Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m the mom of a spunky, funny, verbal 2-year-old who is not at all affectionate, and never really has been. If her dad or I offer or ask for a hug, she’ll say “NO.” We don’t press the issue because we’re trying to practice consent and bodily autonomy. We tell her every night that we love her and are met with a blank stare. I chalked it up to personality and told myself not to take it personally. But then, several times this month, I’ve dropped her off at daycare to watch her run up to her classmates and rapturously offer them big hugs. And last night she told her teddy bear that she loved him, and that she also loved grape juice, her pajamas, and Curious George. Like, she obviously gets the concept! Are we chopped liver? Is this normal?
—She’s Just Not That into Us
Dear She’s Just Not That Into Us,
Sometimes you have to explain social niceties to toddlers in such a way that it feels completely bizarre. I get that you don’t want to have to teach your daughter, “When Mommy says ‘I love you,’ it’s kind to say it back if you’re comfortable”—you want the I love yous to be organic and automatic! But not every kid is wired that way, and toddlers don’t always recognize the reciprocity of language. So, say just the above, and see if she gets on board. If she does, even if it’s rote for now (like when you tell a kid to say “I’m sorry” even though they really aren’t) it will establish a pattern that she will learn and may repeat with more genuineness as she grows. If she doesn’t want to use the L word, she might be more amenable to a secret code or handshake that means the same thing, but is just a different way of expressing it.
I’d also gently redirect you on one point: Her loving Curious George and grape juice really isn’t the same meaning of the word “love” as how she feels about you or other family members. She is excited about these things, she enjoys and craves them—whereas you may represent other emotions to her, like stability, routine, and a sense of home. Don’t despair and think that because she uses the word in one setting, it means she’s rejecting the concept in another. I’m no psychologist but I think these things exist in completely different parts of a toddler’s reality.
If it makes you feel any better, one of my kids wasn’t super emotionally demonstrative as a toddler, but he has grown up to show an incredible depth of sensitivity, kindness, and love—in ways that far outshine any bedtime “I love you.” Your mileage may vary, of course, but how demonstrative she is now may not necessarily be a predictor of her future self, nor does it necessarily prove how she feels about you. Be patient and observant and keep getting to know your child. My guess is that her ways of showing affection will reveal themselves in time.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Our child is 15 and 2E—twice exceptional. Autistic, with inattentive ADHD, sensory processing disorder (SPD), severe anxiety, moderate depression, and severe time blindness. He has tested in the 2 percent range for executive function. At the same time, he blew out the IQ test at the top end—somewhere north of 140. Public school is torture, but necessary because our kid specializes in art—a subject that neither my husband nor I can teach.
Our biggest problem: He’s getting less than five hours of sleep per night. The only reliable place he’ll sleep is after he’s home from school. He wraps himself in a blanket and falls asleep on the living room floor. Then he’s up at 8 p.m. and is awake until 3 a.m. or even later and has to get up for school at six. It keeps me awake, despite how careful he is to be quiet. All of our attempts with medication, or to work with his time blindness, have resulted in more anxiety and even less sleep. He’s an incredibly sweet and smart and talented kid, but the lack of sleep is killing all of us. Help!
—We’ve Tried All the Meds, and the Sleep Hygiene, Too
As the parent of a neurodivergent child, you probably know that sleep problems are very common for kids with one or more of your son’s conditions. An estimated 50 to 80 percent of autistic people have some kind of sleep difficulty, and not only is the amount of sleep affected, but the quality as well.
From your signoff name, it sounds as though you’ve tried a variety of interventions, but it’s unclear whether that has been in partnership with doctors or psychologists. If not, you may want to dive back in. As the above video describes, several genetic and medical conditions that affect sleep can appear in autistic people, so if you haven’t already looked into those, you may wish to. Additionally, sleep hygiene efforts might be unproductive if they aren’t tailored to autism or, better yet, your son specifically.
What sticks out in your letter is your description of school as torture, and the fact that your son immediately crashes into sleep when he gets home. Because I’m not a doctor or psychologist, I can only give you suggestions from my gut, which says that might be the place to start. Have you tried limiting this sleep period to a short nap—waking him after 30-60 minutes and thus shifting some of his sleep toward nighttime? Even if he didn’t immediately get more sleep, moving it into the evening seems like it would be a successful first step, and you could get yourself a noise machine or earplugs to stop hearing his early wake-ups.
Alternatively, do you have reason to believe his sleep would be better without public school? (How does he sleep over school breaks, for example?) If high school, and its accompanying anxiety, is a contributing factor toward his sleep difficulties, it might be worth reconsidering his enrollment. I know you said that art instruction was non-negotiable, but depending on where you live, there might be some collegiate-level art classes he could audit if he was enrolled in an alternative school. Private art instruction or even online courses could also help him progress in his creative skills if he were in a different educational environment. And if they happened directly after school hours, maybe it could be doubly beneficial.
Only you know your son and your specific circumstances. I hope you can crack the code and get more quality sleep for you all. Good luck.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a question about how to handle a certain kind of interaction with kids. I’ll use my friend’s 6-and-a-half-year-old son, “Edward,” as the example, because it most often comes up with him. I’ll be visiting my friend and her family (for context, they live almost two hours away, so when I visit, I usually spend several hours there and sometimes stay the night depending on plans), and playing with Edward.
At some point, I want to take a break from playing with Edward—not because I don’t enjoy him, I do, but because I didn’t come all the way there to spend the entire time playing with him. During the most recent visit, Edward and I were playing a card game, then he wanted to play hide-and-seek (for the record, I hate hide-and-seek). I said we will play two rounds, then we’re taking a break so I can talk to his mom. But, then I get, “How long is the break for?” I said I don’t know. Then, as I’m hanging out and talking with my friend, Edward keeps coming up and asking, “When can we play again?” I just keep answering, I don’t know Edward, I’m not ready yet. Then it’s, “Are you ready yet?”
It gets pretty annoying and my friend never intervenes. So, how do I kindly tell Edward to leave me alone? And what about with younger kids, as occasionally I’ll have a similar situation with my 3- and 4-year-old niece and nephew?
— No, It’s Not Time Yet
Dear Not Time Yet,
I think you can use clearer language with Edward. You’re not taking a break; you are done for now. A break is a short respite, but the word “done” will signal to him that he needs to find an alternative way to occupy himself. You can also offer a concrete time marker, such as “I’ll play again after dinner” or “I’ll set a timer for an hour and then I’ll come get you for some Go Fish.” (Just be sure you actually follow through.)
Ahead of your next visit, talk to your friend about how to manage Edward’s expectations. You might say, “Hey, I know Edward has trouble letting me stop playing to talk to you, and I feel like when I tell him I need a break, I’m accidentally stringing him along. So, this time when I’m done, I’m going to use that language. But help me out if it goes awry, because I don’t want to hurt his feelings, he’s such a great kid.” That will also better clue your friend into your intentions. As a mom with young kids, I can tell you that it’s really heartwarming to see your friends play with your kids (and it gives you a little minibreak from always being the playmate!). But it can be hard to figure out at what point the kids are overstaying their welcome, especially when your friend obviously likes playing with them. Good luck!
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have two highly achieving kids and one who seems to hate them. “Dan” (26) has been running a successful business he started in college. “Yuki” (20) graduated from high school early and is on track to finish college early as well. Because they are both away from home, I sometimes update “Lily” (16) about what they’re doing, which usually involves academic achievement or some personal success. Lily always gets upset when I do this, saying that I wished she was more high achieving. I’m not intending to compare them and don’t want Lily to think that I am, but my attempts to reassure her of this seem futile. Lily isn’t academically oriented and is planning to go into sports or the arts, and I have no problem with either, but she doesn’t seem to believe me when I tell her this. I’ve stopped giving her updates on her siblings, but it saddens me to know that Lily struggles to just be happy for them, and that I can’t share a bit of their lives with her.
Recently, Yuki briefly returned home for the first time since leaving for college and brought her girlfriend, who Lily scoffed at. She hardly acknowledged either of them, and if either of them tried to interact with her, she acted uncharacteristically rudely. Lily also wouldn’t give up her passenger seat in the car to Yuki, who has been in several risky situations/accidents and is very uncomfortable sitting in the backseat. Lily denies any resentment towards her siblings, but I find it difficult to believe her. I’m not sure why she would knowingly make Yuki (and her girlfriend) distressed and uncomfortable in her own home. I have always feared that Lily resented her siblings, but my worries seemed unfounded previously. They were all quite close before university, though now that I think about it, the friendship was largely between the older two. Both Dan and Yuki will be visiting soon. I worry that Lily will give them, and possibly herself, a difficult time. How do I handle this?
—Smart Sibling Struggle?
It’s really hard to feel like you’re the black sheep in the family, especially when it’s due to an accumulation of lots of small things that, by themselves, sound like nothing, but add up to a something. It sounds like Lily’s gotten the message over the years that her two siblings walk on water, whether in your eyes and/or in everyone else’s. It might be worth some introspection on that point. You may not have intended it, but have you praised Dan and Yuki for their accelerated success rather often, proudly, or publicly? Are Dan and Yuki known outside the family for being superstars, to the point where anytime a neighbor or family friend discusses them, their successes are brought up?
Conversely, does anyone notice any particular strengths or virtues of Lily’s, and are they ever commented on? Is Lily known for her assets, or is she “Dan and Yuki’s sister?” It doesn’t sound like Lily is looked down upon, but is she, or her interests, perhaps treated with disinterest? For example, you write that Lily is into sports and art and “you have no problem with either.” That’s not the verbiage of a proud parent—I’m not saying you aren’t proud of her, but I wonder if perhaps you aren’t as excited about those pursuits and Lily’s picking up on it. You may have heard the saying, “The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.” Reflect on whether Lily feels her family is indifferent to her, and how isolating that might feel. Does she feel she can succeed on her own terms and be equally as valued as her siblings?
If that’s what’s going on, then no, it really isn’t about resenting her siblings, as much as the general environment she feels she’s in. Add that to some general teenage malaise and stubbornness, and you have a pretty glum combination. Rather than tell her you value her, find some ways to demonstrate it. Talk to Lily and see if she can identify things about her siblings’ upcoming visit that could bother her, so that you can proactively minimize them (within reason). For example, maybe Lily gets annoyed hearing about Yuki’s girlfriend too much. You can tell her you’ll keep your ears open and ask Yuki to cool it if it gets out of hand. This kind of conversation would show Lily respect by acknowledging that having her siblings home after so much time away isn’t an easy feat for the kid who’s had the run of the house and parents in the interim—and you’d be reducing her triggers as well.
Meanwhile, give Dan and Yuki a heads up and ask them to go easy on any attitude that Lily throws at them, but also encourage the siblings to spend some time together as either a trio or in pairs. You might also think about an activity or two for the visit. Cheesy stuff like bowling, minigolf, and party games can get people to loosen up and step outside of their traditional family roles and patterns. (Maybe pick something that Dan or Yuki are likely to be terrible at.) And then, as you move forward, be sure that stories of Dan and Yuki’s mundanity and Lily’s victories, however minor, are shared among the siblings. With patience and slight adjustments, hopefully, you’ll see things improve.
More Advice From Slate
Recently, I ran into another mother picking up her first-grade son from the after-school program he attends with my 10-year-old daughter, Jane. Her son (let’s call him Joe) seems to have some difficulty fitting in with other kids. The boy’s mom stopped me and thanked me for having such a kind daughter who was nice to her son when very few other kids had been, and always made him feel included. I was really proud of Jane when I heard that—I was a bullied kid and I’m glad to know that she has taken my lessons to heart about being kind.