Care and Feeding

My Grandson Is Visited by a Spooky Lady Every Night

Or at least he believes he is! How can we help him shake this fear?

Toddler in foreground covering his eyes. Shadowy lady in background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos 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.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 2.5-year-old grandson has been having a recurring nightmare for the past week and a half. He wakes up very upset saying there is a lady in his room. When asked if she talks to him and why he thinks she is there, he says that she has to get something from his room, and she wants to put something on his foot. This has happened at least five times.

It has progressed to the point that he is afraid to go to bed. My daughter is in the process of potty training him, and he also has a new sister (4 weeks old). I know that these life changes can cause children to have nightmares, and I understand that imagination is vivid at this age. However, this just seems so specific and kind of creepy. We are all at a loss as to how to handle it and, of course, upset that our sweet little boy is dealing with this. Any suggestions?

—Old Priest and a Young Priest?

Dear OPaaYP,

I changed your signoff to make an Exorcist joke. I’m very sorry. I do not think there is a ghost lady or a demon in your grandson’s room. I admit that “she wants to put something on his foot” did send me into a slight freakout. I also think the new sister and the potty training are very likely massive subconscious factors in what he’s experiencing.

Now, I do not know if you live with your daughter’s family or not, but it’s pretty clear that your daughter (and her partner, if she has one) is ultimately the person who will have to handle this. How does she feel about it? Is she asking for advice? A week and a half is not really a tremendously long time for a recurring nightmare, though I’m sure it feels that way (unless he has managed to invent a truly creepy story to rebel against bedtime, his new sister, and potty training).

If she does ask for advice, I would suggest the usual prescription for “fictitious nighttime fears,” which include a night light, leaving the lights on entirely, a “weird lady spray” that renders any weird ladies harmless, and, again, reassurance that it’s just a dream.

I would also put the brakes on potty training. Two of the biggest upheavals in a toddler’s life are potty training and the birth of a younger sibling, and if I were your daughter, I would hit pause on the first until he’s more used to the second.

Best of luck! Also, if it continues, get a nanny cam so we can see the ghost.

(Again, it’s not a ghost. More likely to be a demon taking the shape of an old lady.)

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My in-laws have always been animal lovers. A month before we had to begin quarantine, their cat died. I guess they were feeling lonely, because they got a dog for the first time in 20 years. And not just any dog—they’ve gone and gotten a Great Dane! I’m very concerned, since they live in a house with a small yard, and both of them are in their early 80s.

My MIL broke her hip last year by tripping over their elderly cat, and now they have a gigantic puppy! They also seem totally unequipped to take care of this dog. She’s a sweetheart, but is just a few months old, so she needs lots of exercise, walks, and training, which they try to do, but just give up and joke about how she finds it fun to get on counters and steal food, and think she’s very bad because she nips (she’s a puppy, it’s what they do).

My husband is concerned for their health and safety and is starting to think that the puppy would be safer with us. We have two teens who go on long runs each day, a big backyard, and I’m used to big dogs. I even had a Dane growing up, and we used to have a Rottweiler. I feel conflicted, though: It’s clear they love this puppy, and I probably seem like some greedy dog thief.

How do we talk to them about any of this, and possibly talk to them about finding a dog that’s a better fit and letting the puppy live with us?

—Not Cruella

Dear Not Cruella,

I answered this question in Thursday’s live video but am expanding on it here for a larger audience.

When I first glanced at your letter, I saw “greedy dog thief” and assumed I would just get to tell you not to steal dogs and wish you a blessed day. The matter, of course, is far more complicated.

I think you are right to be concerned that your in-laws are going to get knocked over by Marmaduke, as even very well-behaved Great Danes are like having a midsize sedan zipping around your kitchen. I am also concerned that a very large dog with very bad to no training is going to come to a sticky end, through no fault of his own.

If I were you, I would approach them with a two-pronged solution. Option the First: You are willing to help them pay for or conduct on your own, with your in-laws helping and reinforcing, some good old-fashioned puppy training (have them make a list of all the behaviors that trouble them, and add to it with your own observations), and see if you cannot make a solid citizen out of the large lad.

Option the Second: Lean heavily on their love for their grandchildren, and tell them the children are deeply, deeply attached and would love a puppy to take for long walks and train and did I mention we have this big yard and last year you fell over Fluffy? If they show any interest, offer to help them find a dog better suited to their unique position: people in their 80s who really need a dog that has already been trained (there are lots of older but healthy dogs in shelters who would be delighted to not eat off their counters in exchange for the dog equivalent of three hots and a cot).

I really hope that one of these works for you. If they don’t, send them articles and books about puppies and resign yourself to the fact you’ll likely wind up with him anyway when he’s 4 and the size of a house and completely uncontrollable.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ll cut right to the chase. My adoptive father molested me when I was a child. Some of it was facilitated by my adoptive mother. I repressed it until I went to college and had to seek counseling for related substance abuse and depression. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in therapy and on medication as an adult. I have remained steadfast in my decision to take this secret to my grave, aside from telling my therapists, a few close friends, and a few long-term romantic partners. I’m now 35 and live on the other side of the country. I have a pretty normal, and I would say close, relationship with my parents and two brothers. I talk to my mom a few times a week. I never feel the need to dwell on my childhood abuse.

I now have two beautiful nieces, 3 years and 8 months. You can probably guess where this is going. My parents live 10 minutes away from my brother and his family and were overjoyed to finally be grandparents. They are basically secondary caregivers at this point, and the girls spend half their time there with a sleepover at least once a week. My brother and his wife rely on them financially and logistically for child care. The girls are lucky to have wonderful parents and grandparents. The oldest in particular is extremely attached to my mom.

I would die for these girls. I hardly see them in person, but they are the most beautiful, charming, smart, and sweet girls you’ll ever meet. I’m not sure if I’ll have kids of my own, so I’ve relished being a loving aunt to them from afar.

I woke up recently with a jolt. I had a mental image of my nieces being abused in the same way I was, and I immediately felt a deep shame. Why is this the first time that I’ve made this connection? The oldest is about the age that my abuse probably started.

I know most reasonable people reading this will condemn me for not speaking up earlier and for wanting to continue keeping my secret. I’ve gone through all the possible outcomes in my head of confronting my parents or even opening up to my brothers, many, many times. The thought of tearing my family apart and keeping the girls away from their grandparents seems unimaginably cruel to me. I know in my heart that I could never do that.

I trust my brother and SIL completely to protect the girls and teach them bodily autonomy and safety. When they’re older I can have that conversation with them myself. I know what my parents did to groom me and have never seen anything that raises a red flag. To ask a direct question: Am I horribly wrong and selfish if I never reveal my secret to my family? Yes, I know that if anything were to happen to the girls I would be devastated. And yes, I know that I should seek out therapy of my own. I’m not expecting justification for my choice, just an outside perspective as I continue to untangle this.

—Where Do I Go From Here

Dear WDIGFH,

The past is the past. I am not here to judge you or to judge any survivor of child sexual abuse who has found themselves frozen and unable to publicly identify their abuser, especially a close family member.

But now you have to act. You really do. You have to sit down with your brother and his wife and tell them what happened. You may find it easier to do so in the context of asking them to join them in a therapy appointment with a therapist to whom you have disclosed your abuse, as this also affords a note of seriousness and sincerity to a horrible conversation.

I do not think you have to sit down with your mother and father. I would write them a letter explaining exactly why you are cutting them off, and if any family members ask you why you are not talking to your parents, I would send them a copy of the letter. If your brother and sister-in-law do not believe you or do not change their behaviors and boundaries around your family, I would consider calling child protective services and say the children are in danger and explain why. This will likely ruin your relationship with your brother and sister-in-law, and everyone will lie anyway, so I’m not coming down hard on this one.

I would also call the police, acknowledging that the statute of limitations is likely long past, but ask if you can make a report just the same, for a paper trail. Look your parents up on the sex offender registry of any state you know they’ve lived in (again, they likely kept it close to home, but it will be very helpful ammunition if anything turns up).

None of this will necessarily result in change. None of this will necessarily protect your nieces from harm. But these are the things you can do. And the things you need to do. They are in danger. Please act.

How Do You Argue With 3-Year-Old Bathroom Logic?

Dan Kois, Jamilah Lemieux, and Elizabeth Newcamp host this week’s episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

During quarantine, my family has gotten very into hiking. We live in an area with state parks close by and a national park a few hours away, and we take our 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter on hikes twice a week, which both kids loved. Three weeks ago, we encountered a cougar, which, while not aggressive, was hostile. My husband grabbed our son and lifted him up, and I put our daughter on my shoulders. We shouted loudly, made ourselves larger, and threw some rocks at its feet. It ran away in a couple minutes, and while my son thinks it’s the coolest thing to ever happen to him, it terrified my daughter.

When we try to leave for a hike, she screams and cries and will kick and lie on the floor. She begs us to not go and says “big cats will eat us.” My husband and I have tried explaining what happened and how rare it was and shown her that we’re not going back there, but she still refuses. Our son still loves hiking, so we tried to compromise and have one of us go with him and the other stay with her, but she would only let me stay because “Mommy keeps her safe.” If I try to go with my son, she starts having a meltdown.

I love her and I understand this was scary, but I don’t leave the house much, and hiking used to be a way for me to de-stress. I feel like I’ll lose my mind if I have to spend another week of not going anywhere except the backyard! What can we do?

—Usually Not Cougar Town

Dear UNCT,

Oh, my LORD. Well, first of all, you were freaking superheroes and did exactly the right thing and I’m so impressed with you.

Obviously, what happened was legitimately terrifying, completely so, and your daughter is reacting in a very normal way. She doesn’t know about the existence of different parks and trails, she just knows “outside, where the big cats are” and “inside, with Mommy keeping me safe.” I would get out a bunch of trail maps, put a red dot where the cougar was, and have her help you pick the next hike, emphasizing that the cougar stays on that trail, so which trail sounds fun?

I would also see what your state permits you to carry in the way of bear or dog spray (they’re often illegal to carry for self-defense against humans, but legal to carry if you are, in fact, looking to defend yourself from a carnivore). You can show it to your daughter and explain that there are no big cats where you are going, but this is for extra special safety. Or don’t show her, if you think it’ll degrade the “we are not going anywhere with cougars” message. And, as with bears, make sure to make plenty of noise as you go.

In the immediate future, before you try to get her out hiking, let’s start with having her dad stay with her while you hike with your son. She may freak out and cry the first few times, but since he WILL keep her safe, she will gradually become more open to the idea that you as her parents will always keep her safe. Please take this step before trying to drag her out on a trail again.

Should you actually encounter a second cougar, I encourage you to stop hiking with your children.

—Nicole

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