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 sister is divorcing her husband and marrying someone new. I was happy at first, as she seemed thrilled, but everything she tells me about this new guy makes me wary. He struggles with alcohol, to the point of occasionally drinking until he hits the blackout stage. He also struggles with gambling and apparently believes in “traditional gender roles.” And what’s really terrifying to me is that his ex-wife told my sister that during their marriage, he socially isolated her and was so controlling that she now suffers from PTSD.
If it was just my sister, I’d try to talk her out of this—and I have tried, unsuccessfully. But I have an 8-year-old niece who’s going to be living with them half the time. She already deals with anxiety, and having an overbearing stepfather who expects perfection while he drinks the evening away is too close to what my sister and I dealt with growing up. My sister doesn’t seem to be worried about this, as my niece really likes the guy. However, they haven’t moved in yet and they’re not yet married. Things could change once they are.
I’m struggling with whether I should tell anyone what she’s told me, be it my parents or my future ex-brother-in-law. I want someone to look out for my niece in all of this, and I’m the only person my sister has told all of this to. Do you think I should share what she’s told me in private with anyone, or hope for the best?
—Wondering When to Spill
This is a really hard call to make, because sharing—even if it comes from a place of love and concern, which I believe it does in your case—can wind up making the problem much worse. If your sister goes into this marriage (which she seems determined to do) feeling like her whole family and her ex are against her, it will be easy for her to become distant from you all and defensive of her new spouse. It’s also worth noting that some of what you shared here comes from his ex who (so far as I know) is at minimum a biased source. So, I would tread very carefully here, even though your alarm bells are going off, and only share with your parents if you are sure they can also take measured approaches with your sister. At this point, I wouldn’t involve the brother-in-law.
You have already spoken to your sister about your concerns about the marriage. At this point, I would shift your focus from trying to stop it to supporting her in it. Cultivate a safe, judgment-free zone for her so that if she ever needs help, she will trust you to give it. If she feels embarrassed or thinks that you’ll adopt an “I told you so” attitude, it could be harder for her to leave if things get bad. And make space and time for your niece in all this. Start a regular hang-out routine with her and cultivate a one-on-one relationship. Be a trusted family member to her and stay vigilant for any changes you see or hints she drops.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline can give you further tips on what to look for and how to help. Hopefully, this all turns out to be nothing, but you’ll be more prepared if your concerns are warranted. Good luck.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My youngest, “Violet,” is 10 years old. Her best friend will be turning 10 in mid-June following the last week of school. Violet has been invited to her friend’s birthday sleepover party. Violet is very excited, but I’m not so sure.
Violet is very self-conscious about quite a few things. She has pretty bad eyesight and when she takes off her glasses—like she does before sleeping—one of her eyes immediately turns all the way in. She has hearing aids. She tries to hide putting them in or taking them out unless it’s in front of her immediate family or the audiologist. She’ll need to take them out before she falls asleep—at home, she doesn’t mind putting them back in if she needs to communicate, and most of us know ASL anyways, but at her sleepover, she’ll need to put them back in to communicate with her friends. Violet’s also self-conscious about her height (she’s very short) and doesn’t want her friends to find out her clothing sizes. She doesn’t have separation anxiety as far as I know, but she’s only ever spent the night away from us with my in-laws or my brother, and even then, her older brothers were with her. She’ll be in fifth grade next year. The fifth graders always go to a sleepaway science camp for three nights in October, sleeping in cabins. My older kids had a blast when they went, and I want my daughter to be able to have fun with it too.
Violet is very excited about the upcoming sleepover. She hasn’t put much thought into her insecurities and says she’ll be fine at the sleepover. Recent events beg to differ—one of Violet’s friends wanted to get a dress for her birthday a few weeks ago and her mom asked for Violet’s size. Violet just asked her friend to get a different gift rather than divulge. She went swimming last week with a friend and waited in line for 20 minutes to get a private stall to change in the women’s change room, just so her friend wouldn’t see her take off her glasses and put on her swim goggles. I really want Violet to have a fun time at her sleepover, and this would be good practice for her school trip in October. I’m confident that none of her friends at the sleepover would react negatively to any of these things she’s self-conscious about. Her best friend, the birthday girl, is an absolute sweetheart. This sort of insecurity is irrational though. How can we help Violet get more confident in herself and her needs before the sleepover in a few weeks?
—Insecure at a Sleepover
It sounds like Violet is very motivated to conquer this sleepover. Your job is to help her create a game plan so that she can take this important step toward independence.
Make that plan together by asking Violet how she will feel in each of these situations you mentioned, and how she’ll want to respond. What will she say, for example, if a friend sees her clothing size, and is she willing to change in front of the other girls if that’s what they’re all doing? What will she do if she needs to put her hearing aids in? There might also be a couple of things you can do ahead of time to avoid her stressors altogether. Cutting off the tags on her clothes is one easy way to avoid conservations about sizing. Practicing taking her glasses off in front of her bestie could be another proactive step (it also prepares that friend to stand up for Violet at the party if it turns out to be needed).
Take your lead from Violet; you don’t want to appear that you’re more stressed about the party than she is! It might be that she has already thought of ways to avoid most of her sensitivities, but be ready to game out some scenarios if it’s clear that she is giving herself a little too much benefit of the doubt. And of course, let her know she can always call you to come get her if the event winds up being too much. While I agree that she is taking some of her insecurities to the extreme, I’m not sure I would characterize it as irrational. It’s really tough to feel like you stick out. So, as you discuss things with Violet, your subtext needs to be about what she will do, not about how she should feel. I hope she has a great time!
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m all alone and I need help. I’m in eighth grade. In January, my family and I moved far away—three hours by plane. I’m really shy, but this is a bigger school so I thought I would be able to make friends more easily, but I haven’t. I’m not bullied, I’m just ignored. My only real friends are my brothers who are identical twins and two years older than me. We love each other a lot, but I feel bad about asking them to hang out with me when they’d probably want to do stuff with their friends instead. (And they don’t go to my school, either.)
I’ve been paired up in group projects with people who either I just don’t click with or who don’t seem like good people. Other than that no one’s really had a conversation with me. Every time I try to email my guidance counselor I give up because I get so afraid that he’ll read my email the wrong way and he’ll think I’m an idiot. (I know that probably won’t happen, but every time I try to email him those thoughts go through my head so much that I just have to stop.) I went to the board game afterschool club, but everyone there already knew each other. And some of the people were nice but I felt too creepy asking them to hang out with me, like go see a movie or something, and I got really overwhelmed with all the noise and people. I feel like every time I need to interact with people I get overwhelmed.
And now that school is ending in a month, I feel utterly hopeless. I think I’m going to spend part of the summer with my aunt, uncle, and cousins, but otherwise, for most of the summer, I’m not really going to be doing much. I might volunteer at the science museum but that also sounds terrifying. But I won’t have any friends to hang out with at all. Next year, I’ll start at high school, but it’s with the same people who already know me as the shy, quiet, awkward girl who can’t talk to people. I want to get help and I don’t think my parents would be unsupportive, but I can’t ever talk to them about it, every time I open my mouth the words just can’t come out.
Dear Shy Girl,
Many of us have felt some amount of what you described in your letter. It can be helpful to try to remember that, as much as you might feel like your awkwardness broadcasts obviously to everyone around you, it probably doesn’t. The thing about being in middle school is that no one is paying as much attention to you as you feel like they are—because everyone is too worried about whether they are fitting in, too!
One way to try to make friends without directly asking people to hang out with you is to (when you are in a conversation) just mention something like, “It’s hard to get to know people.” Some kids might take the hint, and others can just empathize without them or you feeling on the spot.
I know the year is almost over, but just keep doing what you’re doing. How many times did you go to the board game club? Was it just once, or did you go a few times? It could take several “appearances” on your part before you and the other kids start to feel more comfortable around each other. Don’t expect that you will make friends right away—in this or any social situation. Many times, we need to have a few exposures to a person before real relationship building can begin. And sometimes it never does—but that doesn’t mean that you’re unlikeable or that your time was wasted. It’s just practice on the way to finding your people. In the fall, do talk to your guidance counselor at the high school. I promise, you will not sound like an idiot. Find out where the most accepting or widest variety of kids hang out: drama club, student council, academic bowl, etc., and start the year off there. Again, you might need to try out a few things or go a few times to know which is right for you, so be patient and give yourself grace.
I know it feels hard to talk about all of this, especially if you think you might need more help than what I have provided here. I always find that writing things down can help when saying things out loud is too hard, so I suggest you write your parents a note explaining how you have been feeling and asking for what you need. Hopefully, that will spur them to start a conversation with you, which might be a whole lot easier than you trying to start a chat when you feel so vulnerable. Good luck, I know you’ve got this.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a mom of a 10-year-old on the autism spectrum, “Kyle.” Kyle is finishing fourth grade in public school and is starting to struggle behaviorally. His teacher says he gets frustrated easily, which sometimes results in pushing, hitting, or throwing things at students. We started him with a counselor after school to work on his emotional regulation. But I also believe that his social struggles are causing some of the behaviors. He is the weird kid at school and reports that kids are often telling him that he’s a loser and no one likes him. He tells me that he does have a few friends in the building, but they were not in his classroom this year.
I attended both private and public schools growing up. I’d like to send Kyle to a private school next year and allow him to finish grades 5-8 there. My husband was raised in a different socioeconomic class in a different part of the state, where private schools were not part of the equation. Although he has been frustrated with the way the public school has handled our son’s issues, he is against the idea of sending Kyle to private school, because it just wasn’t done where he’s from. I don’t think he will veto the move, but neither will he be supportive of it.
I took Kyle to tour the private school, but it did not make him want to go there. He said it was too small. A few days prior, he had been interested in changing schools, but he’s now telling me that he doesn’t want to leave the few friends he has at his current one. I believe this is due to nerves, as he is not exactly happy in his current environment. But now I’m struggling with how hard I should push this. I firmly believe the change would be good for my son, but not everyone in the house agrees. How much say should my 10-year-old have in where he attends school? How hard should I push back on his dad who doesn’t want this?
—Outvoted in Oregon
Has your husband also toured the private school? If not, that might need to be your next step. It’s hard to imagine making such a big change if you don’t have an idea of what that change will look like.
That said, bear in mind that private schools are not always great places for kids with learning disabilities or neurodivergence, because they are not under the same accommodation and support requirements as public schools. Check out this letter from Slate’s Ask a Teacher series for more perspectives on that front, and if you haven’t already, research the private school in question to see where they fall on this issue (talk to school leaders, aides, current and past parents, etc.)
It’s really hard to watch your child struggle, especially if you feel strongly that there is a better alternative out there for him. If, after the steps above, you are all still in disagreement, I would give the public school one more shot, but with some clear goal setting. Have a conversation among you three about what you each want your son’s public school experience to be. If you can articulate together what a successful year would look like, it will give your family an objective way to evaluate whether a school change might be warranted. Share this vision with his counselor, as well as his teacher and education team, who can ensure that his IEP goals and accommodations align. (And as I mentioned in a previous column, utilize the help of an education advocate if you don’t feel the IEP is giving your son what he needs to succeed.) Hopefully, these steps can deliver a better quality academic and social experience for your child. If they don’t, you and your son and husband have a shared set of data from which to make an informed choice about your next steps. Good luck.
More Advice From Slate
I am 17, and my little sister is 7. My parents are now totally different than the parents I remember having at her age. Her allowance is much larger than mine was, they say yes to basically everything (she can have food in the living room, which was strictly forbidden), and I can’t see how she’s not going to wind up spoiled. Can I talk to my parents about this?