Care and Feeding

Why Is My Family So Mean to My Daughter?

They can’t handle regular 4-year-old fussing, and I want to scream.

A mother protecting her sad daughter
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by fasphotographic iStock/Getty Images Plus and SeventyFour/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a single mom and my daughter is 4. She’s bright, funny, generous, and headstrong. Like most 4-year-olds, she occasionally cops some attitude, like shouting, “Everyone stop talking!” when she wants to say something. Sometimes she melts down into a sobbing mess in response to setbacks or difficulties, but I think this is pretty normal. I don’t love it, but I accept it and we deal with it as best as we can. I’m pretty sure I’m doing this parenting thing all right.

The problem is my mom and sister. They react in pretty negative ways to her behavior. On Christmas Eve, for example, while we were all together in the car looking at light displays, my daughter started crying because we didn’t get out and walk around. It was totally my fault; I wasn’t wearing warm-enough shoes. But my sister snapped, “If you don’t stop crying, Santa won’t want to come tonight!” Of course, she cried more. My sister is constantly trying to take food off her plate or stare at her across the table because she thinks it’s “hilarious,” which of course causes my daughter to become more upset. I ask her to stop but she still does it anyway. (She did these things to me as a kid too because she has absolutely no respect for personal boundaries.)

When my mom comes to our house and my daughter makes even the slightest noise that sounds like it could turn into crying, she immediately tells my daughter, “I’m just going to leave!” or “That’s why I don’t like coming over here!” or “Your mom never acted this way!” It’s so painfully obvious that Mom doesn’t really enjoy being around her most of the time.

This hurts my daughter in many ways and I’m busting my buns to counteract it for her with tons of positive reinforcement and love, so for me, it’s excruciatingly exhausting. I feel like I’ve got three children (two of them demon spawn who should know better) and no help. I don’t have a partner to share my concerns with or to help me get my daughter through rough patches, and the rest of my family seems to be intent on making her feel like shit if she isn’t “perfectly behaved,” which makes me feel like shit too.

Good luck with family therapy. Mom doesn’t want to and my sister doesn’t understand she needs to. I’d be happy to go on my own, though. We live five minutes away from them, so getting distance isn’t an option. My dad tries to stay out of all family issues, so it feels like it’s just me against the world. Any advice beyond getting a mani/pedi sometimes to cool off and loving my daughter with the power of 1,000 suns?

—Grow Up!

Dear Grow Up!

I’m so sorry! Your daughter sounds like a perfectly “normal” 4-year-old to me, and you seem like a thoughtful and overextended mom trying to do it all. Where is your fun sitcom montage??

The answer, I think, is that you need to go find yourself some more friends. Friends who also have young children, and therefore have reasonable expectations for their behavior. Hit up the internet for local mom groups, chat up more parents at whatever sort of activities your kid does outside the home, and generally just treat this like online dating until you have at least two friends you can call after your sister leaves you in a puddle of frustration.

As for your mother and sister: Do your best not to call them out in front of your daughter. It’s much better to grab them in the hallway and say, very clearly, “Don’t threaten my child with Santa not coming.” If they get mad, let them. As my best friend’s grandmother used to say, there are people in this world who are radiators and people who are drains, and I am sure you can tell where I am going with this.

You have a lot on your plate. I’m cheering for you.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is about to experience a lot of big changes this year. He’s 2¼ and generally pretty adaptable. Our upcoming renovations are so large-scale that they’ll take six months to complete, so in the meantime we’ll be staying at my parents’ house. My son won’t have most of his things with him (we’re bringing only his crib with us, not even our beloved glider) and I worry he might decide to transition out of his crib during this time. I also expect we may get into potty training.

He loves his grandparents and this will actually be a chance for his dad and I to get out more, so it’s not this part I’m too worried about … it’s everything that will come after, which is that he will become a big brother. Of course I can’t predict anything but I’d also hoped that by the time I had another baby, the first one would be done with the crib and done with diapers. But I can’t confront tackling those things without a true home base. As I said, he’s adaptable (he barely noticed when we moved into this house), but I also think he’s become rather attached to our current environment. How can I make it easier for him? Or am I just projecting and I’m actually more stressed out about it than he will be?

—Ch-ch-ch-changes

Dear Changes,

To heck with your kid, I’m so sorry that you’re navigating all this during your pregnancy! What a cluster. Look, he’s going to be fine. If things come up, you’ll handle them. I want you to work on trying to enjoy yourself and this last amount of time you have with just your son, which is precious and bittersweet. Extra cuddles and books will be good for both of you.

No one really achieves the stable “home base” of their dreams; new babies are little wrecking balls whether they come home to a magically well-adjusted and potty-trained older sibling in a beautifully decorated nursery or are unceremoniously swaddled in a stall in a manger.

Don’t borrow trouble is my final ruling here. Keep a close eye on the young man, and if he does show signs of interest in potty training, go along with it, but don’t push the question. All of this will be over before you know it.

Dear Care and Feeding,

This morning my mother-in-law, who is very generously providing free child care, told my fussy 3-month-old baby, “You’re so much prettier when you smile!” I stiffened immediately and my shoulders went up around my ears, but I was so exhausted that I couldn’t think of anything to say in the moment. I really hate this kind of gendered comment, and when it’s directed at my infant, it made me see red. I know she doesn’t understand it now, but she will before we know it. Besides, it bothers me. Do you have any thoughts for how to address it when it comes up again?

—Resting Baby Face

Dear RBF,

SO IT BEGINS. If I were you, I would live my life as though this were never going to come up again. Is your mother-in-law generally a kind person who isn’t a font of sexist remarks? Then let this one slide. If she isn’t, wait for it to happen again and just be clear and honest in the moment.

Smile! (Ugh.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

I just received a letter from my sister-in-law, “Nell,” which has me so mad I can barely see straight. She informed me that she had been furious with me since Christmas morning (!) but was only now ready to reach out and discuss the situation.

Back in November, I asked Nell for gift ideas for her two children, our nieces. She emailed me a list including about eight items for each child. I proceeded to buy, wrap, and mail a single gift from each of the two lists to the relevant children, along with a nice card, and moved on with my holiday season.

Apparently, I was supposed to naturally intuit that I was meant to purchase all 16 items for the kids and am the world’s biggest cheapskate. Obviously, I am completely aware that she’s nuts and I did nothing wrong, but how on Earth do I respond?? My husband is doing a “That’s just how she is” shrug, which is unhelpful.

—HOW DARE

Dear HOW DARE,

She can get stuffed. What a nightmare person! Thank you for making us all feel better about ourselves as moral actors on this earth.

Here’s an idea: Your shrugging husband gets to handle the gift-giving for his own sister and her children going forward, and you will never sully your hands with said task again. The gall. The unmitigated gall!

I would never respond to such a letter. Were she to attempt to follow up with me about it, I would say, “I assumed the kindest thing was to spare you the embarrassment of a response.” I really would, and I am both Canadian and extremely naturally passive.

My own proviso is that you should do what’s necessary to maintain relationships with the kids (who I suspect are perfectly happy with their actual presents) and if that becomes a chilly “Let’s say no more about this,” well, fine.

—Nicole

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