Care and Feeding

My Panic About Possibly Leaving My Kids in a Hot Car Is Getting Out of Control

I can’t stop thinking about it.

A worried woman standing in front of a car.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have an absolutely sickening fear (as I think many parents do) of leaving a child in a hot car. I’m confident in my parenting abilities, but I still have a little panic attack every time I get in my car and I look in the back seat. I know it’s rare, but I just can’t let it go. I know it can happen to anyone, regardless of how good of a parent you think you might be.

There’s a part of my brain that doesn’t want to get over this. If I don’t panic every time I open my car on a hot day, then I’ll get complacent, then something could happen. The anxiety means I’m paying attention.

Only I know this isn’t healthy. I can’t freak out every time I get in my car, for years. I’m looking for real, actionable steps I can take that will take the place of the panic and anxiety. Things I can do, buy, or try that parents believe in, if for no other reason than to alleviate my anxiety. Or … is this just going to be something I worry about every day until my kids can open a car door on their own?

—Scared-Hot Mama

Dear Scared-Hot Mama,

I am quite confident you have already read Gene Weingarten’s almost unreadably tragic story about how this can happen to any parent and am sharing it here so that other readers understand that “only a negligent fool would do that” is a terrible misconception of how our brains actually work when it comes to routines and their disruption.

Your level of anxiety on this issue is, as you know, beginning to affect your ability to live your life, so before giving you some tips, let me firmly suggest you see a therapist to try to work on some strategies for dealing with the emotional aspects that this particular anxiety creates in you. That may not be a financial option for you right now, but I would be negligent not to mention it.

Now, the real and actionable steps. First, this is far more likely to happen when your child is still rear-facing, so there are a variety of safe mirrors you can put on the seatback that will let you see the contents of the seat during normal glances in your rearview mirror. Next, I have known many parents who have opted for the Big Stuffed Animal ritual. Get a big stuffed animal, and put him in the car seat. When your child goes in the car seat, you move the Big Stuffed Animal into the passenger seat. When you take your child out, the Big Stuffed Animal goes back in. If there is a Big Stuffed Animal riding shotgun, there is a baby in the car seat. Do this every time. Your anxiety will actually assist you in making this part of your routine.

This will help, but ultimately it’s going to be a question of time and, ideally, some work on your mental health.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My older brother has five wonderful kids between the ages of 4 and 12 years old. My brother and his girlfriend are very negligent parents. Four of the kids have had severe head lice for years that they have made no attempt to treat. Aside from the oldest, my brother refuses to have his kids vaccinated, so they are always sick. He claimed in the past it’s for religious reasons but admitted he just uses that as an excuse with the school district he wishes them to attend. When we go to his house to visit, there is always more than one runny nose. The two youngest don’t know how to count to 10, cannot recognize shapes and colors, and cannot say the alphabet to the end.

Currently, I am living with my mother and other siblings, since we all have some health issues, but financially we cannot take custody of the kids. I have two older brothers who are physically disabled and I’m currently suffering from two autoimmune diseases, so I don’t want to have the kids over to my home. I’m at a loss as to what we could do. I don’t want the kids to end up in foster care since they adore their parents, but I cannot watch these kids suffer any longer. What can I do?


Dear Helpless,

There are a lot of problems here, some more pressing than others. I can tell you that when you have five children between the ages of 4 and 12, vaccinations will have little ability to prevent someone having a runny nose. That’s not the sort of thing vaccinations are for. That’s just kids. Nor will the state intervene regarding his vaccination decisions if he and his girlfriend continue to request religious-exemption waivers. And it’s good that they are in school, because if his waiver was denied and he homeschooled them, we’d be in worse trouble.

I’m surprised that a school full of mandated reporters has not already contacted CPS over “years” of what you describe as “severe” head lice. Head lice, while itchy, may not be dangerous, but they’re obviously extremely contagious and schools tend to overreact, if anything. I’m more concerned about what appear to be either developmental delays or outright negligence, and I would encourage you to first start by asking your brother if the kids are seeing a pediatrician regularly, specifically citing the milestones you’re concerned about.

I cannot promise you an outcome if you call in the state. CPS behaves very differently in different regions and in different offices and with different parents. Ideally, they’ll take care of the head lice and provide parenting resources and evaluate the kids with delays. They might, however, remove some or all children from the home. Unlikely, in this situation, but possible. That’s something you will have to accept if you make the call.

If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Looking for advice about parenting with a partner with OCD, specifically regarding spills and accidents. My husband is a good dad, but I am so sad that our 3-year-old is going to grow up terrified of making a mistake. This scenario goes one of two ways:

1. I jump in to take care of it in the most reasonable way I can and get bombarded with questions assuming that I haven’t resolved it to his satisfaction, which makes me angry and we fight. Literally, he will think I am a human being who is somehow OK with walking around in poop.

2. I give up and make him deal with it because I am not trustworthy enough to do it. He ends up spending the whole time yelling at or traumatizing our kid over it. So our kid is traumatized either way.

Obviously, therapy and medication seem like the most reasonable solutions, but my husband will only do them for a few months at a time before determining they “don’t help.” The best I can hope for is that he doesn’t witness the cleanup and I can just refuse to engage with his questions, but it doesn’t always work out this way.

—How to Minimize the Drama?

Dear HtMtD,

Oh, boy. I feel terrible for everyone in this situation. I think you have to get extremely firm with your husband, and part of doing that has to be to redirect how he sees the point of therapy and medication. This is not about him. This is about how to find a way to parent in a healthy manner while also managing his mental illness. And if he is going to live with you and your son, he needs to be in active treatment, geared toward this specific issue. I can tell from your letter that you are right on the ragged edge of kicking him out anyway, so although I am not a fan of ultimatums, there seems little to be lost in delivering one here. Tell him (ideally in a joint therapy session, which I think is greatly needed) that the current situation is traumatizing your child and that together you will have to find a way to handle the very, very normal spills and messes of childhood in a way that will not result in your son growing up terrified to drink something without a lid.

While you are working on this in joint and solo therapy, I think that he will need to respond to emergent spills by immediately and quietly leaving the room. That’s not a hard ask, and you can decide to what degree you wish to engage with his follow-up questions afterward. I’m sorry that this makes you the paper-towel queen for a time, but we are in the desert of the real. If he can’t leave the room and walk away, that’s a big problem. I do encourage you to remember your husband does not want to be like this, and his horror at the spills and subsequent barrage of questions are intrusive to him as well, even though it’s very, very challenging in the moment.

There’s no way through this that doesn’t involve joint and solo therapy, I’m afraid. If he wants to be married to you and raising a child, he needs to be working on strategies for these moments and doing the work. The situation is intolerable for everyone at the moment.

I would appreciate an update, or updates, on this one.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m the parent of a great toddler who hasn’t reached a couple big milestones (namely, walking and talking). We’ve been working with a number of professionals to support his development and it has long been suspected that there’s something up. We recently visited a developmental pediatrician who told us that, yes, he’s really delayed and it’s likely a sort of nondescript intellectual disability that we’ll just learn more about as he grows older. My husband and I sort of thought this was the case and felt relieved to move past the guessing games we felt thrust into by numerous professionals.

My problem is in talking about this with people. I’ve never realized just how weird we all are about intelligence and in talking about it with people I feel like I’m insulting my child. To be clear, my child is fine: healthy and happy and developing at a rate appropriate to him. But, maybe unfortunately, I’ve let a lot of my support system in on this whole journey and now that we have a “diagnosis” of “low IQ,” I find myself struggling to share that and wish I had never said anything. Even more, I find myself resentful of our friends with children celebrating the development of their children with me and saying things like “My baby is so smart!” or the like. Do you have any advice on talking about my child and grappling with my frustrations with other parents? I love my child and feel so burdened that I’ve let everyone in on something that I shouldn’t have.

—Special Needs Kid

Dear Special Needs Kid,

Congratulations on being a good and careful parent who has taken your individual child’s needs and delays seriously, and who has sought and received appropriate medical advice and is following it. Many, many children with various developmental issues and intellectual disabilities are not nearly so fortunate as yours, and I am very glad he is in capable hands.

I’m glad your support system knows what’s happening. There is no magical option whereby you raise your wonderful child with an unspecified intellectual disability and no one ever notices. It is what it is, as useless as that phrase tends to seem. “IQ” is not the be-all and end-all of human thriving. Whatever intelligence testing your child has received is useful to the extent that it provides information and an opportunity to seek the correct avenues of treatment.

I encourage you to ask your pediatrician (I assume by now your son is in the care of a developmental pediatrician) about groups of other parents who are raising children your son’s age who share his or similar disabilities, and to do your best to let your friends celebrate their children’s achievements. The more honest you are about how you’re feeling and coping with your situation, the less tone-deaf they are likely to be, but we live in a society in which intellectual disability is seen as the worst possible thing that can befall a family, and I know that it is hard to break out of that mindset.

Your son has not changed. He was the same person the day before you were told he had “low IQ.” You just have more information about how best to help him thrive and grow. It will be good for your friends and their children to spend time with him and to appreciate him for who he is, and it will be good for you not to withdraw from those who love you. I know you’re not ashamed of your son. But the urge to pull back and be secretive in an ableist society is a strong one. The more honest you are, as well, the more tactful your friends are likely to be with their “BENJAMIN CAN COUNT TO 1,000, THEY SAY HE’S LIKE THE PROTAGONIST OF ENDER’S GAME AND WE MAY NEED TO SEND HIM TO NASA SO THEY CAN HARNESS HIS INTELLIGENCE TO” etc., etc.

I’m cheering for you and your son.


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