Care and Feeding

Our Teenager Texts Her Boyfriend That We Don’t Care About Her

Is she really feeling unloved, or is she putting on a show for a boy?

A woman looking distressed at a cellphone text.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by tommaso79/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

We have a very smart, creative 13-year-old daughter. She is on the honor roll and participates in dance, marching and concert band, and other extracurricular activities. I recently read the texts between her and her first boyfriend—something she knows I do—and was surprised.

She tells him that her life is screwed up and that she feels unworthy and unloved. She says we don’t care about her, and we only pay attention to our son. I was annoyed at first. Her life is far from screwed up—she has pretty much anything she could want and we support her in everything she does. I run my butt off to get her and her brother to their various activities.

Then I started to wonder if there is something deeper going on, or this is really how she feels. What she was saying is inaccurate: She claims that we don’t plan to attend her band activities because we don’t feel it’s important. We do plan to attend, but we also attend our son’s football games. How do I determine if this is real anxiety and depression, or just teenage angst?

—Slandered by a Teen

Dear SbaT,

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child, right?

If your daughter knows that you read her text messages, it’s possible that she wanted to communicate something to you. That despite her allegations being untrue—she says you’re not going to see her perform; you say you are—she feels overlooked.

But it’s also possible (indeed, most likely, I think) that she’s deploying this stuff strategically to have some effect on her boyfriend. Hard to imagine a couple of teens bonding by saying something like, “Wow, my parents really support me, I’m so lucky and well-adjusted.”

Of course you run your butt off for your kid, and of course you worry that her flirtations with her boyfriend reveal some deeper unhappiness. And it is possible. The best way to get to the bottom of this is to just ask your daughter directly. “I read this on your texts, and I worried that you felt this way, because Pop and I will be at your concert ready to cheer you on as always. If you feel unworthy or unloved, tell me so we can solve that problem together.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

While my daughter was at a public play space, a fellow mom asked me if a particular girl was my daughter. It wasn’t, but she shared her concern with me: That little girl had been telling this mom’s adopted African American son, “You’re brown!” She was offended and asked me what I thought she should do. This mother wanted to confront the girl’s parents. I chose to stay out of it, but now I’m thinking about my own 3-year-old and how I would react if another mother came to me about my child commenting on skin color.

—Color Conscious

Dear CC,

In the defense of this outspoken little girl at the play space: She wasn’t wrong. Little kids reach an age at which they notice that little kids come in all colors. They notice that bodies are different shapes, and some people need tools to help them walk, and some people have large moles on their faces, and so on. 

I think it’s wise to prepare yourself for the inevitable moment your kid shouts “That man has a fat tummy!” by hearing her and affirming what she’s said. When she says, “That boy is brown,” you can say, “He is! Skin comes in so many different colors, but we’re all people.” When she says, “That person is in a wheelchair,” you can say, “She is! Some people need wheelchairs to get around, but they’re people just the same as you and me.”

If you don’t have a confident answer at the ready, your kid will repeat her observation, maybe louder, and you might be embarrassed, and your kid will sense that. And the thing is that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Brown people know their skin is brown; people in wheelchairs know they use wheelchairs. The likelihood of someone being truly offended by a small child stating this aloud is small.

Of course, part of the lesson has to be that we don’t talk publicly about other people’s bodies, and we never weaponize it and say something about someone’s body to be deliberately cruel. And you can say as much even to a child of 3. It might take some time before she understands what you mean by that, but that’s how kids learn. My older son is 10, and he’ll still occasionally point out physical differences. It’s my hope that my response to this—“Yes, she’s using a dog to walk, because she’s blind. But remember that we don’t talk about other people’s bodies!”—will eventually harden into something like respect for the varieties of humans out there.

Not to extrapolate too far, but pretending colorblindness does not address racism. Acknowledging difference—and affirming your family’s respect for it—will.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My significant other and I go out with two other couples semiregularly. At times, it makes sense to have the kids all together being watched by the same sitter. This is also more fun for the kids, who all get along. Family A has one kid, Family B has two kids, and Family C has three kids. What’s the etiquette on splitting the cost of babysitting? Some think that you’re paying per family just to get the babysitter there. Others think it should be per kid, dependent on the age. Others think it should be per kid, regardless of age of the kid. Thoughts?

—Uneven Venmoing

Dear UV,

This is like calculating martinis drunk and appetizers ordered once the check comes. To me, all that math spoils the moment. Unless financial hardship is in play—the parents with three kids are Walton heirs, say, and the parents with one are freelance dance critics—just split it evenly and enjoy your evening.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a first-time parent and I am very scared of SIDS. My husband and I are following the safe sleep advice: The baby sleeps in the same room as us, on his back, swaddled in a sleep sack; no toys, blankets, bumpers, pillows; room temperature of 18–21 degrees Celsius; no smoking and so forth. We are both infant CPR trained.

I am fearful of him being one of the small percentage of babies with a brain abnormality or respiratory issue that can trigger SIDS. I asked my pediatrician if there is a way to test for this abnormality and was told no, but is that actually true? Is there anything else I can do?

I know that SIDS is rare. But that argument is not very effective on me, as during our first pregnancy, we learned at 20 weeks that the fetus had a rare congenital heart defect very likely incompatible with life. We made the choice to terminate, not out of a desire for a perfect child, but because we thought this was the less cruel and painful option than subjecting him to multiple surgeries. With this most recent pregnancy, I was highly anxious. I ended up being hypervigilant throughout the pregnancy and tracking every fetal movement, having weekly antenatal testing and stress tests in the third trimester.

I do not have postpartum depression, and yes, I have been checked. To clarify, this fear does not consume me all day, every day. I bond very well with the baby and have a lot of fun with him and my husband. But this fear of SIDS will randomly pop up. I know therapy is an option, but I had counseling during this pregnancy, which did not make me decrease my hypervigilance—because again, I was considered a low-risk pregnancy for my first pregnancy and look how that turned out. Please help.

—Watching Like a Hawk

Dear Hawk,

I am so sorry for this all—the loss of your first pregnancy, the anxiety around your second, and the fact that it continues into your child’s healthy infancy. I accept your diagnosis that you’re not suffering postpartum depression. But it’s clear you’re dealing with trauma around the loss of your first pregnancy and need more than an advice columnist can offer.

There is a layer of anxiety built in to parenthood. I am told this lasts forever, that people with adult kids still fret over their safety. This is part of the bargain of being alive. But for a healthy person, this anxiety is not crippling. There is no shame in feeling as you do; you suffered a significant loss. I urge you to seek medical attention again—immediately, please call your doctor today—and work as hard at taking care of yourself as you are at caring for your son. I am thinking of you, as I’m sure many people in your life are. Good luck.

—Rumaan

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