Care and Feeding

Am I Raising a Jerk?

My son keeps startling me even though I’ve told him I have PTSD. What should I do?

13-year-old boy, possibly a jerk.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 13-year-old son will not stop sneaking up behind me and scaring me. He thinks it is hilarious. But I have PTSD and do not find this entertaining. I’ve told him sternly to stop, I’ve tried having more heartfelt conversations with him about how much and why this bothers me, but nothing works—he just doesn’t care. My husband backs me up and has also talked with him about this (also unsuccessfully). It worries me that my son has such blatant disregard for how I feel.

And not just for how I feel! I can see this in his interactions with his friends, too (he says vicious things to them, then insists he was only joking). He goes out of his way to annoy our dogs by messing with their ears or putting them in laundry baskets that they can’t jump out of because “it’s funny.” He’s never physically hurt anyone, so I don’t think I’m raising a serial killer, but I’m pretty concerned that I’m raising an asshole. What can I do? Does he need to see a therapist? Is this just part of the teenage boy brain? Is there any punishment that fits the crime of violating the rule to not scare mom?

—Startled in Seattle

Dear Startled,

He is definitely being an asshole, but yes, this sounds like many 13-year-old boys. That doesn’t mean that being an asshole is OK (nor does it mean that all teenage boys are assholes). But if he’s teasing the dogs and being a jerk even to his friends, I wouldn’t take his behavior all that personally—that is, he seems to be an equal opportunity blatant disregarder of other people’s feelings.

Will he grow out of this obnoxious stage? Probably. One can hope. But why not arrange for a meeting or two with a good therapist? I find myself wondering why this so often seems like a last, desperate resort—why so many parents think it might be a drastic (over)reaction to a concern about how their kids are behaving. I get that the expense of seeing a therapist can be daunting, but if you have the resources—or there’s a low-cost or sliding scale clinic in your town—it’s perfectly reasonable (and sensible!) to consult someone with expertise when you feel stumped. A therapist might be able to help before a concern turns into a serious problem.

Mind you, I’m not saying that what’s going on with your kid is going to turn into something worrisome. It may well indeed be a passing phase. But since his behavior toward you is greatly upsetting and multiple conversations with him about it, initiated by both you and his father, have had no effect, what’s the harm in having him talk to someone who is not one of his parents? I think this is much more likely to be useful than any “punishment” for this behavior would be.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 6-year-old daughter falls apart every time I leave the house. I work a flexible schedule so sometimes I’ll be home for a little bit after school and then go to work in the evening, and sometimes I’ll have to work for an hour or two on a weekend morning. While my 2-year-old is chill about this, my 6-year-old completely loses it. She does this (hysterical sobbing) no matter who’s staying with her—her dad, our amazing regular babysitter, or her grandma (whom she really loves). And I want to scream at her that I have to work so we can live and she knows I’m coming back, but that doesn’t seem like the right reaction.

I do want her to know that it’s healthy to express emotions, but what she’s doing feels totally over the top and unnecessary. I don’t know what to do. I spend lots of quality time with her on the weekends and some weeknights, I am a leader of her Girl Scout troop, I take her to swim every week and swim with her during family swim, and we spend family time together on the weekends. And it’s not as if her friends have mothers who are with them all the time—just about all of them have sitters. I know kids struggle with transitions, but I’m so frustrated with her and am finding it really hard to be sympathetic because she’s being so dramatic.

—Drama Queen’s Mom

Dear DQM,

Oh, 6 can be rough. I wish I knew why. All I can tell you is that it is often a turning point, one of those developmental milestone ages. And for some reason, it seems to be the time when things that have been simmering under the surface reach a boiling point.

I can’t say what’s in that soup for your daughter (I’m guessing that if you think hard about it, something will come to mind), but I can say:

1) You’re right, screaming at her about how you have to go to work in order to put food on the table will not help and may make things worse.

2) There’s no point comparing her with her younger sister, both because 2 and 6, in terms of processing and reacting to the world, might as well be two different planets. Also, these two kids are different people who will react to things differently for their whole lives.

3) I know this is immensely frustrating—I mean, I really know, because I’ve been there—but you will have to find a way to be sympathetic. This is not a super dramatic friend or cousin we’re talking about. This is the small person for whom you are the sun and the moon.

And if her reaction, right now, to parting from you—whatever the reason you’re leaving the house—is to fall apart, it’s worth pausing to think about how she feels instead of how she’s acting. I’m afraid there isn’t much to be done in the moment of these breakdowns that won’t prolong them, so as you are about to walk out the door, just tell her gently that you love her and will be back soon, and go. But what about rethinking the time that you are with her? You’ve mentioned a lot of group activities. Would it be possible to spend some time alone with her, leaving her little sister with Dad, Grandma, or the amazing sitter? Even if only for a short time? It’s possible she’s craving something she isn’t getting enough of and really needs.

When you are alone together, I would initiate a conversation with her about what she’s feeling when she “loses it” (i.e., what it is she believes she’s actually losing). She’s old enough to be able to talk to you about her feelings, but she can’t do that when she’s in the thick of them. Give her a chance to express herself during a quiet hour alone with you, when she has your full attention. Don’t try to reason (or argue!) with her: Just listen and sympathize. Or, better yet, empathize. (Who among us hasn’t felt like the world is coming to an end when faced with a temporary setback or disappointment?) I guarantee that it will be much easier to be kind, understanding, reassuring, nonjudgmental—and loving—when you are not also trying to rush out of the house, nerves jangled by a hysterically sobbing child. (And don’t forget to do something fun together, too. Even if it’s a quick outing for ice cream.)

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My twin daughters will soon turn 7, and I’m throwing a birthday party for them in our home. We have invited 18 girls. As this seems to be the age at which we’re transitioning from parents having to attend every party with their children (thank goodness), I made it clear on the invitation that parents should feel free to drop off their daughters. My partner, my sister, and two close friends will be all be on hand to help me, so it’s not as if I need any extra adults for help—and with 20 children and five adults, our modest-size home will be bursting at the seams. The problem is that one girl’s family RSVP’d for four—both parents, their daughter, and their 8-year-old son. I am aware that these parents ”don’t trust” others taking care of their children, and also that they are adamant about their son being included in everything his sister does, so perhaps I should have been prepared for this. But the girl is one of my daughter’s favorite friends; it wasn’t as if I was going to exclude her. I dislike conflict, particularly over insignificant things like birthday parties, but this is ridiculous, right? Beyond how crowded our house would be, I feel bad that this child isn’t even allowed two hours away from her brother, or her parents for that matter. Should I say something?

—Party-Challenged

Dear PC,

You should say something, all right, but not about how bad you feel about the way your daughter’s friend is being raised.

Look, I feel bad about it too. My daughter had a friend who was not allowed to have play dates or accept party invitations unless her younger brother was included, and vice versa. I disapproved of this rule, both for my own kid’s sake and for the siblings’. (For the record, that brother-sister pair did grow up to be very close, as their parents wanted them to be, but it definitely seemed to come at the expense of other relationships.) I had to frequently remind myself that this was none of my business. As much as we may want to offer parenting advice to others, it is never a good idea unless we are asked for it.

That said, you do not have to be a willing player in this family’s house rules. Politely let the parents know by email or text, so that you can carefully weigh your words before hitting send, that you meant to make it clear that the invitation was for their daughter only—this party is limited strictly to your daughter’s special friends. Which is absolutely true. Add: I hope she’ll still be able to join us! and leave it at that. If they respond angrily or huffily, keep your cool. We’ll miss her! is all that’s permissible by way of response, which also has the virtue of being true. Sometimes avoiding conflict is a matter of saying some, but not all, of what’s on your mind.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My parents have always been fairly frugal people, and I had to pay for my own class trips, clothes, hygiene products, etc., starting in high school. They gave me a lump sum for college that was explicitly not enough to cover the full cost of in-state public tuition (let alone room and board). Part of me is grateful for the early lessons in financial responsibility, and thanks to my own hard work (I qualified for and applied for scholarships; I had a part-time job) and hard choices, not to mention luck, I managed to keep my student debt to a minimum and got it paid off rapidly. Now I’m doing very well financially. My parents, meanwhile, are technically millionaires at this point, thanks to their property and investment holdings. They retired in their 50s. I think they’re starting to realize that they can’t take it with them, because they’ve lately been talking about how nice it would be to pay for college for their future grandkids.

This makes me seethe with anger in a way I don’t fully understand. I know I’m not and was not entitled to any of their money, but why do they want to help now? Why not when I was struggling and eating canned beans for dinner? It’s like they ignored my pain and struggles for years, and now think they get to swoop in and get credit for being extremely generous people when I’m finally in a place where it won’t make that much of a difference to me or my child. I plan to pay for his college myself (he is only 6 months old now and may be the only grandchild they ever have)—I do not need or want their help! Can I refuse out of spite? If not, how do I let go of my anger?

—Confused and Angry

Dear CaA,

I’m sorry your parents were so hard on you (“fairly frugal” doesn’t seem to me an entirely accurate term for what you describe). Part of you may be grateful, as you say, for those early lessons in fiscal responsibility, but the bigger part of you is obviously very hurt and angry. And rightfully so, as far as I’m concerned. I’d bet the ranch, though, that your feelings about your parents are more complicated than you suggest, that it’s not just their stinginess with money that pained—and still pains—you.

But here’s the thing: Lots of people who did a crappy job with their own kids do much better with their grandchildren. Of course, it’s a hell of a lot easier to be a good grandparent than a good parent. It’s easier to be kind, easier to be sweet, easier to be generous.

You can, of course, spitefully refuse your parents’ offer to pay for your son’s college education. But I think there is zero chance that it will make you feel any better.

Maybe, instead, you can take a step back and consider that your parents may be trying—in the only way they know how—to make amends. And they may not even be aware of this (that is, if you flat-out asked them if this were their way of making things right, they might be utterly baffled by the question). But I think the only way you might be able to let go of your anger and allow them to help you in this way—because that is what this offer really is, even if they’re not presenting it as such—is if you reframe their late-blooming generosity as reparation.

I have a theory that much of the famous good-grandparent/lousy-parent dynamic actually is about unconscious reparation. And honestly, even if I’m wrong about that, I think we should all try to accept generosity, kindness, and help whenever they’re extended to us. However fumbled and awkward and confused and too late your parents’ offer may be, I think you should try to see your way clear to accepting it. Your son may end up having a real relationship with his grandparents—perhaps even the sort of relationship you wished for and they were unable to give you. I would keep that door open—and start trying now to find a way to move forward where your parents are concerned. Let them take a shot, like so many grandparents before them, at a sort of do-over. Life is hard and we all need all the love and support we can get.

—Michelle

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