Care and Feeding

My Teen Daughter’s Friends Are Depressed and Engaging in Self-Harm

I want to alert the school and their parents, but my daughter says to stay out of it. What should I do?

A mom looking anxious with her hand at her mouth.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by polkadot and denisik11/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,

I have four kids; the oldest two are my stepchildren. I’ve noticed that my 13-year-old stepdaughter, “Sally,” has been more distracted than normal the past several weeks, so I pulled her aside tonight after dinner to check in with her to make sure everything was all right. Sally became very emotional and described being anxious and depressed. Her anxiety mostly stems from concern for two of her friends. Both of them she described as “severely depressed,” and one of them cuts and has frequent suicidal thoughts. From my questions, I gathered that her friend has not made any specific plan.

My stepdaughter admitted that she herself has thought about cutting, but said she didn’t think she “could ever go through with killing” herself. I’m not sure where else to go from here. I made sure there was no specific past or ongoing issue causing her depression. She agreed to talk with a counselor, so I’ll get her a referral in the morning. I also asked her to communicate with me if she needs to talk or if she just needs a little break from her siblings (or me).

As for her friends, I asked Sally if she would be comfortable with me meeting with their moms or with their teacher or principal to pass on what she had told me. I even offered to communicate with an anonymous email. Sally was not comfortable with any of that (or with talking to them herself) and wanted to wait to see how things went. One of them has an unstable home life, and the other identifies as bisexual but feels she cannot tell her conservative family. I told Sally to make sure they knew they were always welcome in our home for as long as they needed. What else should I do? I don’t want to betray Sally’s trust, but I also want these girls to get the help they need.

—I Would Want to Know

Dear I Would Want to Know,

You have to tell their teachers, at the bare minimum, regardless of Sally’s discomfort. The situation is discomfiting! There is no need to out anyone as bisexual, but there is an absolute public need and personal responsibility to make sure a person in a position to intervene knows that a young teen is cutting herself and expressing suicidal ideation.

You do not need to tell Sally that you are speaking to the teachers, though you certainly can (I would, because she’ll know it was you, and I want you to be transparent with her). I hope you have not promised to keep this in confidence, but if you did, you can apologize for having made a promise you cannot keep. This is not a “Jenny is vaping! Don’t tell her mom!” moment. This is a dangerous and pressing situation, and you cannot fix it yourself, and I am giving you permission to contact the school.

If the school does nothing, which seems unlikely, email the parents. I am very sorry if this erodes the close and trusting relationship that you and Sally share, but this is why we do not let the judgment of 13-year-olds determine our actions.

I know that you are pursuing care for Sally’s own mental health issues, so I do not need to dwell on that, but I am concerned that the weight of feeling responsible for her friends’ struggles and secrets is unduly burdening her, and I encourage you to keep a very close eye on that going forward.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Like many parents, I am raising a child that eats, sleeps, and breathes Frozen. Her Frozen-themed 7th birthday party is in a week and a half, and she’s planned every detail. Her ideas are genuinely good, and it’s been exciting and adorable watching her make and carry out her plans. The highlight of the party is that she’s convinced her babysitter to braid the iconic braids from the movie for her party guests. She and my daughter have been practicing the braids for weeks. I booked the babysitter for that day, and she and my daughter are very excited. I put a note in the invitation that said we would have hair braiding, in case any parents opposed. So far, everyone is on board.

While at the school last week, I ran into my daughter’s classmate, who is returning after three months of brain surgery recovery, and her family. I was happy to see them back at school and invited them to the party.

I realized when I got home that my daughter’s friend had her very long hair shaved off for surgery. I’m wondering if we should skip the hair braiding altogether. She’s been through a lot already, and the party could already be overwhelming for her. I’m trying to think of a way to salvage my daughter’s idea so she and the babysitter aren’t disappointed.

I’m also not sure how to explain this to my daughter. This could be a great opportunity to talk about being inclusive, but she was strongly affected by her friend’s illness and tended to fixate on it. I don’t want her to feel that she did something to hurt her friend.

There’s also a strong language barrier between me and the girl’s parents, and I’m not confident I would be able to effectively express my concerns to them.

—Should I “Let It Go”?

Dear SILIT,

I think the most important thing is to figure out (delicately) how your daughter’s classmate feels about it. A lot of girls her age would feel more self-conscious worrying they’ve “ruined” a party by getting a much-anticipated activity canceled than they would sipping on a Sprite and chattering along happily while the other girls get their hair braided. She’s had brain surgery. She may feel that missing out on a single party activity is like a mild hangnail.

I definitely think you should talk to your daughter about it because this is a great opportunity to talk about being aware of the feelings of others, regardless of what your final decision is. She hasn’t done anything wrong and doesn’t need to be made to feel she’s done something wrong. There’s a language barrier between you and this young girl’s parents, but I am confident you can find someone who can help you communicate the situation to them, allowing them to communicate it to the girl in question. She may want to leave early, sit the whole thing out, or not care in the least. There are a lot more options than “no braids for anyone” or “making a young, ill person feel like abandoned garbage during a party.”

I am confident you will find one. If the language spoken by her parents is rare enough that you can’t find a trusted person to talk to them on your behalf, ask the teacher to talk to this young girl herself. A disinterested third party will be an easier person to be truthful with, as opposed to even the nicest and most chill party hostess on the planet.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a tiny (almost-3-year-old) niece who looks a lot like me, and when we’re out in public together without her parents (I babysit her quite a bit), we get a lot of comments from well-meaning strangers along the lines of “Oh, just like mommy!” and “Helping mommy with the shopping!”

So far I have just rolled with it—correcting folks where it makes sense to do so (having a back-and-forth chat with the barista), but otherwise generally just smiling and letting it go (old lady makes a comment as she walks by).

As my niece increasingly comprehends the world around her, I’m wondering if I need to address these comments somehow for her sake. I can’t think of an easy way to do this, given that most of these comments don’t naturally give rise to any further conversation.

Do I stop in my tracks to tell the passerby that she’s just my niece? Do I tell my niece directly that sometimes people just don’t realize who’s an outstanding aunt versus a mommy? Does any of this matter? I don’t mind the assumption, but I don’t want my niece to have to spend any time wondering about it.

For what it’s worth, I’m the kind of person who will quietly eat the wrong meal rather than correct the server, which is probably why I’m still thinking about this rather than instituting a policy of just calling out “Oh, she’s just my perfect, tiny niece!” after the old ladies.

—Not Mommy

Dear Not Mommy,

What a delicious nonproblem. Do not bother to correct the old ladies, say breezily to your niece “It’s so funny when people think I’m your mommy and not your aunt!” and remember to return your cart to the cart corral when you have finished your shopping.

Have a great week.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have lived in my apartment for the past eight years and don’t plan on moving. I live in a big city where people don’t really know their neighbors. My upstairs neighbors have a boy who looks about 4 or 5 years old and who apparently loves to run around. I myself don’t have kids, and I’m sympathetic to the fact that we all have to share space, and people should be able to move around in their own homes. But the running drives me crazy! Ambient noise would be fine, but it’s the pounding of feet that really stresses me out (it doesn’t help that the adults also have heavy footfalls, but it’s not quite as intense as the running sounds).

What’s the best etiquette here? I asked recently if they could keep the running down—the dad looked down at his son and said, “You hear that, buddy?”—but it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. Should I go back? With what frequency is it acceptable to remind people that running indoors is very annoying? I should note that the homeowners association rules in my apartment complex state that carpeting is required in the bedrooms, but not in the living room/kitchen, which is where most of the running takes place.

—Running Out of Patience

Dear Running Out of Patience,

I think you could mention it to them once more. Then, if this is not occurring during those hours universally accepted to be sleeping hours (9 p.m. to 6 a.m., say), I recommend buying some good noise-canceling headphones and using them while you read and cook.

It’s aggravating, but no one is going to evict them over this (I hope!), and kids run, and it’s the winter, and they’re stuck indoors. Should the parents ask him not to run and actually enforce it? Absolutely. But it doesn’t sound like that’s going to happen. So you’ll have to moderate the problem on your end. Noise-canceling headphones are not going to keep you from hearing someone breaking your window, but they’ll muffle things to a dull roar.

I hope this helps!

—Nicole

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