Care and Feeding

My 13-Year-Old Has Done Nothing All Summer

Should I let her continue to take lazy to new levels?

Teen girl reading a book.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by dolgachov/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,

What are 13-year-olds supposed to do all summer? No, but really.

My 13-year-old daughter is lovely and bright, and we are close. She has no trouble making friends at school, but when she’s home, she is HOME. She hasn’t seen any friends all summer and doesn’t want to. She reads a lot. She stares at her cellphone a lot. She enjoys such activities as watching television, staring into space, sitting still, Instagram. She doesn’t want to go outside, or do things outside, or do things generally, or move physically, though she is somehow slim and in good health. She wants to sit around the house reading and playing games on her cellphone for two solid months. I am a teacher and I am home in the summer, so I can keep her company. Is this what other 13-year-olds are doing? Do I just leave her alone and let her take the sloth life to new levels? I’m going crazy watching her, but maybe that’s my problem? It’s so much phone-staring, though. So very much phone-staring. But also reading! Oh God, I don’t know.

—What Is Everybody Else Doing With Their 13-Year-Olds?

Dear WIEED,

Your kid is having the summer of my dreams: no (school) work, no forced social interaction, no walking around in sweltering heat. You could sell this to people and call it a retreat—they’d pay good money for this level of do-nothingness.

Alas, being outdoors and engaging with the world around us are in our best interests. Consider requiring her to spend one hour a day out of the house six days a week, and to have at least one extended trip outdoors on the seventh day. Come up with things that you all can do together, like taking a hike or getting manicures, as well as activities that she can do mostly solo (browsing a used bookstore, running a household errand for you).

It sounds like she’s just being a teenager, but check in and make sure there isn’t any drama with her and her friend group that has left her feeling isolated. For next summer, consider enrolling her in some sort of sports or academic enrichment classes a couple times a week, or require her to get a part-time seasonal job, babysit, or do some volunteer work. A bit of loafing is fine, but her developing mind needs more than Instagram or solo reading can offer. Good luck, Mama.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a new mom to an 8-month-old baby girl. My husband and I live across the country from our families, so we don’t see them more than a few times a year for visits that are on average about a week long. My in-laws are kind, charitable, fun, and loving people who adore our daughter and have always made me and my parents and siblings welcome and part of their family. Great people!

The issue: It’s pretty clear that my mother-in-law has an eating and/or body dysmorphic disorder. She restricts her food intake and exercises obsessively. Whenever we eat, she harps on about the serving sizes (“That’s so much food!”), complains that she’s so huge (she’s tiny), and insists that we really don’t have to eat, etc. Her siblings behave like this as well, and one of them confided in me that their mother was the same and drilled the obsession with thinness into them.

As we typically see them in vacation settings, during which I play the hostess role, I’m left to plan lunches to follow long hikes, figure out what to serve our large group for dinner, etc. I’m also a heavier person and I’m breastfeeding, which means I’m always hungry.

My MIL’s comments are typically focused on herself and not directed toward anyone else in the family, but as much as I try to tune her out, a week of her food and body talk can get to me.

During our last trip, my husband (who tuned this all out long ago) noticed that I wasn’t myself, and I admitted that I was sick of my MIL’s food bullshit. I suppose that, as a new father to a little girl, he’s more sensitive to how his mom’s words affect other people, and he kind of snapped at her in front of everyone and told her to basically stop talking like that in front of his daughter because he didn’t want her to have an eating disorder. Maybe the right conversation, but definitely the wrong time, place, and tone. She got very defensive, and it was very awkward.

How do I and/or my husband either keep this from affecting our daughter or get my MIL to change her behavior?

—Fed Up

Dear FU,

I’m glad that you are able to identify your MIL’s behavior for what it almost certainly is—ED and/or body dysmorphia—and that despite her inability to be kind to herself, she doesn’t direct her commentary about weight or food toward other people. Of course, as you mention, it is certainly hard to hear talk like that and not feel offended, self-conscious, or even targeted directly.

Your MIL is said to have picked up these behaviors from her mother; however, that doesn’t change the fact that eating disorders are mental illnesses that can have deeper implications—and it sounds like this person has been coping with one for a very long time. It’s important that you protect your child from being influenced negatively by her grandmother’s issues, but it also may be the case that your husband’s mother needs some of these to be addressed for her own sake as well.

Ask your husband about how these things he “tuned out” from Mom and her siblings have or haven’t evolved over the years: Is she more fixated on what she eats now than she was during his childhood? Do these issues seem to be more palpable when she’s going through difficult periods? Does he know of anyone—her parents, his father, anyone—putting her down for her appearance? Piece together what you can about your MIL’s history of food and body issues.

If you both agree that there is something that needs to be addressed, then it’s time to speak to her spouse, who I assume is either your husband’s other parent or a subsequent partner who has been in her life for a substantial amount of time. You two can determine if it would be best if your husband makes the call alone, or if the two of you should do it. If you are confident that he won’t run back to his wife and let her know what was said, let him know that you are both concerned about your MIL and that you intend to address it. If he shares your concerns, he may be willing to participate in an intervention with a professional or help facilitate getting his wife some other assistance.

If you don’t feel that such drastic measures are appropriate, you and your husband should find time to speak with your MIL face to face—perhaps at the end of your next weeklong visit—as this isn’t a conversation easily had over the phone. Let her know that you both love her dearly and are grateful for her presence in your lives, but her anxiety about food and weight gives you pause.

Talk about how it makes you feel to hear a thin woman describe herself as “big”; even if you’re secure and satisfied with your own body, her words could be taken as an insult to you, no matter if that was her intention or not. Let her know that you understand that she was raised to behave as she does and are not judging or expressing disgust or anger with her, but you are concerned that some of her attitudes and habits are not healthy, and that is not what you want for someone you care about as much as you care about her—nor something you want your child to be exposed to.

Try to help her connect the dots between the pressure her mother may have put on her to be skinny and how she feels about her body now. Explain that you want her to be an important part of her granddaughter’s life, but also, you do not want anyone to instill certain values into her.

Be clear that you want your daughter to have healthy eating habits, to love herself at any size, and to know that the love she gets from her family is not contingent upon what she eats or how she looks. Thus, kindly request that she refrain from the shaming of her own body and commentary about food during family gatherings so as not to inspire your daughter or other children who may be present to feel negatively about their own bodies or appetites.

Emphasize that you love your MIL and are available to be supportive if she needs it, and that your rejection of her approach to diets is not a rejection of her but simply a function of how you two want to raise your child. Best of luck!

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My soon-to-be 10-year-old stepdaughter already has dark hair growing under her arms, wears a training bra, and is beginning to develop acne. It seems awfully early for these developments, but it looks a lot like puberty is coming for her sooner rather than later. Her grandma and grandpa are her primary caregivers, and her relationship with her biological mother is extremely limited. Her grandma bought her a book on puberty, but that’s so impersonal. Would I be greatly overstepping to spend some time talking with her about body changes and the likelihood of a period in the next year-ish? I try to be mindful that I am not her primary caregiver, but I think, given the changes she’s experiencing, that maybe she needs at least the beginning stages of “the talk.” In my opinion, the key word there is talk, not “read a book that you’re too embarrassed to ask questions about.” Thoughts?

—Not Quite the Momma

Dear NQtM,

You’re absolutely correct. A little girl should not have to go through puberty without a trusted adult (ideally someone who can relate to having to purchase a first bra and getting her first period) who can speak to her about the changes taking place with her body. With her father’s blessing, speak to her grandparents about what’s going on and explain why you feel this should be a matter of talking and not simply assigning reading material.

Hopefully, they’ll be grateful to have the assistance, and you can add some routine one-on-one time to your respective schedules. It’s not clear how much time you get with her, but if the two of you are not already close, start slowly and get her comfortable talking to you alone before dropping the “SO, how about that monthly blood between your legs—any day now!” bomb. Teach her how to shave properly, unless she wants to have the hairy pits, and about the importance of good hygiene (including a skin care regimen, as acne is often right down the street from breasts and body hair). Establish yourself as a trusted source for information about the changes young women go through and be a safe place for her to turn to when her grandparents or father may be too disconnected from her issues to be supportive. You got this.

Dear Care and Feeding,

When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time with a young aunt with whom I was very close. When she was 28 and I was 14, she introduced me to pot and beer. I smoked and drank frequently at her house in the presence of other adults, and when my parents discovered this, it caused a huge family rift. Though she should have been arrested, my parents eventually made peace with her.

On occasion, my aunt and her friends would snort cocaine in my presence, but I never participated. During a recent conversation, she brought up “the time I snorted coke” with her. When I reminded her that I’d never done that, she became very angry and insisted that I had. I’m not worried that I simply don’t remember, as I know for certain this simply isn’t true.

The problem is that I now have a 13-year-old-son of my own and he adores her. I would never leave him alone with her, but she has trouble controlling her mouth, and I worry that she’ll blurt out this untruth to my son. How should I handle this if she does, and can you recommend a way to handle her boundary-violating proclivities?

—Auntie’s Plus One

Dear APO,

Sheesh. I’d beat my sister’s whole ass if she let my 14-year-old do that stuff, and I think the statue of limitations for your parents doing the same is not quite up yet. Just saying.

You say Wild Auntie has a hard time controlling her mouth, which your son probably already knows at this point. Also, considering that he adores her but you won’t allow her to spend time with him one on one, I’m guessing that he already knows that she’s … er, well, Wild Auntie.

Whether or not your son knows all the sordid details of your past with your aunt, tell him that she has lived a lot of life, her memory is not to be trusted 100 percent of the time, and she sometimes recalls things that aren’t always true: “You know Wild Auntie doesn’t remember 1996.”

When you’re ready to talk to him about the things that did happen, make it clear that there’s nothing cool or loving about what she did and that it took a lot of forgiveness to make peace with her.

Gently let Wild Auntie know that you don’t want your son to get any ideas about experimenting with drugs or booze before he’s old enough to make his own bad decisions, and that it’s important to you that she doesn’t share certain stories from the past with him. You want to have those conversations with him yourself, and she owes you, if nothing else, the ability to do that. Make it clear that you never want to again experience the tension that resulted from her choices in the past—nor should she.

—Jamilah

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