Care and Feeding

My Daughter’s New Friend Is Processing Grief Through Play

She tragically lost her family recently, and I feel for her. But is it OK to want to keep my kid from “playing funeral”?

A mom bites her nails, looking worried, beside two girls playing on grass.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Koldunova_Anna/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Valeriy_G/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,

My 7-year-old daughter, “Sara,” has made friends with a new girl, “Emma,” who has just moved to our school. Emma and her siblings are currently living with their cousin. Her cousin told me that the kids were moved to live with her after their parents and one sibling passed away due to a murder-suicide. I feel terrible for the family and want to do everything that we can to welcome them to our community, but some of Emma’s behavior makes me worried. Emma has asked Sara a few times to playact different ways of dying (not doing anything dangerous as far as I can tell), plan funerals for each other, and talk about what will happen to Sara when my husband and I die.

After these conversations/games, Sara has come to me to talk about her feelings. We talked to her about what her friend is going through and how it is a sad situation, and other recommended age-appropriate conversations around death and grief. As of now, Sara and Emma’s friendship is limited to school and the after-school program. Sara would like to invite Emma over for play dates and sleepovers. With any other new friend, I would not hesitate, but I worry about Sara being more exposed to her friend’s grief and having to work though adult feelings. I know we can’t shelter our kids from everything in the world, but I really dread having more of these conversations with my daughter. Any advice on the best way to move forward?

—Worried About Grieving Friend

Dear WAGF,

Oh, poor Emma. What a hideously awful situation for anyone, much less such a young child, to go through. It sounds to me like she is processing her feelings in a really age-appropriate manner (playing “funeral” and talking about death and asking uncomfortable questions are exactly how I would expect a child her age to begin working through grief and fear).

I don’t want you to isolate Emma because she’s introducing your daughter to some big-ticket issues. That’s already happened, and Sara is clearly comfortable coming to you to process and unpack them. None of us enjoy answering our children’s questions about death, and if any of my parent readers haven’t gotten there yet, start preparing your talking points. In my experience, 7 is a pretty normal age for The Death Questions; you are just being forced to play the game on hard mode for Sara because of the graphic and real and awful situation Emma was pushed into.

What you can do, and I would insist on, is that the playacting of “different ways of dying” is a firm boundary. I’m very glad to hear that nothing dangerous has been proposed, but it is the eternal right of parents on play dates to say “I don’t like that game” and tell their child to come get them if Emma continues to push. Sara sounds very bonded to you, very trusting, and trusts you with her concerns.

I think your path forward here is to continue to allow Sara to set the pace on this friendship (she is the one asking for play dates and sleepovers—it doesn’t sound like Emma is pushing her) and just try to keep an eye on both of them, as you would anyway. If Sara starts having sleep disturbances or shows other signs of being traumatized (as opposed to just being curious and concerned about death, as are most of us), then you should—I would now, anyway—go to their teacher and say you’re concerned about Emma and whether she’s receiving professional help in processing her grief.

I would like an update on this in a few months, if possible.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a witness to a situation that is NONE of my business, and I can’t quite let go.

I’m friendly with a married couple who live a few blocks away. Our children are close enough in age that when the kids were younger, our lives were intertwined. When my eldest started middle school, our interactions became limited to summer cookouts and hellos in the grocery store.

Two summers ago, at a backyard party, I was introduced to their boyfriend. They came out as a throuple. This was easier to explain to my children than for my wife and me to come to terms with. The problem is not awkward conversations about desire with my spouse of 15 years, as this guy is easily the least impressive human I’ve met. Chain smoker, sarcastic, even with the kids, he has a very mean streak that is not made better by saying “just kidding” afterward. He is not perceivably intelligent, engaging, or kind. Although we have limited contact, I’ve never seen him sober at these family events, where he goes to the alley or street to smoke dope. This is legal, but maybe not the best thing to be doing with two to three dozen minors running, biking, and skating around. In fairness, there’s beer and, worse, hard seltzer at most of these events. (The etiquette around marijuana has not been worked out in our parenting group yet.)

Recently, this couple’s daughter was sent home from sports practice after having brought the third’s bag and pipe and showing it to all her friends. My reaction to this was “Wow, I wonder if they used fists or baseball bat to beat him?” Recently, I went to pick my youngest up from a play date at a house across the alley from this house, and he was in the alley very visibly smoking—the scent was not tobacco.

Word on the street is that the daughter was kicked off the team, has to go to counseling, yet somehow the boyfriend is still around. I feel so bad for the daughter. She has always been sensitive about belonging (she’s adopted, parents are gay, so that’s not a secret). Her parents ignore everyone at social gatherings except their third, which is somewhat understandable since, after two years of knowing him, most people avoid the third.

I feel their daughter has had to navigate their parent’s throupling since age 11, when many adults can’t wrap their heads around this. As an infrequent observer, I think this couple, who had previously been regarded as attentive, thoughtful people who used to watch my children, have devolved into chain-smoking, irresponsible people. I would no longer trust them to babysit (even though my kids no longer need that service).

While the neighborhood is responding with a group shunning of both the parents and child, neither my wife nor I think isolating the family or child is the right thing. My kids are two years too old or young to try to invite their child over to play or study and create a safe haven for this child who so desperately needs to be told in word and action how important she is.

My instinct is to get the parent I have a better relationship with on the phone to tell him—what? That they have invited a jerk with probable addictions to tobacco, alcohol, combined with an aggressive THC habit, into their daughter’s life? I understand asking questions would be more fruitful, but part of me, a part I don’t like, wants to lecture him.

I’m not worried about being perceived as homophobic or unsophisticated. I’m fine if people think I’m retrogressive. I believe you have to sacrifice personal desires to keep your family strong. I’m worried about their daughter being the least important thing in their household. I don’t think I’m concern-trolling out of my discomfort with the situation; I really feel the daughter is bearing the brunt and has only the tools of a young teen to navigate this. What’s my job here?

—This Frigging Guy

Dear This Frigging Guy,

He sounds pretty awful. I feel bad for their daughter. I feel furious she was kicked off her sports team because her parents’ loser boyfriend left his drug paraphernalia around. I am glad she was placed into counseling as a result, at least. I would be very surprised if a counselor who sees children is not a mandated reporter for child abuse and neglect in any of the 50 states. Look up your state law on this matter. Is she wearing clean clothes? Does she look like she’s getting enough to eat? I don’t think you have enough material to warrant running this further up the flagpole, especially since she’s already seeing a counselor.

You do sound generally nosy and judgmental about the throuple thing. Lots of parents also smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol (even, my God, hard seltzer). It’s something people do. In states where it’s legal, people can also smoke pot in the alley outside their home. It’s always illegal on a federal level, but I doubt this fine gentleman is going to be the Supreme Court’s test case on that.

I think you need to detach emotionally from this. If you want to call the parent you know and say, “Hey, your boyfriend is a loser, and he consumes too many substances, and you’re so dickmatized by him you’re probably not paying enough attention to your kid,” you can certainly do so. It is not going to go well.

I do strongly encourage you to not support the neighborhood’s shunning of this kid and her admittedly useless-sounding family. Where the hell do you live? Keep an eye on her general level of well-being, and otherwise stop obsessing over a situation you cannot change and have only the most baseline understanding of.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I recently found out about my husband’s second emotional affair in as many years. He entered into a relationship with a co-worker two months after our son was born. I had concerns about their relationship for months but was told I was crazy whenever I brought it up. When I confronted him, I gave him the choice to file for divorce and leave me for her or end it with her and commit to working on our marriage. He said this relationship involved communicating through text and working a couple shifts together a month for two months, yet wouldn’t end it with her until his mother told him he was being stupid. Having him think of our nine-year relationship as even on the same level as this new fling hurt more than the infidelity itself.

I’m afraid to leave him because of the trauma it would cause our 3-year-old and 4-month-old. The baby will figure out the timeline as he gets older, and I don’t want him to blame himself. My daughter is very empathetic and perceptive, and I’m afraid I can’t shield her from this either way. My parents have been married for over 40 years, so I’m in uncharted territory here. Do you have any thoughts on how I can best protect them? Is it really so bad to stay together for the sake of the kids?

—Out of My Depth

Dear OoMD,

I think you are going to get a divorce and that it will be for the best. I also think you’ll feel a lot better about the situation in general if you offer him the chance to go to marriage counseling first. Do not let yourself get snowed by him in marriage counseling, and, if possible, get your own therapist as well.

Emotional affairs are tricky, and have been made trickier by smartphones giving us whole new ways to push the line in our relationships. I am also concerned that he called you “crazy” when you brought it up, and that his mother’s judgment ultimately mattered more than your own.

Put everything out on the table in counseling, and discuss what each of you believes to be appropriate contact with others. You may find that these are fundamentally incompatible beliefs. If this is his second emotional affair (that you know of!), he is almost certainly not a trustworthy partner in general, but I have not seen the texts, and there are those who think that any personal communication with a person who is not their spouse is a betrayal. I do not share that belief. I do doubt that we’re talking about exchanging celebratory “The Patriots lost!” texts.

(I apologize if you like the Patriots, though you are wrong to do so.)

Divorce sucks. It’s hard on kids. I think that if you are eventually going to get divorced, it’s better it happen now than when the kids have had a chance to observe 10 years of dysfunction en route to said divorce.

When you have a 4-month-old baby, life is intense. Sleep is low, emotions are high. This is why I strongly encourage giving counseling a go before separating. You’ll be able to tell yourself “I did everything I could,” which is worth something, I think.

Your children will be OK. They are so very young. Do your best to make this next step as low-conflict as possible, speak well of your ex-partner, or at least not not-well, and try to co-parent as civilly as possible, if divorce is your final answer. It probably will be.

I’m very sorry.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a delightful almost-10-year-old daughter. She is kind, funny, extremely empathic, and the very definition of a people-pleaser. She is doing great in school and helps out around the house like a champ (with a bit of eye-rolling from time to time). Her two younger brothers are autistic, and she is very understanding with all that entails. In fact, she has befriended most of the kids in the autism program at their school and looks out for them. Everyone loves her. I constantly have other parents or teachers telling me how great she is.

The problem? She apologizes for everything. Her most uttered phrase is “I’m sorry.” Even if it’s something as simple as reminding her to, oh, brush her hair, she’ll apologize. Ask her if she changed the hamster’s water? “Oh, darn it, I’m sorry.” Tell her it’s time to go to bed? “I’m sorry.” Give her some advice on how to do a task she’s working on? “I’m sorry.”

You get the idea.

Now, she is my mini-me in many ways, and I am also a compulsive apologizer. I’ll even apologize for finding something funny or liking a particular thing. “I’m sorry, I just really thought that’s cool.” It’s annoying, I know. It’s something I’m diligently working on for myself, and I will often stop myself mid-apology and then apologize for apologizing. The compulsion comes from wanting everyone to like me, the fear that they won’t, and not an insignificant amount of anxiety. I hate to see her starting down the same path.

When she does apologize for something that doesn’t need an apology, we tell her that she doesn’t need to be sorry, but we do need her to do XYZ or whatever. Then she apologizes for apologizing.

I’m aware that this comes from a place of anxiety, but insurance, schedules, and financials make therapy difficult. How can I help her beat this? The need to always apologize is a heavy burden. I don’t want her ending up like me, because I’m pretty damn miserable.

—Like Mother, Like Daughter

Dear LMLD,

Congratulations on having given birth to a Canadian! We are a proud, apologetic people.

Instead of addressing each instance in the moment, I suggest you sit down and have a larger talk about how she’s doing. It sounds like she’s a great kid who is doing well in most areas, but also feels a little like she has to carry the world on her shoulders. Talk about your own tendency to overapologize and why you do it, and that it would be neat if the two of you decided to tackle this together as a goal for 2020. Fewer unnecessary apologies in 2020! You get the drift.

If this is a mutual goal, it’s a goal with accountability. Keep it lighthearted. If you both get through the day without an unnecessary apology, gold star! If you make it through the week, go get ice cream.

Now, let’s pull back and look at the big picture: You both need to work on your anxiety. You can’t put it off. You need to prioritize this and look into sliding-scale and phone/Skype therapy options. You need to see if her school has resources.

I’m going to get a little speculative and pushy here: She has two younger autistic brothers. Autism presents quite differently in girls, it is very hereditary, and it is massively underdiagnosed in girls who are not “causing problems.” It is commonly misdiagnosed as anxiety or ADHD or OCD (all of which are also common comorbidities of autism). I would get her evaluated, starting with a referral to a developmental pediatrician, even if that seems like a silly idea when you just have a lovely 10-year-old daughter who constantly apologizes reflexively for no reason.

Please let me know how things go over the next year.

—Nicole

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