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 husband and I have a 5-year-old, a 7-year-old, and a 9-year-old. We know we can very comfortably provide for other children and our state is in urgent need of foster parents. We’d always wanted to foster, and a few years ago, we went through the process and had a 17-year-old girl, “Mariah,” placed with us. She was wonderful at getting along with our other kids, and we tried hard to give her age-appropriate freedom. Our town is small and white, and while people were kind, I think she felt like an outsider as a non-white kid. We expected her to focus on school, while her family had expected her to earn money, and that transition was hard. Therapy was slowly helping, but I think she struggled a lot emotionally. We expressed that we were happy to have her stay with us past turning 18 and would support her in graduating high school and maybe finding the next thing afterward. One night in January, she disappeared. We were terrified, and after a week and a police investigation, we found out that she’d gone back to her parents. By then, she was 18 and had the right to go where she wanted, but living with her parents wasn’t safe, and she was unwilling to come back to us. We haven’t seen her since, and all we can really do is hope for good things for her.
We haven’t fostered since, although we are cleared to. Recently, my husband has been talking about trying again, maybe specifically for younger kids like our kids so we’ll have more experience with the specific age group of parenting and do a better job fostering. I’m not sure; on the one hand, I’d love to do it, but on the other, I still feel upset and sad about Mariah, and explaining things to our own kids in an age-appropriate way was extremely painful. I don’t know if I can go through the whole process again, especially the constant wondering—did we drive her away, did she feel unsafe here, is she safe now, etc. I know she wasn’t our child, but I care about her and worry for her. I don’t know if I’m equipped to do it again. How will I know? What steps can I take?
—Maybe This Time?
It is very common for foster parents to feel a sense of loss and grief when a child they care about and love leaves their home. For you, this grief is coupled with feelings of guilt, and wondering whether you did enough for Mariah. None of these are easy feelings to process, and I think it’s natural that you would consider whether you are up to the task a second time around. If you haven’t already, I would seek a counselor or foster care support group to help you process your feelings and articulate what it would take to feel ready again.
I might be reading into things, but it sounds like some of your grief comes from the fact that you weren’t able to help Mariah to the extent that you wanted, and you worry that she left because of some deficiency in your care. I think this is the most important thing to let go of. I found this blog about fostering to be really insightful in explaining why love isn’t enough in the fostering journey. Kids can be traumatized—by the original situation or incident that got them into foster care in the first place, by their removal from their families, by the need to say goodbye to new families, etc. And even in the safest, happiest homes, some kids find it difficult to assimilate or settle. In other words, Mariah’s departure might have very little to do with the care you provided.
Give yourself permission to mourn the uncertainty. If you choose to foster again, maybe look into trauma-informed care training, if that’s not something you’ve already been given. There is no guarantee you won’t be met with another round of sadness. But you’ll be giving another child a chance to find a bit of peace and healing. Only you can decide if that gift is worth the grief—and it’s OK whichever way you decide.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
When my 14-year-old son, “E”, sees a meme or a snippet of something that interests him, he starts reading about it, talking to people, and finding out all he can. As a result, he’s become aware of the precarious state of our government, economy, and environment in the United States. He is beginning to wonder if he can have any kind of meaningful life in America. The healthcare system, the disappearing middle class, the school-to-prison or school-to-assembly-line pipeline, the growing list of things that should be part of normal life for everyone but are increasingly reserved for the rich—it all has him feeling like he’s doomed if he stays.
We’ve discussed student exchange programs and the legitimate possibility that he could go to college in another country and/or travel to a number of other countries. We’ve also talked about building a satisfying and meaningful life despite less-than-ideal circumstances. But every time we talk about his future, it seems like the conversation devolves into him being frustrated that despite science and ethics providing the answers to the many problems that plague America, our government doesn’t seem interested in correcting them and there’s very little any one person can do about it, especially one who is 14. But he also cannot go anywhere else for several years yet. He feels like he’s just wasting time until he can start actually living life.
E does see a counselor, and we are actively looking into things like student exchange and what countries are like to live in, not just uselessly musing about those things. But could you suggest some things I could say, or conversational prompts, for when he is frustrated that those “in charge” seemingly aren’t interested in fixing the existing problems, or when he’s not sure he can cope with four more years of being unable to escape? What about when he’s not sure he does want to leave? It must be terrifying to think you have to put an ocean between yourself and your friends, family, and everything you know to have any hope. I don’t particularly want to say, “Well, you’ll learn to be happy here with far less than what you and your family need to thrive, and what you deserve,” but that’s essentially what other adult family members and I have said. How do I help my son prepare for adulthood and cope with being stuck in a child’s role until then, when anything hopeful I might say feels likely to be a lie?
—Parenting Just Before the Fall of Rome
Dear Fall of Rome,
That is a heavy weight for your son to carry around every day. Unfortunately, I don’t think your son is alone, as tween and teen mental health is on the decline—not only for the typical reasons (social media, etc.) but for these larger societal problems as well. Many kids I have met are well aware that their futures will present challenges other generations haven’t faced.
I think that when it comes to being upset about things outside one’s control, different people want different responses. Some folks just want validation and listening, while others are seeking solutions. Some want to find ways to accept or live with the difficulty, and others want to try to reduce or solve it. So, before you take any of my practical suggestions, which I’ll get to below, be sure that is what he actually wants from you. You can literally ask him, “Do you want me to listen, or do you want to problem solve?” the next time he expresses his frustration. The other thing I would suggest you keep in mind is the power of making statements. So often, in tough conversations, we feel like we are supposed to ask questions of the other party to keep the chat going, which can sometimes be tricky. Try making use of statements like, “That sounds really hard,” “Tell me more,” or “It sounds like what you’re saying is…” as a way to validate and encourage E to open up more. Some of this is covered in the book Fourteen Talks By Age Fourteen, which I think presents a really interesting formula for having tough conversations with our tweens and teens.
In terms of practical tips, speaking purely from my own experience, I find data and action to be two of my strongest motivators. Encourage your son to start researching countries he might want to move to. What would he want to consider in a potential destination, and why? What kinds of exchange programs exist there for high schooler? Prompt him into some critical thinking the next time he’s mad about an American policy; who is doing it better than us, and how? Information gathering is a great way to prepare for future decisions and it gives you a sense of control over your choices; when he decides to study abroad or make a permanent move, he will know what he’s moving to, not just what he’s moving from.
Like I said, I also value action. I’m a play-through-the-pain kind of person by finding one part of the problem that is in my sphere of control and trying to make an impact there, before moving to the next. In E’s case, there are lots of opportunities to pitch in on social or political change so that he can try to make his current community work better, even if he ultimately plans to leave it. Let him volunteer for a campaign or NGO about which he is passionate. If he doesn’t have that kind of time, solo activities like Postcards to Voters or other grassroots efforts can help him use his voice to advocate for change. I’m also really inspired by the work of Citizen University which focuses on equipping everyday people (including youth) to make meaningful local impacts. Getting directly involved in these kinds of ways might help E feel like he’s attacking the problem, rather than just perseverating on it.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have three kids—ages 9, 12, and 14. COVID impacted their education in a big way. My oldest already had age-appropriate skills by the time COVID hit. He’s testing at grade level on state assessments, although there was a social lag for him when school first started in person again. My youngest found reading and writing easy and is on grade level in math and social skills.
My middle son is doing fine socially, but his teachers say he struggles with reading comprehension, including word problems in math class. He cannot identify the main character in a short story or write a one-paragraph response to story questions. His teachers say his cohort, for whatever reason, is doing worse overall than last year’s kids, but his challenges are more than most. Testing didn’t reveal any learning disabilities, and his teachers are all firm that he just needs the practice he missed in the past few years.
He gets pulled out during language arts to practice with a group of younger students at similar reading and writing levels, and he hates it. We try to do recommended workbooks and read aloud at home, and it’s like pulling teeth. It’s hard both academically (he needs these skills!) but also socially in the family, since he’s behind his siblings and sensitive about it. Any tips on managing this socially or academically? My ex isn’t in the picture so it would need to be something I could do while juggling other kids.
—Reading is Hard
It’s really tough when a kid gets down on themselves in the academic comparison game. I’m sorry he’s experiencing that.
Academically, I would set up a schedule for the practice sessions at home, allotting a certain number of minutes or exercises each day. Depending on your family schedule or his preferences, you can make it the same amount of practice each day, or you can vary between long and short practice sessions. Obviously don’t make him practice seven days a week, but make the routine consistent and predictable, and post it somewhere. I’d also think of benchmarks that earn him (reasonable) rewards when they are reached—let your son help to identify what these might be. Overall, you want the practice to be manageable and have positive associations. This teacher blog has a host of other ideas, many of which can translate into a home setting.
Socially, find a way to practice with him out of earshot of the siblings. Work behind a closed door or ask the siblings to wear earbuds. If he hates practicing with mom (what a drag), see if he’d prefer a high school or college-age tutor to work with him. I would also mention to the teacher that he hates being pulled out of class to work with younger kids. The teacher might want to figure out an alternative so as not to further associate reading with a negative emotion or perceived stigma. There might not be anything the school can do about it with limited resources, but you don’t know unless you bring it up.
Final thought: I know this is tricky when you are trying to reach a specific competency level, but throughout the practice, praise or thank him for his hard work as much as for his gained skills. Not only can this process teach him better reading comprehension, but it can also teach him to take pride in working through adversity. (Just don’t lay it on too thick, am I right? Tweens.)
Dear Care and Feeding,
Recently, my niece (who is in her 20s) told me about being sexually assaulted. She revealed that it was her uncle (60 years old) who recently moved back into town that touched her inappropriately. She also told me that it brought back another inappropriate touching episode in her teens by the same uncle. At the time, she told her two friends (who can back up her story) and her parents. Her parents dismissed the first event and she does not want to tell them of this event. She is afraid to see the uncle and is planning to avoid all family gatherings.
I am not sure what my role is in this situation. My niece told me, but not the family (who are my in-laws), and it is not my place to divulge if my niece does not want me to. I am also not sure how to face my brother-in-law, the perpetrator, when we go home for the holidays. We used to see him once a year, but now that he has moved back, we will see him a lot more. I generally do not approve of how he talks about women, leers at them, and takes pictures of them without their knowledge or consent. He also has a previous sexual assault charge that he said was made up. With what my niece told me, it makes me question his character and I do not want him near my teenage daughter. How do I handle this situation? I have thought about avoiding the whole situation and not going to my in-laws for the holidays.
—Angry and Conflicted
Dear Angry and Conflicted,
First, I recommend reaching out to the professionals in this arena by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or reading through the resources at RAINN. They can give you the best advice on how to support your niece and what path you should take regarding the family. This blog also shares some of the dynamics that can occur when a family takes sides in a sexual abuse situation, which you might want to consider if this news were to make its way into the larger family circle.
What is your spouse’s stance on his brother’s actions? If they aren’t aware, I would get your niece’s permission to share with them, since this could impact not only how you interact with the extended family, but your daughter’s safety as well. And if there is any kind of confrontation to be had in the future, it’s ideal if your spouse takes the lead with their own family.
Your primary responsibility is to your daughter and her safety. If you believe she is not safe around your brother-in-law—and I would agree with you—then I would absolutely either find ways to be absent from family events or ensure she is never alone or in a close situation with him. This might be difficult to explain to the family without sharing your niece’s experience, but from your letter, it sounds like there is more than enough material you’ve experienced first-hand to begin distancing yourselves with cause. You can be forthright or circumspect, but be sure you and your spouse are on the same page. One advantage to skipping the holiday events where the brother-in-law is present is that it would enable you to be there for your niece, who might feel isolated from the family if she is the only one who opts out. You might invite her to join your family at a separate gathering.
From there, be there for your niece. Tell her you believe her and support her in doing what she needs to feel safe. Let her control her next steps and be patient and understanding with her if it takes a while or if she changes her mind. Good luck, and my best wishes to your niece.
More Advice From Slate
My kindergartner, “James,” has gotten off to a wonderful start at his new school. His teachers have praised his academic work and said he’s a good friend. He tells my husband and I every day that he plays with “Sam” and “Ben,” two other boys in his class. When I started asking him about what they play, he described a pirate game. I was not delighted when he told me more about that game.