3 Ways To Empower & Connect With Your Kids at Dinnertime

If you have followed A Fostered Life’s blog or YouTube channel for any length of time, it’s likely you’ve heard me emphasize the importance of empowering children. Two things children need most—all children, but especially children who have a history of trauma—is to feel empowered (or a sense of personal agency) and to feel connected (or a sense of belonging). This is the big takeaway I got from Positive Parenting Solutions (along with a fantastic arsenal of empowering and connecting tools), and when we began to embrace this concept and look for ways to empower and connect with our children on a daily basis, we saw a real change in our children’s relationships with one another and interactions with us.

One area of home life that is bursting with potential for empowering and connecting with kids is dinner time! In the midst of our hectic lives, with family members coming and going, the dinner table can be such a sacred space for a family.

Here are a few ways to empower and connect with kids at the dinner table.

Put your child in charge of dinner. About once every week or so, a child in our home is in charge of dinner. (Yes, this includes our five-year-old.) I communicate that child is in charge of dinner that night and work with them ahead of time to plan their meal. Sometimes that means looking at simple recipes, and other times it just means showing them a visual guide (keep reading) and letting them get creative. I encourage whichever child is in charge to delegate roles to others in the house. Sometimes they do, but I have one child who wants to do it all himself (or only have me help).

Give them a visual guide, then take your hands off the wheel. We use this one from Eastern Virginia Medical School, which is for omnivores. We have also used this one from Pick Up Limes, which is especially for vegans. This tool is a fantastic way to teach children how to have a well-balanced diet without them realizing you’re trying teaching them something 🙂 Giving a child a picture like this and letting them pick each component, with minimal input, is so empowering. Children are very perceptive, and given the opportunity, they will rise to the challenge! Some of the child-prepared meals we have had include spaghetti with meatballs and tossed salad, waffles with turkey sausage and sliced bananas, and fried chicken with tossed salad and bread. They look at the chart and choose foods that they can plug in to each section. It makes them feel very important and very grown up.

DIY Dinner. Another really simple tip for empowering your kids at meal times is to set out a bunch of ingredients and let them fix their own meal. Two meals that are really conducive to this are Taco Bowls (“Taco Tuesday” anyone?!) and Sandwich Bar (“Can you say charcuterie?”).

For Taco Bowls, everyone gets a scoop of rice in a bowl and then they get to add their own toppings from the bowls on the table: taco meat (vegan meatless crumbles work too), beans (this is the recipe I use in the Instant Pot), shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, shredded cheese, chopped avocado, corn, salsa, and taco sauce are our go-to taco bowl fixins. Sometimes I also put a bowl of tortilla chips out to scoop the bowls with. The kids love having independence and deciding what goes into their bowls!

For the Sandwich Bar, I just put out a basket of bread, a plate of lunch meat and cheese, lettuce, sliced tomatoes, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jam, and condiments like mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup. I usually also put out some veggies for dipping, like carrot sticks, cucumber slices, and mini sweet peppers. Each kid loves making their own sandwich, and it gives them a sense of personal empowerment.

Engaging conversations around the dinner table. Interacting around the dinner table helps promote the development of communication skills, interpersonal skills, and emotional bonding. According to The Family Dinner Project,

researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to. The researchers counted the number of rare words – those not found on a list of 3,000 most common words – that the families used during dinner conversation. Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.

IT’S SCIENCE: EAT DINNER TOGETHER, Anne Fishel, Ph.D, The Family Dinner Project

Dining together as a family is hugely important, for so many reasons. For example, according to this article from The Scramble, “kids and teens who share family dinners three or more times per week…

  • Are less likely to be overweight
  • Are more likely to eat healthy food
  • Perform better academically
  • Are less likely to engage in risky behaviors (drugs, alcohol, sexual activity)
  • Have better relationships with their parents

This is important for all children, but it is especially helpful for children who may be experiencing developmental delays due to early childhood neglect and trauma. Dinner tends to be a favorite time of night for our kids in foster care. They love the predictability and togetherness of it.

There are other ways to empower kids at dinner time. Giving them each jobs to do, inviting their input on menu planning, respecting their choices about what and how much to eat, and avoiding power struggles around food all contribute to their sense of empowerment. We host a dinner party every Monday, which gives our kids opportunities to get to know other people in the context of hosting a meal. However you go about it, look for ways to connect with and empower your kids at dinnertime.

I promise, you’ll be so glad you did!

Image via Canva.com

No, You’re Not a Demon Child

Back in November, I shared a post on Facebook about a phenomena known as “restraint collapse,” or “after-school restraint collapse.” This refers to the common experience many parents report of their children doing very well at school, but when they get home, the wheels come off. One reader’s comment summarized it well:

I did this my entire childhood. I remember my mom telling my pediatrician “she’s so good with anyone else but as soon as it’s just me and her she goes off”. Wish my mom was around for us to talk about this. It’s kinda comforting to know it’s a normal thing and I wasn’t just a demon child haha. 

Her comment broke my heart, not least of all because her mom is not around anymore to discuss things with, but also because she has likely spent years believing that she was uniquely “bad.” One of my motivating factors for writing this blog and the other resources I create is to educate and inform parents and foster parents/caregivers so we can support our kids and help them find emotional wholeness and vibrant mental health.

If you, too, experience after-school meltdowns, or if you get home from church and your children seem to have been possessed by demons somewhere between “Jesus Loves Me” and that week’s Memory Verse, you’re not alone.

And they’re not possessed.

It’s called “restraint collapse,” and it’s a very real thing. Pay attention. I thought of it as a behavior problem for too long, and my irritation and frustration only added fuel to the emotional fire. One of the big “A-ha!” moments for me was recognizing how much children thrive in structure, and how lack of structure can leave them feeling insecure and unsafe. Think about it: they are going from a (presumably) highly-structured environment to a non-structured environment, and they don’t know what to do with themselves. Add a bit of mental exhaustion from trying to pay attention all day and meeting the expectations placed on them, and conditions are perfect for meltdowns.

Once I saw it for what it was, I was able to take some proactive steps to help my kids regulate their emotions through the transition back home. Here’s what we do:

1) After-school snack, pronto! Not cookies and milk, either (well, sometimes cookies and milk, if I’m honest, but not usually). Yogurt, cheese sticks, protein balls, pepperoni sticks, mixed nuts and crackers, fruit (apple slices, bananas, grapes are favorites). And water! If you have after-school activities, have snacks in the car on the way. The kids haven’t eaten in hours. Feed & hydrate them! And I find it helpful to have a snack ready as soon as we get home. Lately, a piece of cheddar cheese and apple slices is my go-to. Not enough to ruin their appetite for dinner, but something to satisfy for the meantime.

2) Debrief. Sit with them as they munch. Ask good questions (not yes or no questions). “What was one thing that made you happy today? One thing that made you sad? What was on the lunch menu? Who did you sit with at lunch? Was recess inside or outside? What did you do during recess?” I will share that my children are usually talking over one another at this point, competing for my attention and affection. This little scenario can get loud and heated very quickly, so I try to be intentional about directing my questions and making sure everyone feels heard. Sometimes I have to work hard to keep my demeanor positive (I don’t always succeed—nothing triggers me more than my kids fighting with each other—but when I’m mindful of it, it helps a lot.)

3) Get them moving. Some kids need “down time” after school. I don’t know what that’s like. My kids need to MOVE and SCREAM. We often stay on the school playground or head to another playground after school. Alternately, we come home and, after snack, I tell the kids they have fifteen minutes to play outside before it’s time to start homework (or, for the little ones, twenty minutes of looking at books.) I use my timer and, again, stick to a structure.

4) Find a way for each child to feel seen and heard. When I pick my younger kids up from school, there are four children in my van, and they are all talking at the same time! When we get home, during snacks or after snacks, I give each child some individual attention. Hugs and eye-contact are key. It’s not as hard as it sounds! 🤪 But it does take planning.

5) Meal plan and fix make-ahead meals so you’re not trying to make dinner while the kids are losing their minds. You know the drill. #witchinghour

6) When all else fails, let them watch a show. Honestly, I almost never do this after school, because it’s too hard to pull my children away from the TV once they’re locked and loaded. If homework needs to happen, it must happen before screens. But that said, PBS Kids has some great options that are around 22 minutes each. Sometimes kids just need to chill out after working so hard at school. Let them!

Let me be clear: what I am suggesting here is not coddling our kids and never letting them exercise their own emotional self-control. I am not painting a picture of bringing children home from school and then coddling them in order to avoid them having to manage themselves. What I am getting at here is that we need to recognize what’s happening and set our kids up for success. Younger children don’t always know what they need. With a bit of effort, we can help. Sometimes I don’t do all of the above, but when I do, things go much more smoothly after school.

Hope you find this helpful!!!

Photo by Marco Albuquerque on Unsplash

4 Tips for Encouraging Good Relationships Between Your Kids and Your Foster Kids

Click here to watch this content on YouTube.

One of the most common inquiries I receive from prospective foster parents is a request for advice on how to help prepare existing children in a home (i.e. their biological children) to welcome a foster child into their home and become a fostering family. There is a lot to say about that, and I would love to some day work with my children to create a resource that would address this important topic. However, for now, there are four simple (but important) things I’ve learned over the years that play a significant role in helping create a peaceful-ish environment for all of the children in our home—those who share our last name, and those who don’t.

First, this may sound strange, but hear me out: I have learned to never give my foster children my own children’s hand-me-down clothes and to never give my existing children my foster child’s hand-me-down clothes or toys. It took me two times of getting it wrong to figure this one out, but once I did, it made perfect sense.

First, from the existing child’s perspective: when a new foster child enters our home, he or she gets a lot of attention right off the bat, which can feel threatening to existing children. They know their “place” in the family system, and that position is disrupted with the addition of a new child. This causes the existing child to sense a threat and react accordingly. When my child sees a new foster child wearing his or her clothes (even clothes that they have long-since outgrown), it reinforces the threat.

It’s just not worth it.

When your child outgrows his or her clothes, donate them or sell them at a consignment shop. Then hit your local thrift stores, Buy Nothing/Freecycle group, Target, or Old Navy and get them what they need.

By the same token, if your foster child comes with clothes that they outgrow, do not put those clothes on your younger child. Your foster child comes into your home with very little of what’s “theirs.” They already have a social disadvantage among the other children in the home. Don’t add to it by putting what was theirs on your child. Even if the clothes don’t fit them anymore, I have found that it is very hard for a foster child to see his clothes on your child. Just pack up his clothes, return it to his mom or keep it for when they reunify and she can decide what to do with it, or you can give it to his case manager, who can then save it or donate it for other kids in care.

The bottom line is, don’t do hand-me-downs. Let each child have his or her own clothes. This does not have to be expensive. I do most of my clothes shopping at thrift stores or get hand-me-downs from friends and Buy Nothing. In truth, I spend very little on clothes. But the important thing is that the clothes are new to them.

The only caveat is if your child or your foster child suggests sharing their clothes. If they suggest it and want to do it, go for it. I witnessed a very sweet exchange between our six-year-old foster son and our four-year-old son when the older child offered the younger one his tee shirt, which had grown too small for him. It worked because it was his idea. He was empowered by the fact that he made the decision of what to do with something that was his. But it doesn’t work when I decide for him.

Secondly, do whatever it takes to have one-on-one time with each of your children every day. When I say “each of your children,” I mean every child living under your roof. In Positive Parenting Solutions (and in our home), we call it “Special Time.”

Special Time is defined as one-on-one time between a parent and child, ideally for 15 minutes twice a day. In our house, this looks like any of the following:

  • Reading books at bedtime
  • Playing a board game or a card game
  • Playing with my hair (one child in particular just loves to play with hair!)
  • Sitting on the couch and talking about whatever the child wants to discuss
  • Looking at pictures together on my computer
  • Taking the dog for a walk together
  • Bringing their allowance money to the thrift store (there are two very close to our house) or Dollar Tree or Walgreens and letting them buy something of their choosing
  • Going out for breakfast, lunch, or ice cream, just the two of us
  • Watching gymnastics or dance class (as opposed to dropping the child off, or staying and reading a book or scrolling Facebook while they’re in class. This only counts as Special Time if, when the child looks over to see if you’re watching, you are watching.
  • Playing with Hot Wheels (building the tracks, making up stories for the cars)
  • Playing with LEGOs

A few key points about Special Time are these:

  • You are completely focused on the child. No phones, no scrolling Facebook, just total attention on your child for at least fifteen minutes or so.
  • The child leads the activity (within reason). The child chooses the activity, and you play according to the child’s rules. For example, I have one child who really likes to play games, but only when he wins. He gets very emotional when he loses. During Special Time, if he wants to change the rules so he wins every time, I let him. Normally, we reinforce being a good sport, win or lose, but the whole point of Special Time is not to build character, it’s to connect in a positive way with your child. (I said “within reason” because sometimes a child wants to go out for ice cream, but I only have fifteen minutes, so we need to choose an activity at home that we can do within fifteen minutes. Other times, I have flexibility to be gone a half hour for an ice cream.)
  • You are looking at your child as much as possible, and they are looking at you. Kids crave our attention and positive reactions as much as they crave food and air. Let them have it. I’m going to write more about the importance of gazing between you and your child, but for now, I’ll simply say, it’s important that they see you looking at them with affection and delight. Will you always feel affection and delight? Nope. But something wonderful happens over time when you are intentional about looking at your child in the face and letting them see you enjoying them. So dig deep on those days it’s a little harder to do, and make it happen. When I’m watching my daughter’s gymnastics class, the pull to check my phone or try to catch up on seminary reading is strong. But I know it is so important to her that she sees me watching her and giving her a smile and “thumbs up” when she checks in with me, so I resist.

Next, do not compare children or hold one child up as the example for others to follow. All this accomplishes is embittering children toward one another. That’s not to say we shouldn’t acknowledge when a child is showing cooperation or behaving well. I often look one of my children in the eyes and say, “Thank you for doing what I asked the first time I asked. I really appreciate your cooperation!” But don’t say, “Look at how well Jimmy did what I asked. I wish everyone was more like Jimmy!” You’re not doing Jimmy any favors with comments like that, and you’ll probably spark some resentment in the other kids too.

Finally, play with all the kids together. I’ll be straight with you: my kids fight a lot. Some mornings, it starts as soon as more than one is awake. There is a lot of competition and vying for attention in our house. But over the years, the fighting has been increasingly tempered by times of playing well together and genuinely enjoying one another, and I think a big part of that is thanks to the times we jump in and play with all of them together. Hide and Seek, LEGOs, Hot Wheels, board games, etc. are all more peaceful when my husband and/or I are involved.

Sometimes it’s about modeling healthy social dynamics: taking turns, celebrating when the other person wins, that kind of thing. But other times we’re able to help a child who struggles to regulate their emotions recognize the warning signs in time to catch a major meltdown, or to coach a child into showing mercy rather than revenge. Not always, of course, but sometimes!

A lot could be said about how to help encourage a symbiotic dynamic between existing children in a home and new children who come in through foster care. However, for me, these four simple things play a significant role in helping create an environment for all of the children in your home—those who share your last name, and those who don’t—to live at peace and develop genuine affection for one another.

If you are a foster parent, what would you add to this list? What are some ways you have encouraged peace between your existing children and new children who join your household?

Photo by Rene Bernal on Unsplash.