Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Family Dinner

I'm looking for advice about parenting teenagers. This is framed within the specific context of eating dinner as a family but probably this is just a symptom of my broader not-knowing-what-I'm-doing-ness.

I don't (think I) have that many expectations, but one of the expectations that I have is that Odessa and I eat dinner together as a family. I stated this the first night Odessa lived with me and have brought it up at intervals (usually when I'm disappointed that Odessa hasn't come home for dinner) since then.

It is hard to model this as "this is what a healthy family does" because besides Odessa, it's just me. And it is important to me that we eat together because 1. I need to make sure she's eating something healthy (and that she's eating at all), 2. it's when I talk to her about school and her friends and her plans, and 3. that's what a healthy family tries to do.

Two weeks ago Odessa complained about this expectation because it's not what she's used to and she thinks I'm "forcing" her to come home, and also when it get's nicer out, she's "not going to want to come inside." I told her I would think about it, but then I didn't say anything until she brought it up again. When she brought it up again last week, I offered her a compromise, that we could make a schedule of two nights a week that she could eat somewhere else. She didn't respond, and explicitly opted not to respond when I brought up the compromise the following day. I stated then that because she didn't respond, I would expect her to come home for dinner every night until she chooses to respond.

She was at her brother's for the weekend, came home yesterday and ate before I got home, and today went to her bedroom while I was cooking and told me she wasn't going to come out when I knocked on her door to let her know that dinner was ready.

I don't want to "punish" Odessa for not eating with me. I know that partly I need to adjust my expectations. But at the same time, I am frustrated because I come home to a television that is very loud, Odessa doesn't say hello to me, she (very teenagerly) responds to questions with at most one syllable... but she turns the TV off for dinner. I'm terrible at getting anything out of her about school (more than 2 questions and she snaps at me) and have almost no clue what's going on in her life; if I don't have 15 minutes at dinner I have nothing.

I need ideas.


  1. I wish I had advice for you, but I have no clue how to parent a teenager either and the one I have is COMPLETELY different than yours! I have no clue how I would deal with the things you have had to deal with these past few months. You are doing a great job with her, though, and she is definitely learning from you. The girls "always" eat dinner as a family...either with my parents at their house or with me at mine. I suppose there is an occasion or two when just the two of them eat together, but usually it is with an adult. The teen always does the dinner dishes when we eat dinner here...totally and completely different than O. I don't think asking her to have dinner with you twice a week is too high of an expectation, but I also have no idea how to enforce that or make it seem like something she should want to do rather than a "punishment". I'm sorry that I can't help you, I really am...know that I am thinking of you and constantly amazed at how you are handling things :)

  2. My opinion is that you should let the meal thing go completely. Make it a non issue. Many foster parents & kids (of all ages) fight over the meals, and it is notoriously a touchy subject, so at least you aren't alone. You can keep your meal routine and sit at the table with the TV off and eat. This is modeling the behavior that you wish to teach her. She may join you, or she may not. You could try going to sit with her outside to eat or sit in front of the TV to eat (in order to be with her during meal time). For communication, you can write notes to one another in a notebook. Or you can find another 15 minute block of time in which to catch up on her day. Texting back and forth can help keep in touch too (when she complies). Think outside the box. The typical parenting techniques don't work with teenagers in foster care. They just don't. You'll drive yourself crazy trying to force her to do what you say. She's lived independently, right? So she has a way of doing things that she likes at this time in her life. I think I've said it before, but you kind of have to treat older teens in care like a roommate that you are also mentoring. Or at least that's what has worked for me. Try reading Yondalla @ pflagfostermom / thoughts from a foster family for more ideas.

  3. Second the above: let it go completely. In fact, I think letting almost everything that isn't absolutely critical, including struggles over homework and bed times, helps preserve your sanity and leaves more time and energy for bonding in ways the teen is willing to entertain. My partner and I dealt with obstinance and power struggles around meals by pretending not to care - nothing got him more interested in joining us at the table than hearing us laugh and chat with each other as if we didn't even notice that he was missing from the table.