Care and Feeding

Mother’s Little Helpers

A neighbor mom is a pill popper. What should I do?

Photo illustration of a worried woman in front of pills.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by pina messina/Unsplash and SIphotography/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,

Apparently, it’s well-known among the parents in our child’s circle of friends that one mother is a pill pilferer (OxyContin, Xanax). She is going through a divorce and home-schools her children. I’ve only recently become privy to this information, and I’m at a loss about what to do. Her son and my son love each other, but I don’t feel I can let my children be at her house alone. More than that, she’s a pillar in parts of our community—she is board president of a preschool and runs programs for young children. I want to help her and her children, but don’t want to get the state involved and make the children’s lives even more traumatized.

—Completely Lost

Dear CL,

For the sake of this letter I’m going to assume that the rumors of this woman’s use are valid, despite the fact that they’re just, you know, rumors. That said, there is a generous amount of space between “getting the state involved” and leaving your child alone at this woman’s house, and your plan of action lies within that space. By all means don’t send your kid to be alone with an adult you credibly believe to be on drugs. That should be pretty self-explanatory. And if you think her kids are struggling, then that’s all the more reason to make your home as much of a center of activity as you can. Sounds like they would benefit from being in an environment where the reigning adult is not going through a divorce and a pill addiction.

They need that help just as much as their mother could use some help during what is clearly a rough time. So you should make yourself available to talk with her and ask her if she needs any help. But you cannot save her or get her clean or whatever else we tend to think we can do with people who are struggling with addiction. Your letter doesn’t imply that you are laboring under these delusions, but it bears repeating anyway because it’s such a common mistake. Similarly, getting the authorities involved is in no way a guarantee that you will force a person into clean living. It’s just as likely that you will, as you point out, only be introducing new varieties of messiness. The hard truth of addiction is that you cannot solve it from the outside. The only thing you can do is be there to help people when they’re ready and protect children caught in the crossfire, to whatever extent you can. Keep your child out of there, be as supportive to her innocent children as you can, and be available, if you can, if this woman wants a sympathetic ear. But outside of that, pray for the best. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 13-year-old daughter is a “drama” kid. She has always loved to be part of theatrical productions and all of us (family and friends) have supported her and enjoyed watching her grow onstage. The problem is she never gets good roles! It was fine in the beginning when she was just getting into theater and was thrilled just to be part of the experience. However, for the past couple of years, she will go through the cycle of practicing and auditioning for parts, waiting eagerly for cast lists to be put up, and getting her heart broken because her part is too small. Then I have to go through my own cycle of feeling privately terrible that my kid is so sad, but then supporting her through her disappointment while encouraging her to keep trying.

We used to tell her that as long as she enjoys the experience, it doesn’t matter if her part is small. But this last time around, she was so disappointed with her part (she is among the older kids in the production and had really high hopes that she would get one of the lead roles) that she doesn’t want to do the play anymore! I’m torn between letting her take a break and encouraging her to do the play this one time (because she might regret it later). Should I gently start pushing her away from her theatrical pursuits and help her find something else? I hate to say this, I really do, but I honestly don’t think my daughter has what it takes to be superior in this field. But I was supporting her with music and dance lessons because she enjoyed it so much.

—So Much Drama in Drama

Dear Drama,

What’s really happening is that your daughter was into a thing and is no longer into it. She liked the idea of getting bigger parts and having more fun stuff to do in a production; now that’s not happening, and it’s made the whole affair much less fun. Imagine how you might view this scenario if you could somehow remove from the equation all ego, expectation, career projection, or referendum on how talented or wonderful she is. I suspect you’d pretty quickly see that since it’s all voluntary, her participation in drama is at will. She gets to quit whenever she wants to! What an idea, in a culture that cannot separate literally anything from career, productivity, competition, and progress, that there are some things you get to do just because you like them. Nothing more. And when you stop liking them, you get to stop doing them.

Let her quit if she wants to quit. Let her stay if she wants to stay. She might regret either one of those things later, but this is a pretty low-stakes scenario in which she can experience her own regret without your involvement. It’s not like she’s bailing without giving it a real try. It’s been years. Hand over the reins of her theatrical destiny to her and remove yourself completely. It will be good practice for both of you for what’s to come.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband is an amazing, hands-on dad who is completely smitten with our 9-month-old daughter. Before kids, he expressed frustration with seemingly sudden verbal outbursts, never with violence and never directed at me (more like “What is wrong with this program?!” at the computer). He has sometimes snapped at our baby things like “Stay still!” or “Be quiet!” However, a few nights ago, during a phase of late-night crying, he put a pacifier in her mouth more forcefully than intended and knocked a new tooth painfully. While it was accidental, he is distraught he hurt her out of frustration and has been searching for ways to deal with his temper, adamant that it will never happen again. I suggested Headspace meditation that I’ve used in the past, and that is our first strategy. Most advice we’ve found is to simply pass off the baby to a partner and leave the situation, but with toddler tantrums right around the corner, learning a skill set of coping now seems a worthwhile investment. Do you have any practical advice or resources on managing a quick temper?

—Avoiding Trouble Before It Comes

Dear ATBIC,

This is not, in my view, an “advice or resources” kind of situation. Nor is it a case for a meditation app. A grown man who hurts a baby out of frustration, either accidentally or on purpose, is a danger. Full stop. I have no doubt that he’s wonderful in other ways, and I have no doubt that he feels awful about it. But does he feel awful enough to do whatever it takes to address whatever is at the core of his inability to handle reality without losing it? There is no evidence of that in your letter and were I in your shoes I’d be looking real hard for that evidence. The whatever it takes should look something like a full-throated admission that knocking her tooth was not just an unfortunate accident but a pretty glaring warning signal that things are in a danger zone. Whatever it takes should look like counseling, therapy, anger management, a complete and unabated admission that he is struggling. Maybe you’ll even feel that a temporary separation is in order until he has really completed some of this work.

This may sound extreme, and I submit that part of the reason it does is because we look for ways to believe that everything is fine, that family problems are nothing of the serious variety and can be overcome if only we don’t make too big a deal of them. This is true for some things, but in my experience, uncontrolled anger resulting in emotional or physical violence is not one of them. Babies for sure test the limits of all of our endurance. But snapping on a baby can never, nor should ever, be viewed as ultimately harmless. They don’t even have a choice in what they’re doing at that age, but as you rightly point out, you and your husband are raising a toddler, then a kid, then a teen. What will his reaction be when he believes his child is actively disobeying him?

Take this seriously. He needs to get help or get out.

—Carvell

Ask a Teacher

Recently, my 11-year-old daughter “Sophie” came home from school and told me that a boy in her class threatened to hold a gun up to another little girl’s head because he was mad at her. The child who made the threat was in school the following day. I want to know that my child is safe. Am I out of line? Am I owed a better explanation as to what is happening in that school?