Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My 24-year-old daughter has severe acne. It looks worse by the day! She did not have this issue in her teens. She becomes extremely annoyed if I mention it or suggest she see a dermatologist. She’s attending law school and will begin an internship at a high-profile firm in a couple of weeks. I’m going to say it here…she looks absolutely awful! There’s no way this doesn’t bother her, whether she wants to admit it to me or not. I see the over-the-counter meds she buys and uses in vain. People associate acne to this degree with poor hygiene. I’m afraid it will negatively impact the professional image she wants and needs to portray to become successful in her chosen profession. I know this can be corrected with the help of a dermatologist! How can I finally get her onboard without hurting her feelings and/or damaging her self-image?
—Beyond my Wits with Zits!
I’m on Team Daughter. Look, I am certain you are coming from a place of love here. You obviously want what is best for your daughter. But she is an adult, and, given her chosen career and lofty internship, a pretty smart one at that. She knows how acne occurs and what kind of doctor she should see if she wants to address it. Plus, it sounds like you’ve already told her to see the dermatologist several times. She gets it. You need to let her live her life as she chooses, and that includes how she manages her appearance.
My guess is that your daughter is attempting to clear the acne on her own before she goes to the trouble and expense of a doctor. I would also bet that if it doesn’t work, she will take that next step on her own, with no encouragement needed from you. In fact, I would wager that she is well aware of your disdain for her appearance, and my concern is that your fixation on her complexion is damaging not her self-image, but your relationship. Put yourself in her shoes; how do you think she feels knowing that her mother thinks she looks “absolutely awful”? How do you think she feels knowing that you don’t trust her as an adult to manage her appearance and medical care? At minimum, she’s probably growing annoyed, but at worst she’s growing shamed and resentful at your consistent suggestions that she is inadequate. I worry she could be reaching the point where she’s bracing herself when she sees you, fearing she is going to have to face your implied or expressed disapproval. I don’t think that’s how you want her to think of you and the time you spend together. Trust your daughter, and back off of her skin.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter, a 7-year-old and soon-to-be second grader, attends a small school with small classes where families and kids have been together since kindergarten. We know each other well and spend time together outside of school. My daughter had developed a close but concerning friendship with another girl in our class; the director and teacher suggested we encourage our daughter to find a new friend because the two girls were not establishing healthy behaviors with one another. We have been working very hard—and so has our daughter—on how to be a good friend, what good friends do and say, and branching out into new friendship territory. This has not been easy, especially because friendships are becoming more solidified and our community is small.
This young girl’s behaviors seem to go unnoticed by her single mother. For example, she will say things like, “You missed the ice cream truck; I didn’t and I got ice cream,” which her mom doesn’t address. While I was driving my daughter and this child to a birthday party, my daughter was crying and upset in the back. Meanwhile, the other child smirked and never offered to comfort my daughter in any way. (My kid is notorious for many things good and bad; however, she will get an ice pack for a hurt kid on the opposing soccer/basketball team even if it means ignoring the game to do so.) Yes, I can distance ourselves from this child. However, I adore her mother, want to support her as she is a single parent, and can see a budding friendship between us. Do I tell her my concerns? It seems very difficult to invest in our adult friendship and distance my child without raising suspicion. (Our daughters were both recently diagnosed with ADHD.)
Dear Close Distance,
Maybe you already know more than you shared in this letter, but I’m curious about what kinds of behaviors the school has noticed. Are the negative behaviors just on the part of the other child, or is your daughter also showing some bad habits? Are the other girl’s behaviors ubiquitous around all her peers, or only your daughter? If you don’t know these answers, I’d encourage you to contact the school personnel and get more information. You should also ask whether they have raised any of these concerns to the other mom, too.
Armed with that extra information, I would find some opportunities to watch the girls together—ideally with you and the mom present. Go to a park, have them over for a play date and coffee, etc. See what dynamics you personally notice between the girls. Use those moments you observe to spark a conversation with the mom. “Hey, that comment your daughter just made to mine: I notice that kind of dynamic between the girls lately, and their teacher mentioned it to me once, too—that they seem to push each other’s buttons. Have you noticed that, too? What’s your take on it?”
This kind of conversation can be helpful for a couple of reasons: one, it can let you know whether the other mom is aware and working on more pro-social behaviors with her daughter (in which case, you might be able to redirect the girls when you see negative behavior in a way that bolsters mom’s efforts); and two, it sets the stage in case you and your daughter ultimately decide to distance her from her friend—the other mom would have context for why your daughter is backing away and thus be more able to support her child through any sadness.
Ultimately, as you navigate this, you’ll need to ask yourself, “What is the kindest thing to do?” If it’s obvious and awkward that you’re distancing yourselves, the kindest thing is to have a heartfelt conversation with the mom. If the distancing happens naturally, let it run its course. Only you can know the best way forward, but remember that kids often grow out of bad behaviors, and mom friends are sometimes hard to come by. Protect your child and her emotional health, absolutely, but allow the possibility that things may work themselves out over the coming years. Prioritizing kindness to the other mom over what is comfortable in the moment can help make sure both friendships have the opportunity to mature. Good luck!
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have two kids: a 12-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl. Both had been going to a small, private Montessori school. My son has ADHD, some short-term memory processing issues, and can be defiant. This private school could not provide the environment that he needs and he has been going to public school for the past two years. He started middle school this past year and hates it. He hates having to be in “special” classes and has seen his share of bullying. However, he loves band, and there are way more extracurricular activities in general for students in the public school setting. I think he is having a fairly typical public middle school experience.
My daughter, on the other hand, thrives at her school, academically. However, the class sizes are small. The seventh and eighth grade classes have six students. My daughter is shy and struggles with anxiety. She has been friends with the same group of girls since second grade. Two of these girls are just MEAN and she regularly feels left out. I’m thinking about moving her to public school when she starts sixth grade but I worry about her being overwhelmed. I like the idea of her meeting other new friends and having more extracurricular activities, but I worry about her anxiety. I want her to be able to face her anxiety and learn ways to deal with it (and yes we go to therapy) but I’m not sure if changing schools would help or harm her. Any suggestions?
Dear Mama Bear,
Hanging out with girls who are regularly mean and exclusionary seems like a surefire way to feed one’s anxiety. But it’s a good idea to ask your daughter’s therapist’s take on this.
I’m biased, being the product of the public school system, but I will tell you hands-down that I learned so much about myself from my middle and high school extracurriculars that I am very persuaded by that argument alone. But, more broadly, I feel very strongly that academics are only one part of what kids get out of school. They learn social skills (everything from friend-making to problem-solving to negotiation), define and refine their moral codes, explore their interests, learn executive functioning skills, and so on. I would evaluate the potential of both options along these lines; beyond academics, what do you want your daughter to get out of school? Use those criteria to evaluate both schools and choose the best one to meet your goals.
I’d also consider how you want to involve your daughter in the conversation. You might decide you want her to help you make the choice of schools. Or, if you decide to move her, you can ask her to help identify the assistance she’ll need in order to successfully transfer. Either way, she is old enough to begin participating in decisions that affect her, and that alone can empower her no matter what school she ends up in.
Dear Care and Feeding,
About a month ago, my 29-year-old son “Casey” moved back in with us (mom, dad, and two younger siblings). Due to COVID, we hadn’t seen him as often as usual and since we mainly communicate via phone or text, we had no idea anything was wrong until he called us in the middle of a breakdown. He is very depressed, but more baffling to me is that he has also been diagnosed with a binge-eating disorder. He has gained a ton of weight since I last saw him and told us that the bingeing has been going on for a couple of years but got out of hand in the last year. He is seeing a therapist/psychiatrist and is on a waitlist for an eating disorder treatment center, but it’s likely that it’ll be a few months before the center can take him.
The whole situation is so jarring to me—Casey is the oldest of our kids and he has always been by far the easiest. He got a fantastic, high-paying job right out of college and has always been cheerful, happy-go-lucky, and has bounced back easily from any bumps in the road. Never in a million years would I have guessed that of the three kids, he would be the one we would be coaxing to take a shower or calling treatment centers for. We knew that about a year ago, his job had laid him off and that he had gone through a breakup, but when he told us these things he insisted he was handling it all, had some freelance work lined up, and was dealing with the breakup just fine. He now admits to us that while he did do some freelance work, the layoff and breakup triggered his depression, and binge eating became his coping mechanism. He said he didn’t tell us the truth about how bad things had gotten because he didn’t want to worry us.
Well, now I’m even more worried! In my eyes, we’ve always had a good relationship and it’s difficult for me that he didn’t tell us any of this until he hit rock bottom, though I understand that he probably wasn’t emotionally able to. We have stressed since he came home that he can talk to us about ANYTHING, especially the hard stuff, but I still get the feeling that he’s holding back. I feel like I have no idea how to talk to him anymore, especially about food. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but it feels like everything has the potential to trigger him or to come off wrong somehow. We’ve always raised our kids with healthy foods and eating habits—dessert on weekends only, margarine instead of butter, limited processed snacks, no fast food—so I don’t know how we/he ended up here. His dad and I have been gently suggesting/inviting him to exercise with us (about an hour a day, but it would be fine if he wanted to do less), thinking it might help his mood as well as his weight but he always says no. My husband does most of the cooking in our house and has been trying to involve Casey in making healthy meals together, but he usually declines that, too. I know he is still bingeing, especially when we’re not home.
I hate that my son is suffering but I have no idea what I or we as a family can do to help him. I would love to go to a therapy session with him but that feels like something he would have to initiate. Do I make sure we don’t have snacks to binge on? Do we sit down and have a big conversation about this as a family? Or do I just leave it to the professionals and try to act like things are normal until he can get the help he needs?
—Literally, Care and Feeding
Dear Literally C&F,
Two things stand out to me in your letter. The first is that you’re clearly spiraling here, which makes sense. Your child is going through a serious trauma and you naturally want to fix it. Take a deep breath, calm your reactivity down, and recognize that you aren’t going to do yourself or Casey any favors by freaking out. Knowledge is power, and I think it would do you a world of good to spend some time reading up on depression and eating disorders so that you at least feel like you have a port in the storm. Look for resources specifically about supporting a loved one—this article might be a good place to start.
And that leads me to my second piece of advice, which I say with love and kindness: It sounds like you are making this about yourself, and it needs to be about Casey. The fact that Casey didn’t tell you how much he was struggling is not a reflection on your relationship. Judging from how you characterized him, Casey has probably always thought of himself as the dependable, got-his-shit-together eldest child; to have everything unravel all at once likely completely shattered his self-image. I can understand why he tried to keep it to himself. It’s one thing to feel like you failed, but it’s a whole other ballgame for your proud parents to think you failed, too. If you focus on how he should have told you, or on your earnest desire to help fix it now, you won’t be giving Casey the space he needs to address the root of the issue. You risk teaching him that he needs to protect you rather than work on himself.
Don’t wait for an invitation from Casey to go to family therapy; in fact, I would highly suggest you and your husband find your own therapist right away, who can coach you on how to best support Casey, how to talk to his siblings, etc. They can also gut-check some of your ideas for helping. I’m not a mental health professional, so I can’t draw on any specific expertise as it relates to depression and eating disorders, but I’m guessing you’ll be advised to cool it on the weight-loss activities. You might be surprised to learn that some of what you consider “healthy eating habits,” like food restriction, can actually be harmful in the context of eating disorders.
Big picture: Casey came home to you because he was in crisis and he needed you. That is no small thing. Be grateful he made that choice and show him it was the right one by accepting him as-is and taking his lead on how to move forward.
More Advice From Slate
Parenting is so tough. I’m fairly easygoing in my parenting style. My kids (4 and 1) go to day care and my husband is a teacher, so in winter it’s rare to go a week without at least one of us getting sick. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law are both very anxious people, especially when it comes to health. They have both had their share of health issues, so some of it is understandable.