Making the Most of Dinners with Your Teen

Dr. Anne Fishel is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is the executive director and co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, a non-profit initiative based at Massachusetts General Hospital, that helps families online and in communities to have better and more frequent family dinners. She has lectured to parents, teachers, and health professionals about the benefits of family meals and written numerous articles about family issues for NPR, The Washington Post, Psychology Today, The Los Angeles Times, PBS, and others.
Her book about family dinners, Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun and Conversation for Happier Families and Healthier Kids, is available through Amazon. She is a co-author with The Family Dinner Project team of Eat, Laugh, Talk: The Family Dinner Playbook. This insight was originally written by Dr. Fishel for Parent Up in February 2022 and has been reposted.

Of any age group, teens may have the most to gain from eating dinner with their families. Numerous studies over the last 25 years reveal that dinners can protect teens from engaging in a host of risky behaviors: smoking, drinking, getting pregnant, developing an eating disorder, and using drugs. Teens who dine with their families also report experiencing less overall stress, feeling more known by their parents, and having better relationships with them (CASA, 2012).

Why do family dinners offer such benefits? The simplest answer is that dinner is a reliable occasion for teens to feel connected to their parents. It is this connection that provides the real seat belt on the potholed road of adolescence.

Dinnertime also creates the opportunity for parents to check in and monitor their teens’ behavior without putting their kids on the hot seat. Instead, questions about their day are softened by answering while enjoying a delicious meal, and by hearing about everyone else’s funny tales of the day.

The really good news is that when teenagers are asked to list the activities they most enjoy, family dinner is consistently ranked high on that list.

That said, teens can be sulky, irritable, prickly and challenging, and may not make the easiest dinner companions. Not only that, but their schedules may seem too busy to fit in regular dinners, what with sports practices, after school jobs, hours of homework, and heavy social media upkeep.

So, how can parents make dinner compelling for adolescents, and enjoyable for everyone else in the family? Showing up at the dinner table with certain parental attitudes may help: showing interest in your kids’ new discoveries (e.g. music, friends, favorite athletes, video games, etc.) without judging them; tolerating strong expressions of feelings; and talking in a more honest and self-disclosing way about your own lives, if these disclosures are relevant to your kids’ struggles.

Adolescence is also a time when kids are figuring out who they are and how they want to be similar to and different from their parents, and they have the brainpower now to engage in philosophical and abstract thought.  It is no wonder, then, that this is a time when kids may declare that they have food preferences that differ from their parents. Consider the New Yorker cartoon of two teenage girls talking. One says to the other: “I started to be a vegetarian for health reasons, now it’s just to annoy!” But this kind of questioning of parental values can also lead to rich conversations about things that matter.

How to Keep Dinner as Lively as Your Teenagers

  • Agree that dinner will be off limits for discussing conflicts—no talk about homework, or whose turn it is to take out the trash, or a recent “D” on a math quiz, or how late the curfew should be on Friday night.
  • If possible, parents as well as teens should make dinner a technology-free zone. If this isn’t possible, then negotiate rules that everyone can agree to, such as: ‘We’ll only use our phones to resolve factual disagreements that come up at dinner’ or will only use it to play a game like Selfie Hot Potato.
  • If scheduling conflicts interfere with nightly dinners, consider having a healthy after-dinner, take-a-break-from-homework snack. This might be frozen yogurt with berries, a bowl of soup, or cheese and crackers.
  • Initiate conversations about subjects that matter to you and to your children. Did you read an article in the newspaper today that confused, upset, or delighted you? Talk about it and ask for your kids’ reactions. Check out our Conversation of the Week blog for more ideas.
  • Offer to make a new meal, based on your teen’s interests—if they are studying Chinese history or Indian literature, check out www.epicurious.com and search for recipes by country. Even better, make that new meal with your child so that they can teach you something about another culture they know more about than you do.
  • Invite your kid to make a course or part of the meal, particularly something fairly quick (but special and dramatic) that will elicit “oohs” and “ah”s from the rest of the family. Popovers, fruit smoothies, or a vegetable or fruit no one has ever tried before (anyone for dragon fruit?) all do the trick.
  • Speak about your own experiences of the day in a way that is honest and self-disclosing, perhaps revealing something that was embarrassing or challenging. Or, repeat a joke that you heard at work.
  • Ask your teen to choose music for you to listen to during dinner. On other nights, you might play your own music, or play the music that you listened to when you were your child’s age. Both will give you something to talk about that may be of great interest to your teen.
  • Since adolescence is a time of increased exploration, buy cookbooks when you travel to new places, ask for recipes at restaurants, or from the parents of your child’s friends. Some of my favorite recipes are ones I’ve requested from a Chinese mother raised in Hawaii whose cooking my son raved about whenever he visited.

Some of these suggestions may fall flat like a pancake. Others may get you only a few more minutes of conversation at the table. Still others may not work the first few times you try them. When it comes to parenting teens, persistence pays off, so don’t let a little pushback or negativity keep you from trying again.

Watch the recording of Dr. Fishel’s Why Family Meals Matter webinar!

To watch for free, just register here: tinyurl.com/FamilyMealsMatter

The Northland Coalition Prevention Network and Parent Up hosted The Family Dinner Project for an engaging webinar for parents and caregivers on the benefits of family meals! Anyone can view a recording of the webinar by registering at tinyurl.com/FamilyMealsMatter. Learn about the academic, mental health and nutritional benefits of family meals. Dr. Fishel discusses mealtime challenges and great strategies to overcome obstacles.  She motivates and empowers caring adults with games to play at the table that will spark conversation as well as tips to get kids to give you more than just a one-word answer.

Read Parent Up’s “Giving Devices a Seat…Away From the Table” Insight!

There’s incredible value in getting your family to sit down and have meaningful meals, but there’s a lot of things that get in the way. Check out our newest Parent Up Insight for tips on giving your devices a new seat away from the table!

Check out Parent Up’s free resources to help your family have more meaningful meals!

We make it easy to have more meaningful meals more often with your family on our Meaningful Meals page. Check it out!

Keeping Our Kids Merry & Bright

It’s the holiday season and here at Parent Up, we are intentionally celebrating the joy, creativity and resilience of area youth. We also celebrate YOU, the parents, guardians and other caring adults who are following along, learning, listening and taking action, even though it isn’t always easy.

With the threats of deadly fentanyl, new discreet nicotine products, and the now more available than ever potent-THC packed cannabis posing risks to young brains, Parent Up is starting out the new year with some encouragement and tried-and-true tips for Keeping Our Kids Merry & Bright All Year Round:  

  1. Let’s make sure kids know we care about their health and well-being. Youth substance use harms the developing brain and puts youth at higher risk for problems with mental health and addiction throughout life. Set no-use expectations when it comes to vaping, alcohol, marijuana, and other substances.

     

  2. Be curious and keep the dialogue about substance use open. Ask youth what they think or have heard about alcohol, vaping, and other drug use. We can let them know they can come to us adults for help with peer pressure, stress, or anxiety.

     

  3. Help youth gain confidence to say “no” to alcohol and other drugs by practicing scenarios and brainstorming what they might say if they’re offered to them.
  1. Watch for early signs or symptoms of substance use which could include: changes in appearance, changes in friend groups, grades dropping, and/or secretive behavior. We know our kids best, so if something seems off, we should take action.

Kids are resilient and they are better off with your support. We wish you well this holiday season and into the new year.

The Parent Up Team

Making the Most of Dinners with Your Teen

Dr. Anne Fishel is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is the executive director and co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, a non-profit initiative based at Massachusetts General Hospital, that helps families online and in communities to have better and more frequent family dinners. She has lectured to parents, teachers, and health professionals about the benefits of family meals and written numerous articles about family issues for NPR, The Washington Post, Psychology Today, The Los Angeles Times, PBS, and others.
Her book about family dinners, Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun and Conversation for Happier Families and Healthier Kids, is available through Amazon. She is a co-author with The Family Dinner Project team of Eat, Laugh, Talk: The Family Dinner Playbook.

Of any age group, teens may have the most to gain from eating dinner with their families. Numerous studies over the last 25 years reveal that dinners can protect teens from engaging in a host of risky behaviors: smoking, drinking, getting pregnant, developing an eating disorder, and using drugs. Teens who dine with their families also report experiencing less overall stress, feeling more known by their parents, and having better relationships with them (CASA, 2012).

Why do family dinners offer such benefits? The simplest answer is that dinner is a reliable occasion for teens to feel connected to their parents. It is this connection that provides the real seat belt on the potholed road of adolescence.

Dinnertime also creates the opportunity for parents to check in and monitor their teens’ behavior without putting their kids on the hot seat. Instead, questions about their day are softened by answering while enjoying a delicious meal, and by hearing about everyone else’s funny tales of the day.

The really good news is that when teenagers are asked to list the activities they most enjoy, family dinner is consistently ranked high on that list.

That said, teens can be sulky, irritable, prickly and challenging, and may not make the easiest dinner companions. Not only that, but their schedules may seem too busy to fit in regular dinners, what with sports practices, after school jobs, hours of homework, and heavy social media upkeep.

So, how can parents make dinner compelling for adolescents, and enjoyable for everyone else in the family? Showing up at the dinner table with certain parental attitudes may help: showing interest in your kids’ new discoveries (e.g. music, friends, favorite athletes, video games, etc.) without judging them; tolerating strong expressions of feelings; and talking in a more honest and self-disclosing way about your own lives, if these disclosures are relevant to your kids’ struggles.

Adolescence is also a time when kids are figuring out who they are and how they want to be similar to and different from their parents, and they have the brainpower now to engage in philosophical and abstract thought.  It is no wonder, then, that this is a time when kids may declare that they have food preferences that differ from their parents. Consider the New Yorker cartoon of two teenage girls talking. One says to the other: “I started to be a vegetarian for health reasons, now it’s just to annoy!” But this kind of questioning of parental values can also lead to rich conversations about things that matter.

How to Keep Dinner as Lively as Your Teenagers

  • Agree that dinner will be off limits for discussing conflicts—no talk about homework, or whose turn it is to take out the trash, or a recent “D” on a math quiz, or how late the curfew should be on Friday night.

     

  • If possible, parents as well as teens should make dinner a technology-free zone. If this isn’t possible, then negotiate rules that everyone can agree to, such as: ‘We’ll only use our phones to resolve factual disagreements that come up at dinner’ or will only use it to play a game like Selfie Hot Potato.

     

  • If scheduling conflicts interfere with nightly dinners, consider having a healthy after-dinner, take-a-break-from-homework snack. This might be frozen yogurt with berries, a bowl of soup, or cheese and crackers.

     

  • Initiate conversations about subjects that matter to you and to your children. Did you read an article in the newspaper today that confused, upset, or delighted you? Talk about it and ask for your kids’ reactions. Check out our Conversation of the Week blog for more ideas.

     

  • Offer to make a new meal, based on your teen’s interests—if they are studying Chinese history or Indian literature, check out www.epicurious.com and search for recipes by country. Even better, make that new meal with your child so that they can teach you something about another culture they know more about than you do.

     

  • Invite your kid to make a course or part of the meal, particularly something fairly quick (but special and dramatic) that will elicit “oohs” and “ah”s from the rest of the family. Popovers, fruit smoothies, or a vegetable or fruit no one has ever tried before (anyone for dragon fruit?) all do the trick.
  • Speak about your own experiences of the day in a way that is honest and self-disclosing, perhaps revealing something that was embarrassing or challenging. Or, repeat a joke that you heard at work.

     

  • Ask your teen to choose music for you to listen to during dinner. On other nights, you might play your own music, or play the music that you listened to when you were your child’s age. Both will give you something to talk about that may be of great interest to your teen.

     

  • Since adolescence is a time of increased exploration, buy cookbooks when you travel to new places, ask for recipes at restaurants, or from the parents of your child’s friends. Some of my favorite recipes are ones I’ve requested from a Chinese mother raised in Hawaii whose cooking my son raved about whenever he visited.

Some of these suggestions may fall flat like a pancake. Others may get you only a few more minutes of conversation at the table. Still others may not work the first few times you try them. When it comes to parenting teens, persistence pays off, so don’t let a little pushback or negativity keep you from trying again.

Watch the recording of Dr. Fishel’s Why Family Meals Matter webinar!

To watch for free, just register here: tinyurl.com/FamilyMealsMatter

The Northland Coalition Prevention Network and Parent Up recently hosted The Family Dinner Project for an engaging webinar for parents and caregivers on the benefits of family meals! Anyone can view a recording of the webinar by registering at tinyurl.com/FamilyMealsMatter. Learn about the academic, mental health and nutritional benefits of family meals. Dr. Fishel discusses mealtime challenges and great strategies to overcome obstacles.  She motivates and empowers caring adults with games to play at the table that will spark conversation as well as tips to get kids to give you more than just a one-word answer.

Marijuana: Risky Business for Young Brains

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 38% of high school youth have used marijuana at some point in their lives.  In this same report, concerning findings suggest more middle school youth and kids who historically aren’t at high risk for drug use, are now using marijuana.  Our local rates in the Kansas City Northland are lower than the national average, but still concerning.  In the Northland, 30% of middle and high school kids perceive marijuana as harmless with 5.5% of them using it regularly (2020 Missouri Student Survey).  

Using marijuana is risky business for a developing teenage brain. According to the CDC, use in teens can result in difficulty in thinking and problem solving, problems with memory and learning, impaired coordination, and difficulty maintaining attention. Teen marijuana use is also associated with lower grade point average, reduced overall school performance, impaired driving, impaired attention span, lower life satisfaction, and increased risk for mental health issues and other substance use

Although marijuana use can actually increase mental health problems, many teens use it to dampen anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues.

Here at Parent Up, we believe that parents and caring adults can help prevent youth marijuana use and protect youth from turning to marijuana use to cope. This month, Parent Up got some insight from Dr. Debra Olson-Morrison, a local clinician who has decades of experience working with families.

Informed teens make more informed choices. Engage pre-adolescents and young teens in healthy conversations about the effects of using drugs such as marijuana. Refrain from using scare tactics and lecturing, and remain open and receptive to what your teen wants to share with you. Start with phrases such as “So, seems like some kids are using marijuana these days. What do you think about that? What do you know about the effects of using marijuana? How do you feel about all this?”  Asking open-ended, curiosity-based questions reflects a non-judgmental willingness to engage in truthful dialogue about drug use.

Choose relationships over ribbons. Many parents focus on their teens’ grades, performance in extracurricular activities, undesirable behaviors, or other activities, and forget to just spend quality one-on-one time with their teen. As parents and caring adults openly talk about marijuana use, they should simultaneously show confidence in their teen’s ability to make healthy decisions, and spend time connecting with them.

Trust, Love, and Acceptance: Communicate your admiration for the person your teen is, and excitement for the person they are becoming. Being a teenager is hard – being present to and validating teens’ thoughts, feelings, concerns, and dreams provides a foundation for a healthy relationship based in love and trust.

Thanks for your thoughts, Debbie, and thanks for the work you do with Northland kids to help them thrive! 

Remember, Parent Up is here to help you navigate conversations about drug use and establishing healthy boundaries with your kids. Visit our homepage to learn “how to Parent Up” or navigate to our Drug Topics page for more information about preventing youth substance use, including marijuana use.

Debra Olson-Morrison, PhD, LCSW, RPT-S has been in clinical practice with children and families since 2001 and currently serves as the Trauma-Informed Training Manager and Child Advocacy Center Therapist at Synergy Services.

Fentanyl in the Northland: What Parents Can Do

Kim Downs is a lifelong Kansas City North resident and has been a licensed school social worker in the area for nearly 20 years. She is passionate about removing barriers to learning and is an agent of support to students and families. She enjoys a good hike in the mountains, wandering a museum, traveling, and spending time with her family.

Kansas City police officers have been raising the alarm since late February, and it’s a message that parents need to hear loud and clear:  Fentanyl-laced pills are causing teen deaths in the Northland and around the Metro. Before you think, “not my child,” pause for a moment. Many of these deadly counterfeit pills are being sold over Snapchat and other apps popular with teens. To teens, these are seemingly harmless transactions for a “pain pill.” But they could lead, and have led, to unimaginably tragic consequences.

Take this growing issue seriously, and have specific conversations about it in your house. As a school social worker, I am hearing about this over and over. It is happening here and it is real.

Not sure what to say? Emphasize to your kids to never, ever take a pill from anyone or anywhere that isn’t prescribed to them by a doctor or out of its original container. Two-thirds of teens and young adults who report misuse of prescription medicine are buying or getting it from friends, family, and acquaintances. Too many teens have the false perception that “medicine is safe, medicine can’t hurt me.” As caring adults, parents, and guardians, it falls to us to let our teens know the very real dangers of misusing prescription pills. Let your kids know where you stand. 

From the DEA, two milligrams of fentanyl, a lethal amount for most people. DEA.gov, Photo date: 7/2/2018

 Let them know you will help them if they are seeking relief from anxiety or depression. Discuss the steps to legally and safely obtain appropriate medications from a doctor, if needed. Be firm that self-prescribing can be deadly, and that your child should never take any pills not prescribed to them by a doctor. Assure your child that their mental wellbeing is a priority and then make a plan to get help together. They need to hear from caring adults that they have options for relief other than taking matters into their own hands.


Practice what to say if they are offered something. These roleplays let your child know you support them and help give them confidence if a situation arises where they need to say “no.” You can also work with your teen to come up with a code word to text you if they feel like they need your help to get out of an unsafe situation.

They might groan at you. Have these conversations anyway.

High-Performing Kids and Mental Wellness: The Tightrope Walk

We humans are good at finding patterns. This evolutionary benefit has kept us alive longer than the dinosaurs, but it’s not foolproof. Sometimes, these patterns can steer us wrong.  As parents, what we perceive to be good and healthy for our kids, might not be the reality. The team captain with straight-As could have an eating disorder. The class president with multiple scholarship offers might be questioning their sexuality. When it comes to identifying how well our kids are managing stress and dealing with substance use, sometimes we miss what is right in front of us.

Teens face an ever-creeping, constant pressure that the decisions they make in high school actively determine their path in life. Their problems might look small to adults, but from where they stand, the difference between low and high performance feels as if it could set them on an entirely different trajectory. The stress and anxiety teens feel about their future takes a toll on their minds and bodies.

How do we take some of the weight off the shoulders of high-performing teens?

Teens learn resilience when faced with difficult situations. In order to build this skill, teens need positive stress in their lives. For most youth, the stress of good grades and high performance as an athlete or musician is exactly the sort of positive stress that teaches effort, focus, determination, and teamwork. Stress becomes toxic when it is ongoing and without buffering. Adults act as buffers by being supportive, responsive, and caring to teens experiencing stressful circumstances. Ask yourself, why is your child’s high performance so important? Is it so they win or are the very best? Or is the priority that they develop esteem, work ethic, and resilience?

When walking the tightrope of encouraging high performance and supporting youth and their mental wellness, remember that most lessons are learned in the losses. We can hold teens to high standards all while demonstrating we care for them when they fall short of their goals.

5 Things You Can Do:

  • Talk to your teen about what is causing them stress. Let them know they can always come to you if things are feeling unmanageable to work through problems together.

  • Demonstrate your support and care when they fall short of their goals. Acknowledge both their hard work and their ability to do better next time.

  • Let teens foster an identity outside of performance. Praise them when they make an insightful comment, do something kind for another person, or creatively solve a problem on their own. Celebrate their effort, not just the outcome.

Examples of Buffering

A high performing teen is feeling daily pressure from a parent to excel in school and sports, from a coach to lead the team every game, from a teacher to score the highest on the test, and from social media to look a certain way.

Parent: “I’ve noticed you haven’t been yourself lately. This has been a really challenging month. What are some ways I can support you?”

Coach: “That was a tough loss. You showed some real grit in that game. You never gave up.”

Teacher: “I noticed you’ve been tired in class this week. Are you doing ok? I’m here to talk if you need some help.”

  • Set boundaries. Work with your teen to mutually prioritize habits that feed their physical and mental health. How much sleep is right for them? How is social media impacting their mental wellness?

  • Check out the Developmental Assets® Framework. Learn about the ways you can support, empower, set boundaries and expectations, encourage constructive use of time, while fostering your teens’ commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity.

Kat Barrow is a Community Prevention Specialist at Tri-County Mental Health Services in Kansas City, MO. She earned her Masters of Public Health from the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Kat is passionate about creative, inclusive approaches to improving community health and wellness.

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