity to connect, Fill their lives with positive activities, and Pray.

Have a great week, friend.

With courage and hope,


10 Steps for Overcoming Sloppy Parenting Habits

Paying the price for sloppy parenting is no fun – for parent or child.

It would be nice to say this is a theoretical situation, just a teaching moment for parents needing advice, but that’s not the case. Once again, you get to learn from my mistakes.

I have issues with saying, “No.” It’s probably rooted in some big psychological issue a therapist could mine the depths of for hours. But there’s no time for that today.

With one of my kids, in particular, I’ve gotten sloppy. In the spirit of building trust and offering compromises, as well as good doses of conflict-avoidance and fatigue, I’ve neglected to give firm and loving “no’s.”

It’s easy to slide into bad habits that aren’t too noticeable at first until they come back around and bite you in the butt, which is exactly what happened last week.

During a visit with one of my best friends, my child’s behavior was beyond challenging. Out of our routine, lacking sleep, and eating differently were all factors, but it was clear this was also an ingrained habit.

Even parent coaches need coaching sometimes, and my friend is close enough to tell me the truth. “You’ve got to stop allowing him to negotiate with you. Remember, no negotiating with terrorists.”

It doesn’t help that this kid is very smart and, like two of his older brothers, he can make an incredibly convincing argument. One day this will be a strength, I’m sure, but it has become a rather exhausting way to parent.

It’s not fun having my weaknesses pointed out, even by a friend who loves me and loves my kids. It’s not easy shoring up my parenting skills in someone else’s home while my husband is out of town. But after a particularly trying day at the Seattle Center, there was no doubt about it, a firm and simple “no” needed to make it’s way back into my toolbox.

Thankfully, I’ve already had many opportunities to practice, in fact, they seem to come around constantly. I’ve created this problem and I need to fix it.

I’m following ten steps to get back on track.

10 Steps for Overcoming Sloppy Parenting

1.| Recognize the problem.

2.| Be kind to yourself and remember even great parents get off track.

3.| Talk it through with your spouse, a good friend, or even a parent coach.

4.| Determine your strategy for turning it around – I’ll share mine in a moment.

5.| Explain the problem to your child and your responsibility in creating it.

6.| Let him know the new plan. Have compassion; this may be hard for him.

7.| Remind him of your love and what a great kid he is.

8.| Do it – follow your plan. When you slip back into your sloppy habits, correct yourself and get back on track.

9.| Ask a friend or spouse to hold you accountable, or write a blog post for thousands of people to read so you won’t be tempted to give up.

10.| Follow through and patiently wait for the good to come.

I knew I had this weakness and it became glaringly obvious. My friend encouraged me to make changes – to say “no” and stick to it even if I regretted my answer or my son had incredibly intelligent reasons for me to say “yes.”

The night after our Seattle Center debacle, I sat with my son at bedtime. I told him how much I adore him, then explained it’s been hard to enjoy being with him because of his arguing and constant negotiating. I said we needed to change this bad habit and I would be giving firm “no’s” that he needed to accept. I took responsibility for allowing this bad habit to grow.

When he does a good job of accepting “no” I praise him in a low-key way, (good job accepting “no”), give him a hug, or give him space if he is unhappy. When he doesn’t accept it and arguing ensues, I use as few words as possible, and if absolutely necessary, walk away.

I do what I can to set him up for success by saying “yes” when I can and giving a firm “no” when I can’t.

It hasn’t been easy, and today, as the kids begin waking, I remind myself of this plan.

Today, my ‘yes’ will be ‘yes’ and my ‘no’ will be ‘no.”

How about you? Have you slid into parenting habits you need to break? Join me and let’s do it together!

I have a new Free download at The Adoption Connection, 8 Ways to Help an Adoptive or Foster Mom. I know how hard it is to ask for help. This resource includes a one-page sheet you can give to family and friends.

I also offer parent coaching and marriage mentoring on my resource site, The Adoption Connection, where we cut through the overwhelm, get into your specific needs, and make a plan to bring about the changes you desire in your adoptive or foster family.

Have a fantastic week – happy and consistent parenting, friend!


How Understanding the Brain Helps Parents and Teens

Want to know what can bring about a fight, flight, or freeze response in even the calmest parent?

Being in the passenger seat as your child practices driving.

Not long ago a friend of Claire’s was very upset because her mother “lost it” when the teen made an error while driving. She’ll be the first to admit, it was a pretty darn big error which involved a near collision, multiple cars, and horns honking.

A fair amount of freaking out ensued – driver, mom, younger siblings.

Hearts were pounding as adrenaline rushed through veins. We’ve all been in that kind of panic at some time in our lives.

Words were spoken – the kind that fly out of your mouth before you can even think. Those words were followed by another exchange of words. Which were followed by some very hurtful words – the kind you wish could pull back into your mouth and away from the ears of the one who heard them.

Thankfully, nobody was hurt and the teen was able to pull the car off the busy street and into a parking lot where she promptly got out of the car and refused to get back in. Remember, flight is one response to a stressful or traumatic situation.

I can’t blame her.

Understanding the Brain (and Trauma) 

When she told me the story, she was very angry with her mom. I asked questions, and the additional details gave me a better picture of what had happened.

It was clear that some basic miscommunication had led to a very stressful moment.

We talked about how she might have been feeling as a young driver – how frightening it must have been. I asked if she felt embarrassed about her error and maybe even ashamed. It’s very vulnerable, and a little scary, learning to drive.

Then I gently talked about what her mom might have been feeling. This led to a simple explanation of the brain and how we all react to trauma. I even shared the hand model and how we “flip our lids” in stressful moments.

In times of stress, our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that allows us to think clearly and have self-control (the “upstairs brain”), can “flip,” or no longer be in charge. Then we are no longer thinking clearly as our brain is taken over by the more primitive part of our brain (the “downstairs brain”). We drop down to our basic stress responses of fight, flight, or freeze. Our emotions rule us. We lose our filters and self-control.

Here is Dan Siegel, author of several of my favorite parenting books, including The Whole-Brain Child, describing this in a video:

Understanding the Brain Helps Us Understand Each Other.

When we understand even the most basic aspects of how the brain responds to stress, we increase compassion for one another.

It turns out, this teen’s mom had a traumatic car accident years ago and was particularly triggered by the event. Understandably, her stress responses were even more reactive than normal.

I encouraged her to talk with her mom and try to reconnect. I mentioned that moms are completely imperfect – I should know.

This simple way of understanding the brain and how it functions is useful for all ages, from very young children to adults. This mom didn’t hate her daughter or think she was stupid. She was flooded with stress chemicals, her brain was overwhelmed, and she reacted.

What Can We Learn?

The next time you’re driving with your teen, or in a similarly stressful situation, make a hand model of the brain (don’t worry, nobody will even notice).

When you feel yourself starting to stress and you feel like you could “flip your lid,” hold those fingers down over your thumb.

Give calm instructions. Take slow deep breaths. Say a little prayer.

And above all else, remember you love this amazing kid.


Four Simple Tips For Family Dinners

33 years – that’s how many years Russ and I have been sitting down to dinner together.

Actually, more if you count the cafeteria at Seattle Pacific University.

There were dinners at the group home where we worked the first year of our marriage.

Later we dined in our 6th-floor apartment near Pike Place Market, me eating with one hand while simultaneously nursing our first baby.

Across the country, several years later, we shared dinner each night with the sisters of Alpha Phi sorority where we were house parents at Cornell University. Depending on who you ask, our children either entertained or irritated the women. Likely a little of both.

Last week I wrote, For the First Time In 13 Years, a post about our table expanding over the years to accommodate our growing family.

The table, our 10th wedding anniversary gift to one another, is now contracting as leaves are removed to adjust to the family we’re becoming.

The post prompted questions from readers.

How do we “do” family dinner? What does it look like?

Let me offer four basic tips:

1.  Make dinner a happy time.

This is not the time to discipline children, discuss failings or disappointments, or talk about emails received from teachers, unless they happen to be glowing reports.

Although it’s tempting, I also don’t think dinner is the time to be heavy on teaching table manners. There are other meals during the day and, at our house, dinner is the one meal we share with dad; I don’t want to spend the entire time harping on manners. Soft reminders, yes, constant reminders, no.

I want my children to love dinner time.

I’m also not extremely strict about food. I know lots of folks disagree with me on this, but food is not a hill I’m going to die on with my kids.

Selfishness, taking so much others can’t get enough, yes. Cleaning your plate? No.

I wrote this post, Our Two-Step Approach to Food Challenges, about a method we came up with for helping one of our kids overcome picky eating habits.


2. Have Conversation.

Dinner is the time we try to have conversation, even if we need to provide structure to make it happen. In addition to learning how to speak, the kids also practice listening to one another.

In our home, it looks like this. Once the food is served, rather than everyone talking at once, or the one most talkative child dominating the conversation, we go around the table giving everyone an opportunity to speak.

They have two options:

They can share something interesting about their day – it can be good, bad, or something they learned. It just has to be something they found interesting.

Alternately, they can answer three questions: share one thing they did that was kind, one thing that was brave, and one time they failed that day. This teaches kids it’s okay to fail; even their parents fail every day. Sometimes I share a funny failure or a time I was afraid to do something and then was brave enough to do it. It helps them see we are still learning too.


3. Keep it Nice and Simple

If having a family dinner is new to you, keep it simple.

Create a two-week rotating menu and follow it until it’s so easy to accomplish you are bored. If that’s too much for you, make it a one-week rotating menu.

[This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.]

Set the table and sit at it – better yet, teach your children to set the table. I love a pretty table, even if it simply means candles each night.

We lost our routines during baseball season and I need to find my way back before football season starts.

I found this post in my archives from 2009, Large Family Tips: Setting the Table.

As I reflect back on those years, I’m rather astounded I had time to even think about it.

It must be evidence of how desperately I was clinging to normalcy in our lives in a time of trauma and chaos.

Which brings me to point #4.


4. This is Not a Burden to Bear.

What I mean by this is, do not add creating better dinner times as a burden on your already weary shoulders.

I know many of you are parenting kids who had a hard start in life. These little (or not so little) ones, joined your family after they were harmed in some way, often unintentionally, but harm was done.

It may be all you can do to put a meal on the table at all.

My tip for you?

Set the bar low. 

Try to put one food on the table each person likes – if possible. Maybe it’s rice, or fruit, or chicken.

[Bonus tip: If you have lots of little ones, cut meat into small pieces before putting it on the table. It saves time after everyone is gathered making for happier kids, and it’s far easier to cut up meat on a cutting board in the kitchen than at each plate.]

Put each hard kid next to an adult or responsible big kid, if you have one.

Serve your most food-traumatized child first, even though she has to wait to begin eating until the rest of the family is served. She will see there is enough and her fears may be slightly calmed.

When your most challenging child is done eating, see if she can tolerate telling you about something interesting in her day, or one thing she did that was kind. If not, see if she can tolerate listening to one of her siblings answer the same question. Then, if she is anxious to leave, excuse her from the table – taking her dishes with her.

Maybe she’ll make it through listening to one sibling each night this week. Next week maybe she’ll answer the question herself and listen to a sibling.

Perhaps you’re reading this thinking, I can’t imagine dinner where there isn’t major drama. I hear you, sister.

When Kalkidan was young, we had one night a week when she had dinner with Aunt Michele.

That was one night each week when we all relaxed and knew we would have a calm(ish) dinner.

She grew, she learned, she healed. Thanks be to God.

And even with all that, I don’t think dinner was ever easy for her – but she learned to manage her fears.

I could write so much more about family dinners and gathering around our table.

If you have questions, please leave them in the comments. I would love to share thoughts, and hopefully wisdom, from my thirty years of mothering – ten years with children from “hard places.”

I’m in Seattle as you read this. Please pray for my father who is having open heart surgery tomorrow, 7/11/17. I would be very grateful.

With love to you and courage for the journey,


P.S. Just in case you noticed, in the pic at the top of the post, Wogauyu is covering his mouth attempting to resist the urge to blow out Beza’s birthday candles. It makes me smile every time I see it.



3,336 Miles and We’re Home!

Three thousand three hundred thirty-six miles – and we’re home.

I’ve missed you!

I didn’t expect to take such a long break from writing, that’s for sure, but life didn’t go the way I expected the week before we left.

Russ was in Kenya and I was supposed to be finishing up the school year with the kids, wrapping up blog and work details, all while packing for our trip.

Unfortunately, I got sick, and didn’t manage any of it very well.

I even had two wonderful guest posts nearly ready for you and those didn’t get set to go either – you’re going to love them when I share them with you later.

Life – it just keeps happening.

Russ got home, we packed, cleaned our house for Noah and Katie (who were housesitting), took care of the essential details (care for the steers and dog), and took off Tuesday morning.

Unfortunately, by then Russ was sick. He grew sicker as we traveled and we went to a doctor in Billings, MT who sent us to the ER for a malaria test. Thankfully, it came back negative.

We made it to Minneapolis Thursday night and he started antibiotics which eventually helped him kick what was most likely a bacterial infection from travel.

Hannah’s graduation from Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery residency was Friday. We all attended the morning ceremony where she gave a beautiful speech. That night, Zoe kept the boys during the formal dinner while Claire came with us. The entire day was inspiring.

Five years of very hard work, done, and now she’s off to a two-year fellowship.

We enjoyed three more days in Minneapolis, celebrating at her party, having fun with friends, and seeing a little bit of the city.

Our kids have never experienced city life and it was a great experience – riding bikes in the alley, playing in the nearby park, and walking to an urban Farmers’ Market.

They quickly made friends with Hannah’s “Minneapolis family” (a single mom with 11 kids – 8 adopted – she’s amazing) and we had a hard time saying goodbye Monday night. Most of the kids chose to avoid it altogether – lots of trauma in the histories of all of our kids, so we adults let them cope with it as they chose.

Tuesday we headed to De Smet, South Dakota where we fulfilled a long-held dream of mine of visiting the Ingalls Homestead near the shores of Silver Lake.

I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books to my children many times as they were growing up, especially during our 23 years of homeschooling. It was a sweet time for us.

The day ended with warm hospitality at our friends’ 1884 homestead in Fedora, SD, not far from the Ingalls, where we ate a wonderful dinner and the kids played until we all fell into bed late that night.

my friend Abbey and the top of her baby’s head

The next morning we said goodbye to our friends and to Hannah who had joined us for the first bit of our trip. Then we headed west for two long days of driving until we pulled into our driveway Thursday night.

We missed our two older (still living at home) girls on this trip. Annarose is working as a camp counselor, so she couldn’t join us, and Beza was traveling to Denver to visit friends and then go to camp, so she also stayed behind. This is what it’s like to have your kids grow up – they can’t always go on summer vacations with the family.

It’s Monday and I’m digging back into life – figuring out what the rest of our summer is going to look like. We just found out my dad is having open heart surgery in late July, so I’m looking at things a little differently now.

Although I didn’t blog at all during the trip, I posted on Instagram and used the “my story” feature to show some of our activities.

The photos and videos disappear after 24 hours and they’re unedited, more “life as it’s happening,” which I kind of like. I also like being able to add lots of little pics and clips knowing I’m not clogging up anyone’s Insta feed. Let me know what you think!

Also, I know I’ve mentioned this before, we can’t share any photos showing Zoe’s* face, so that eliminates sharing many of the pictures we took.

All for today!


[*Zoe is the name our foster daughter chose to use on my blog.]


How Do You Organize Legos?

I need Lego advice.

Do I organize and separate? Or dump them all together and hope creativity flows?

How do you manage Legos in your home?

My older kids played with Legos, but we didn’t own tons, and I don’t remember buying special themed sets.

I recall they loved large base plates to build on and that extra figures/people (even knock-off brands) encouraged creativity.

They built fabulous candy dispensers out of Legos that delivered one M&M at a time. I’m pretty certain I got one for Mother’s Day.

With my younger kids, I’ve tried to cultivate a love for Legos with moderate success.

We’ve given themed sets for birthdays and Christmas, encouraging them to build special creations. We’re duly impressed when the awesome Star Wars ship is completed or some other fantastical thing is created.

But then what?

These creations stay complete, or partially complete for awhile. We tuck them in Rubbermaid bins, or eventually take them apart, putting all the tiny pieces in a labeled bag.

And there they sit.

What happened to big bins of mixed up Legos everyone played with for fun?

My sister has a huge bin of Legos with lots of Star Wars pieces in the mix. My boys play with it for hours when we visit, especially if their cousin, Jack, is there too.

Is it because it’s novel, or because the pieces are jumbled together which lets their minds and hands flow in creative play?

Or does she just have the best, most-fun-ever Legos?

Several years ago I bought a collection of Indiana Jones Lego sets from a young man who loved building and displaying them as a boy. He couldn’t bring himself to ever take them apart.

I still have some of the sets intact as I bought them from him. Others have been played with and taken apart; I hope this would not break his heart.

My boys need to play.

As summer looms before me, I need my boys to play, and to be honest, play doesn’t come naturally to them.

Children from “hard places,” kids who experienced early deprivation, or neglect/abuse, are often stunted in their ability to play. Have you noticed this?

Which brings me back to my Lego dilemma.

I need your Lego wisdom and advice.

If my boys are willing, should I buy one big bin and dump them all together?

Should I buy smaller bins and put all the Star Wars Legos in one bin, the Lone Ranger Legos in another, Indiana Jones in another, and general Legos (what do you call them?) in another?

Should I put the books with building instructions into a binder in case a child ever wants to sort through the mass of Legos, find the pieces, and build a creation again?

What do you have to say about Legos?

I will be forever grateful if you leave a comment with your thoughts, suggestions, advice, and/or commiseration.