the importance of listening

In my work with divorced parents, I often hear fear, trepidation, and frustration about the inability to control the child's experience while under the other parent's care.

This takes many forms ... my kids are eating junk food at the other house! not going to bed early enough! not finishing the antibiotics! wearing shorts to school in cold weather! hearing terrible things about me that are not true!

All these things seem monumental when added to the tremendous grief and sense of powerlessness that are inherent in the process of divorce with children. And I get that, I really really really do, because I felt the exact same way a decade ago when I was recently divorced.

Here's what I wish I knew back then:

There are things that will happen in your child's life that you cannot fix ... that you cannot make better or make go away.

They will have to walk through those things rather than around them, and this will probably happen MUCH younger than you ever wanted or hoped for them. Kids of divorce grow up fast.

But you can still help, and the most powerful way to do that is to LISTEN.

That's it, folks. Just listen.

Listen without giving advice.

Listen without coaching them about how to communicate better with their other parent.

Listen with acceptance.

Listen to understand their experience and perspective, not to change it.

While you listen, put yourself in their shoes and see if you can understand their dilemma, their ambivalence, their pain, their confusion. And if you can relate, let them know that. Say, "I get it, honey. That stinks. I wouldn't like it either," or, "You kinda want to tell him what you want, and you wonder how he might react if you do."

I just read an interview with Dr. William R. Miller that inspired me to write about this. He's discussing Motivational Interviewing and why it is helpful in treating addictions, but I think his point generalizes very well to parenting:

I think the experience of acceptance is transforming and lets people look at their life in a context that’s safe.

I think that as people are enabled to talk about their present situation without immediately being told what to do, without being given advice, without being judged, shamed, scolded and so forth, they literally talk themselves into changing.
Replace "talk themselves into changing" in the last sentence with "solve their own problems" and this is an excellent explanation for why it's so important for us to listen to our children.

The truth is that your child is the only one who has the information and experience required to solve his or her problem. We might think we have a great solution, and it's okay to share it after asking permission ("I have an idea that I think might help, honey, would you like to hear it?")

But we have to respect deep inside of us that the choice lies with the child. And sometimes, a child will choose to let a problem go rather than try to tackle it -- to endure rather than advocate.

This can be hard for proactive and assertive parents to witness; they can't understand why a child would not speak up, and they can wonder where they dropped the ball -- how they did not teach self-empowerment to their offspring?

Here's the deal: speaking up is great when the playing field is level. And it is almost always NOT level between a child and an adult, be that a parent or teacher.

So if your ten year old comes home complaining of being exhausted because she was at daddy's softball game until 11 pm, you might be tempted to go rushing for the phone to rip your ex a new one for being so irresponsible. You might also be tempted to tell her that next time she needs to speak up and let daddy know she's tired.

Instead, try to sit down, listen, and acknowledge what you are hearing:

Mom: Oh, so it was a late night for you, huh.

Child: Yeah. I hate going to daddy's games. Everyone there is so loud.

Mom: Yeah, there's a lot going on in those bleachers. It can be kinda fun and kinda overwhelming all at the same time.

Child: I know! I wish I could just bring a tent or something so I don't have to be in the middle of all that noise all the time.

Mom: So it would feel better to you to have your own little quiet space, like a little cave or something, where you could go when it got too noisy.

Child: Yeah, a lot better.

Mom: I understand that.

Child: Hey, maybe if I brought my iPod, I could at least hear my music instead of all those people yelling and cheering.

Mom: Wow, that sounds like a great thing to try!

Child: And maybe if I brought a picnic blanket, I could cover my head with it and lay down on one of the benches if I got tired.

I know that this kind of listening does not come easy all the time. It can be really hard to see our children in a less than optimal circumstance without wanting to rush in and save them from discomfort!

Sometimes we'll all revert to giving unsolicited advice, or asking something like, "What was your dad thinking taking you to those ballfields on a school night?" These things happen.

But when we are feeling extra resourceful, and when we remember, we can try just listening instead. And when we forget, we can let it go and move on. There will be plenty of opportunities to try again.

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beautiful video about the first breastfeeding after birth

it's called the Breast Crawl. lay the newborn between mom's breasts and eventually it will make its way to the nipple and start sucking. this video brought tears to my eyes.

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Joint Custody: When a parent doesn't show up for visitation

Q: My four year old son gets so upset when his dad doesn't show up for his scheduled parenting time/visitation. What should I do?

A: This one is pretty straightforward. It's a rare four-year-old who maintains an internal clock and calendar in his mind. It's up to you to remind him what happens when. So simply don't mention that his dad is supposed to come.

If he shows up, let it be a lovely surprise. Plan your day in a flexible way so that your son can spend time with his dad without missing out on anything major. If he doesn't come, you and your son can do something fun together.

real drowning does not look like it does on TV

I had no idea that drowning people cannot call for help, are usually vertical, and don't flail their arms. The Instinctive Drowning Response looks nothing like what we see on TV. Before I read this article, a kid could have been drowning right next to me and I would not have known what was going on. I consider this a must-read for all parents:

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link to a great article about public tantrums

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Joint Custody: Why Is Neutral Language So Important?

Q: Your ten strategies for coparenting with an uncooperative ex were passed to me and there is substantial good advice there-in, but I make a strict practise of never lying to my daughter.

Thus while it is good when you write "If it is true, your child will love hearing that she was conceived in love, or that Mommy and Daddy were so happy when he was born", I cannot come at your insistence "You'll need a neutral and non-judgmental answer" to explain why parents divorced.

a story about the power of listening

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an excellent article about how to parent kids with ADHD

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my ex hates me and I can't change that

Q: My son's dad simply ignores my questions when he doesn't feel like answering. I am trying so hard to be flexible, co-operative, kind, helpful, and even forgiving in the face of his hurtful, mean-spirited manner and downright rude behavior. I feel so angry I get to tears. I can't yell, scream, or curse, so I end up crying. I feel so hurt that this man I made a child with could treat me so terribly. I don't know how to deal with it. I can't do this alone. He hates me and I can't change it. No matter how nice I am or the nice things I do, they are disregarded in an instant if he is angry. He's almost got me believing he's right. We can't co-parent. It might be impossible.

teens and technology

I can always count on Sue Blaney over at Please Stop the Rollercoaster to post wise and practical information and resources for parents. I thought this post on teens and technology was exceptionally insightful:

Visit Ann Collier's blog to be kept up to speed on the latest technology from a family perspective.

Oh, and don't forget to ask your kids to teach you about what's new! That's a fun conversation, and it's a nice way to maintain a close connection with them.

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giving up the pacifier

Our son has been very attached to his pacifier since birth. We began preparing him in fall that when he turned 3, he would get a big boy bed and he would need to get rid of them. Last week I went to wash them and noticed they were breaking and could be choking hazard. So I told him we had to throw them out right away, and he did. Then we made a big celebration out of his big boy bed.

He was excited at the time... until bed time. It's been so emotional for me and him. And here it is 4 days later, and he desperately misses his pacifiers. He is constantly shoving his fingers in his mouth and chewing on his shirt (even though he only had them at nap and bedtime), which he has NEVER done, and he also has a rash on his chin because of it.

So my question is... can you help us? Do I get more pacifiers and let him have them back until he is ready to let go of them? Or stick to it and he will find something to replace that sucking habit?

Bless your heart ... it's really hard to see our little guys so upset.

It's totally normal for us humans to feel deeply ambivalent about giving up our sources of comfort, even when we truly believe we are well prepared in advance, ready for the change, and it will be for the best. So I'm not surprised that he was all on board with tossing them, and then went deeply into grieving when bedtime came.

My sense is that what he needs most from you right now is understanding and comfort. Let him know that you understand that part of him is ready to give them up, and part of him really wants to keep them. He will feel tremendous relief at simply hearing that from you. It will ease up a lot of his inner battle with his own 'shoulds'. He wants to be a big boy AND a baby. And don't we all, in some way or another?

If possible, don't try to make him feel better about the situation, or get him to put on a happy face. Offer to hold him while he cries or feels sad. Rock him, carry him, give him lots of extra TLC. What he's doing right now is really hard work. Acknowledge that to him - that he really wants to be ready to do this, and he's so sad at the same time. Let him know you understand it is hard, and you will help him any way you can.

Since you know he finds comfort from sucking, maybe bring out a sippy cup with a small hole and let him drink water from that again for a little while. Or get a tiny cocktail straw for him to drink through. Tell him you are on his team, and you want to support him while he does this hard job. Ask him what would help.

If he says he wants the pacifier back, you could tell him you will help him in any other way than that, and be prepared for lots of tears and upset. He's releasing energy from his system, and the tears are good. Let him be as upset about this as he needs to be. Stay close to him while he cries. Hold him if he wants. If he doesn't, just stay in the same room with him and keep your heart as open as you can.

If you feel in your heart of hearts that he truly is not ready, and you decide to give them back for a while, that's fine. He will give them up eventually on his own. Since you are 4 days into it, and he's done a lot of good grief release, I'd encourage you to stick with it if you can. But only if doing so doesn't violate your maternal intuition! You know him better than anyone else.

And please make sure you get some extra TLC for yourself during all this. It's SO hard to see our children crying without feelings like we should do everything in our power to stop it! Crying is okay as long as you can stay close and compassionate and let him know it's okay to feel sad.

If you start feeling angry while he's crying, it's probably triggering up some leftover grief in you, which happens to all of us. If you can, hand him off to his dad or another adult who can comfort him while you go talk to a friend or cry yourself.

So basically, just keep him company in his grief, sort of like you would with a friend who lost a loved one. It's almost the same for him. He just needs to feel sad. And it can take a while, but it doesn't mean something is deeply Wrong. It's just sadness. Being there for him while he cries teaches him all the right things about love.

okay, I hope this helps.
please let me know if I can do anything else for you.

take care,

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stuck in a parenting rut?

Sometimes, even when we know exactly what we want to do differently in our parenting, we feel like we are stuck repeating the same patterns over and over again. We may continue to yell, threaten, withdraw, or overreact, even when we truly want to respond calmly and rationally to our children.

To address this dynamic, I've created the Pattern Release Technique (PRT), a synergistic blend of various energetic self-healing modalities that I have studied over the years, including Gary Craig's EFT.

During a phone session, I'll guide you in tapping your energy release points lightly with your fingers, which can help clear your system of the patterns, blocks, and disruptions that are keeping you stuck in your old habits.

PRT is simple, painless, quick, and effective, and once you have learned the basic technique, you can do it yourself anytime, anywhere. During our phone session, I will teach you where to tap and what to say while you are tapping.

After that, the sky is the limit, as you will be well equipped to customize my basic template to address any additional issues that are bugging you on your own time.

To celebrate the launch of my new website,, I'm giving away ten free thirty-minute phone sessions during the next two weeks. If you want to take me up on this offer, email me several times that work well for you, your phone number, and your time zone. I'll respond within 24 hours to confirm what time I will call you.

Hope to hear from you soon!


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My child shows no remorse #3

Q: I have a 4 year old son who doesn’t seem to show any empathy when he hurts someone. Just yesterday he was sent home from school because he punched a child in the face. When he was asked to apologize to the boy that was crying, he didn’t seem to show any signs of empathy, sadness for the other boy or embarrassment for what he did.

monkey see, monkey do

this article is rather sobering given the amount of time most kids spend playing video games and watching TV. here's an excerpt:

When we watch another person move, our observations of their movement activates in our own brain the same areas that are involved when we make that movement. This innate tendency for imitation was first observed in macaque monkeys where "mirror neurons" in the monkey's prefrontal cortex respond both when the monkey grasps a peanut and when it watches another monkey grasp it. Mirror neurons are also active in our brains.

If you observe my hand reaching for a cup of tea the motor cortex in your brain will become slightly active in the same areas you would use if you reached for the cup of tea yourself. Further, if you observe my lips as I savor the tea, the area of your brain corresponding to lip movements will fire as well. Of course that doesn't mean you can taste my tea but it does mean that I am directly affecting your brain as you watch me drinking it. And the process is reciprocal. If you pour yourself a cup of tea, a similar pattern occurs in my brain. In both situations the artificial distinction between you and me breaks down; we form a unit influencing each other's actions: I alter your brain as a result of your observations of me, and vice versa.

On the bright side, we can stack the deck for healthy behaviors by letting our children watch us doing them. The power of example penetrates into the brain at a cellular level.

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we all need somebody to lean on

This afternoon on my walk I passed our local elementary school while the kids were being dismissed for the day. As I approached I could hear the wailing of one tiny little girl, who was sobbing and clunking her feet in big snow boots a few paces behind what appeared to be her mom and dad. She looked like she was maybe three or four years old -- but kids come in all shapes and sizes, so she was probably a kindergartener.

I passed the parents first. I made eye contact and smiled, scanning their faces discreetly to see how they were reacting to the situation. They seemed pretty neutral, even a bit detached.

Next I walked by the little girl; her face bright red, tears streaming down her cheeks, dragging her tiny legs along like each one weighed a ton, begging to be carried but forcing herself to keep moving so she didn't fall too far behind.

I could see her inner conflict written all over her face. She was spent from her long day, but she was terrified that her parents would get too far ahead, so she overruled her body's desperate cries for rest and kept moving out of fear. Every bone in my body wanted to scoop that little cherub up in my arms and comfort her.

But of course, I couldn't! That would have been creepy.

So instead I kept on walking, and spent the rest of the way home wondering why even the kindest people can be so cold and unresponsive to our children at times. Not that these particular folks were truly cold or unresponsive -- I have no way of knowing what was going on in their heads or in the situation, and if I have learned only one thing in life it's that more often than not things are not as they appear. But I always enjoy a good opportunity for contemplation, so I came up with two main reasons.

First, many parents have been misinformed about their children's true motives. We've been brainwashed to shut down our normal compassion. Well-meaning admonishments suggest that our children are just manipulating us, and that we will spoil them if we 'give in.'

Some parenting 'experts' teach that it is not only necessary, but actually constructive to treat children in ways that we would never treat other adults. Gosh, I even see people out on walks who are carrying their dogs sometimes! But we are told that we will spoil our children if we carry them after they are old enough to walk.

I'm not sure what's behind this insidious advice, but I became a parenting consultant in order to help reverse this trend. In my parenting workshops, consultations, and articles, I talk about how all behavior is communication, and children are simply using immature strategies for getting their basic needs met. I help parents teach their children more effective and socially acceptable strategies which foster connection (ie asking instead of grabbing.)

Most of us would never remain friends with an adult who treated us the way we've been told to treat our children. If you called a friend while you were in tears, seeking compassion and reassurance, and she told you she would only listen when you stopped whining and crying, would you call her again?

If your legs grew tired while shopping at the mall and you wanted to sit down for a moment to recharge, would your friend keep walking and threaten that you better keep up with her or you will get lost in the crowd? If she did, would you invite her to the mall again anytime soon?

Imagine asking your husband if he would help you bring the groceries in from the car, and he tells you to be a big girl and do it yourself. How warm and snuggly would you feel toward him after that? Why do we think our kids would feel any differently about this treatment than we would?

So one reason I think parents may shut their hearts down is that we fear that treating our children with basic human compassion will screw them up in some way. So in order to do what is "best for them," we have to overrule our natural compassion and hide behind a cold, detached mask.

I think maybe the other reason that parents sometimes become indifferent to a child's suffering is that it triggers feelings in us that we don't know how to manage. In effect, our child's distress can send us right back into any stored-up leftover distress in ourselves. So we wall off our hearts as a coping mechanism, to make sure that backlog of painful emotion doesn't overwhelm us.

It seems to me that adults and children have the same core needs. We all crave acknowledgement, acceptance, and appreciation. Most of us need to express our emotions so they don't get stored up inside and become toxic. It helps us feel closer to each other when we can express our feelings to a loving listener.

Many of us don't need other people to give us solutions to our problems so much as we need lovingly attentive companionship while we work things out ourselves. I don't know about you, but I always feel better after a cleansing cry, even if the situation that triggered it remains unchanged. Sometimes a good cry IS the solution.

Maybe one way to address this second reason that we lose compassion for our children is through cultivating supportive and nurturing friendships with other parents. We all need somewhere safe to unload our emotions. We need to be able to turn to another adult when we are triggered, one who will not judge us, who loves us, and won't try to fix our feelings or hurry us out of them.

No one can be there for others ALL the time, so we need more than one friend like this. And often, our spouses cannot play this role, because they are physically and emotionally invested in us "keeping it together."

So if we want to be more compassionate parents, we need to create those kind of friendships in our lives. We need havens. Safe listeners. Friends who have no agenda other than keeping us company while the ick comes out. Friends who trust the process of release, and will not think less of us in our uglier moments. Companions who can ride the storm out with us, and know we will feel better afterwards even if nothing has changed.

And if we want to contribute to a more compassionate future, we can BE that kind of friend. We can smile gently at the parent whose child is screaming at the store and silently offer a 'been there' kind of acceptance. We can offer tissues, hugs, and kind murmurs when our friends have emotional breakdowns. Although it may not seem like much, it's actually one of the most powerfully supportive actions we can take.

And we can turn to our friends when we find ourselves closing off to our children, and ask them to be there with us while we express whatever feelings have been activated within us. There's nothing like a good cry to clear the emotional gunk out of our system so we can feel our hearts again.

Oh, and we can also do this for our children! Be a compassionate listener and stay close while they cry to release the gunk that is obscuring their natural happiness and good will. Lately I've been thinking of tears as solvents, because I suspect they actually wash away bad feelings. But I'll write more on that another day ...

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thoughts on authoritarian parenting

For some reason I've been very intrigued by the case of the sweatlodge deaths in Arizona, and have been following it closely. So I was not surprised to hear that James Arthur Ray was arrested the other day. This whole incident has really got me thinkin', and triggered a spirited discussion with some friends about child-rearing.

I tend toward letting kids learn from experience as much as possible, assuming they won't get themselves killed in the process (I wouldn't let a toddler learn about traffic by getting hit by a car!)

Rather than a limit-setting, discipline-oriented authority figure, I see my parenting role as more of a provider of information and an asker of questions that will help my children tune into their own common sense and intuition when making decisions.

For example, instead of saying, "No, you may not stay out until 12:30 to go to that party. Your curfew is 11 and you will be grounded if you are home late," I'd be more likely to say, "I hear that you want to stay out late that night. I'm concerned about the things that often go on at parties and on the roads after midnight. But if we can come up with some ways to make sure you are safe and sound, I think it would be okay to extend your curfew for this special occasion. What kind of ideas do you have? I might feel reassured of your safety if you would text me every half hour or so after 11, and I could come and pick you up instead of getting a ride home from your friends. What do you think?"

I want my kids to develop a trustworthy internal sense of Yes, that seems like it would be okay to try, and Nuh-uh, that feels like it's not worth the risk -- there's got to be a better way.

If I am constantly telling them how to act, what to decide, or to obey me because I said so, their internal decision making skills aren't getting much of a workout. If I demand that they comply with what I say, or punish them until they do, they may just take the batteries out of their internal smoke detectors, because they know I won't let them act on the alarms going off inside them. And later in life, when the stakes are much higher, they may continue to look to others to be told what to do.

Although no one will ever know the truth of what happened in that sweat lodge and why, perhaps this incident could serve as a warning about the danger of teaching our kids to respect external authority more than their own inner guidance. Blind obedience, in certain contexts, can kill.

If we demand that our children obey us on a regular basis without giving them any explanation for why we want something done a certain way, aren't we doing their thinking for them? Aren't we basically saying, Don't think for yourself, Don't question what I said, I know better than you what is best for you?

Is that the message we really want to send?

Don't we want their discernment muscles pretty well exercised by the time they are old enough to be sitting in a sweltering tent on the brink of death while being told by another external authority figure that they cannot leave until the next time he opens the door?

Don't we want them thinking for themselves, protecting themselves from harm, and listening to the inner guidance that says Get the heck outta here right now?

Now granted, it seems to me that part of the problem was that folks handed their internal authority over to this guy. From what I can discern, it seems that he did not hand it right back, as some spiritual teachers do. But it makes sense that followers will seek out leaders, and vice versa. No doubt this situation was much more complicated than we'll ever understand.

Nevertheless, I think as parents (and teachers, too) we have a marvelous opportunity to lay the groundwork so that the kids we love can be the ones who crawled out the bottom of the tent even though their esteemed leader told them not to, and survived.

Let's not be the ones who tell our kids to Sit down and shut up. Let's be the ones saying, Well, let's give this some thought. Does it make good sense? Is it safe? Is any part of you telling you that it's unwise or too risky? What's the worst that could happen if you do this?

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a must-read article for those who practice attachment parenting

I so wish I had the benefit of a perspective like this when my kids were little! This profound wisdom from Patty Wipfler, the founder of Hand in Hand Parenting, might have made weaning so much easier:

Actually, all of my parenting could have been so much easier if I had understood that sometimes crying was a signal that my child needed my help fixing a problem (like hunger or physical discomfort or a need for stimulation) while other times, crying was the remedy itself.

When no problem was evident for me to fix yet their crying continued, my children were simply asking for my compassionate presence while they released the static that had built up in their nervous systems with a good cleansing cry.

But I thought I wasn't doing my job well if they were crying, and tried even harder to soothe them and get them to stop. What a relief it would have been for me to hear that the best way for me to help at those times was just to stay and warmly listen while they poured it all out.

What a comfort it would have been to know that when I needed to say No to something in order to preserve my own sanity, like night nursing for example, I could say that No, and then lovingly listen to my child's protest for as long as it took to run its course.

And that furthermore, this kind of compassionate listening would strengthen our bond even more than the night nursing they were so upset about giving up.

Now that I've gabbed on and on about it, here's the link to the article again:

I'll be curious to hear what you think of it.

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research about how alcohol damages the teenage brain

Pardon the pun, but this information is quite sobering. Researchers have determined that teenage brains are physically damaged by 4 or 5 drinks once or twice a month.

Tapert's team found damaged nerve tissue in the brains of the teens who drank. The researchers believe this damage negatively affects attention span in boys, and girls' ability to comprehend and interpret visual information.

You may want to forward this article to your teen so you can talk about it together:

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mother-daughter project

I heard about this from a friend who started her own mother-daughter group locally. I think it's a wonderful idea!

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parenting book recommendation

When the Labels Don't Fit: A New Approach to Raising a Challenging Child just may be the book I thought I was going to have to write. Now that Barbara Probst has done it, I can just sit back and relax and send you all to her. She might even put me outta business!

This book is a priceless resource if you struggle with your child's behavior, and/or wonder why he or she can't be more like those mild-mannered, cooperative kids you know. It includes an extensive questionnaire that will help you identify where your child is located on a spectrum of different temperamental traits, and then goes on to list concrete strategies to bring out the best in your child.

Probst will help you see what is RIGHT about your child, as well as teach you exactly how to minimize tantrums, crying jags, emotional outbursts, resistance, and power struggles. This book gets my highest recommendation.

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I just found out my middle schooler tried pot. What now?

This can be a very emotional and personal topic, so I want to make sure that you know my intention in posting this response. What follows is my opinion, and nothing more than that. I offer it solely as something for you to consider as you make your own decision about what course to follow.

I do not believe there is a right or wrong way to handle this situation (or any situation, for that matter!) If you read this, and find yourself vehemently opposed to what I say, then I will be glad that my words contributed to your sense of clarity even if it lies in the opposite direction from mine. Parenting is a journey, not a destination, and each of us must follow our own guidance.

So, on with my response. To avoid the he/she awkwardness, I simply switched pronouns halfway through:

Q: I just found out my middle schooler tried pot. What now?
Whew! If you are like many parents, your first reaction is a shocked thought of ALREADY? In middle school?