Care and Feeding

My 9-Year-Old and I Talk Openly About My Mental Illness

Is that a mistake?

A woman sits on a couch talking with a boy.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by JackF/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.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have bipolar I disorder, aka manic depressive illness. When I sail into a hypomanic state, it doesn’t always look like big, impressive madness. I lose a lot of filters and boundaries, have incredible mystical experiences, and my senses become hypersensitive. Irritability and anxiety reach high levels, too.

Compound that with perimenopause, and it can be rough on my husband and son. I’ve responded by not only doing all the medical things one should do, but also by explaining what’s going on to my 9-year-old son. I apologize for my snappiness, anxiety, and rage when they come through. My moods aren’t some bump in the road that might disappear if only I did enough yoga. They’re serious, chemically based business.

I feel that as I talk with him about all this, he learns about neurodiversity, hormones, and mental illness (genetically, there’s a good chance he could be bipolar as well). He’ll also understand that people can sometimes act snappy or yell without it being the end of the world; apologies and reconnecting can come shortly after. And, crucially, he will not think my moods are somehow his fault. Also important: This way he doesn’t see me cowering in the corner, ashamed of who and what I am: a manic-depressive, perimenopausal woman. However, some parents express disapproval of communicating openly about these things with children. What are your thoughts?

—Manic in Middle Oregon

Dear MiMO,

I think you make a very persuasive case for how you’ve chosen to handle this aspect of parenting. And you know what? That’s your right! And your business! You know better than anyone what your son can handle, emotionally and intellectually. You value openness around discussing your health, so you discuss it openly. I think you make several interesting points about what’s gained by this frankness, but that’s neither here nor there really. Other parents are free to disapprove of how you talk about mental health (or your diet! Or your religion! Or your policy on screen time!), but who’s asking them? Keep doing what you feel is right.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My kids have a five-year age gap. The tenth grader, C, is stuck on the idea that chores should be assigned equally, despite the age difference. C is critical about how the fifth grader, Y, performs chores (loaded dishwasher wrong!) and refuses to help on tasks that are time-consuming (weeding).

C constantly compares their own performance of chores to that of Y, rather than comparing their chore performance to someone who is their own age. C becomes outraged if either parent offers assistance to Y, because assistance is not offered to C.

I worry we are raising a jerk who is destined to become one of those people who goes around saying, “That’s not my job.” How do I get C to see the light about cooperative work and generosity, and become a better helper?

—Fairness Is Not a synonym for Same

Dear FINaSfS,

While I understand (and appreciate) your desire to raise someone who understands fairness, I think you should go easy on your kid and yourself—a bad attitude could as well be ascribed to adolescence, and competition over perceived advantage is a part of so many sibling dynamics.

You’ve probably already given C a big speech about this, and you might well have to once, twice, who knows how many more times? You need to tell C that the parents assign chores, that some tasks are harder for a 10-year-old than a 15-year-old. Point out that Y might need a ladder to reach a shelf C can touch without being on tiptoes; they’re simply at different stages of development, and comparison is unfair but also beside the point.

C’s outrage and fussiness might be hard to circumvent. You could try keeping the kids’ chores very separate from one another; if C is at soccer practice while Y is emptying the dishwasher, there’s less opportunity for color commentary. If that’s a logistical nightmare, I think you mostly need to ignore C’s complaints. You’re not being arbitrary in these arrangements, so trust that even if their logic and fairness eludes C in the moment, some day they’ll make more sense.

The best way to impart something to kids (you already know this) is repetition. Wash your hands, make your bed, no shoes on the rug—parents eventually just say this stuff reflexively. So you need to settle on the pithy way to disarm sibling conflict around chores: “You’re 15; Y is 10.” Or “Don’t compare jobs; just get them done!” Or “The parents assign the chores; the kids get them done.” Hold firm! Good luck.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have an 8-week-old. Our job as a couple is overseeing a herd of cattle in a remote part of the country where we’re completely sequestered throughout the year.

The pandemic has changed our circumstances, and we’re currently not tending to the cattle, though we are living in the same remote place. The quarantine has been a blessing in that I’m able to spend a great deal of time with the baby. But it’s been rough: We missed a trip to Italy and our baby shower.

Our quarantine is starker than most because of where we live. No one has met the baby. We don’t see anyone besides each other. Every day feels the same, and oddly, it feels like time is moving quickly. My parents and sister have a tradition of visiting a lake house every summer. I’ve never joined them because I’m always busy with the cattle. This year, my parents have invited my family to come and this is perhaps the only summer in the foreseeable future that I’d be able to do so.

It would be my parents (about 70 years old), my sister and her newborn, and us. My aunt and uncle would be nearby with their adult children. Though I know the risk of the pandemic, I want desperately to join them. I so badly want to see my family.

My husband says the risk is too great. I feel like it could be another year before we see them (because surely the pandemic will get worse this fall). I know in my heart that the right answer is to stay home; however, it’s already breaking my heart to imagine knowing all of them are together while I stay isolated. I also, frankly, feel bitter that those of us who are adhering to quarantine are sacrificing a great deal while many people live their lives as normal, which is prolonging the pandemic. I’m sure I’m one of many who feel they’re sinking into a depression. Can you see a way that I could join this trip? Alternately, if you agree that this trip would be a foolhardy risk, can you say something to me that will make me feel more at peace with this loss and my circumstances?

—Lonely Cowgirl

Dear LC,

I know as much as you do, which is that we’ve all been asked to limit travel and exposure to one another. This is a sacrifice, and not an insignificant one: grandparents missing out on newborn cuddles, people missing loved ones, all of us missing normal, however we define it. This is especially tough on you, as isolation is built into your job. You don’t really need me to tell you that this is a risk; your husband’s opinion matters more than mine, and he’s made his feelings clear, and I can tell you agree with him.

I’m so sorry. I wish I had better advice on how you can feel connected to family who are far away, about how you can stave off depression under these conditions, about how you can continue doing what we’re doing for an undetermined period of time. I don’t.

You mentioned that it’s kind of a blessing to be able to spend this time with your baby. I hope you can hold onto that and continue to see the silver lining. If routine is making every day collapse into one another (I get it) see if there’s something simple you can do to change things up, even if it’s just a family camp out in the great outdoors. We have to improvise, we have to break out of the rut, we have to find a way to some kind of joy, however small. If you begin to feel overwhelmed (who could blame you) please listen to your body and talk to a doctor. I’m really sorry. Hang in there.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a 16-year-old boy. Two years ago, my parents adopted my little sister, who is 7 now. Her birth parents are low-income and had eight kids, and ended up being unable to afford the youngest three, including her. She is in therapy now, and has been since we adopted her. She’s a really cool little kid, and I like being able to spend more time with her now.

Last week, my dad told my mom he had gotten coupons for Whole Foods, and she said something about how she could save the money. My sister freaked out. She started sobbing, knocked over her cup, and ran to her room, and when we all got up to follow her she started begging us to not give her away. Our parents felt awful, and calmed her down, talked to her about how that would never happen, and had a Zoom session with her therapist the next day to talk about this. She started doing two meetings a week with her therapist after that, but this still happens whenever anyone even mentions money!

I asked my mom about getting a new game for my Switch, and she said I had to pay for it with my own money, and asked me if I thought I could afford it. My sister was in the living room too, and as soon as my mom asked me that she had another meltdown. Now I can’t mention anything remotely about earning money, spending money, or not being able to buy something if there’s even a possible chance she could hear it! She never had these meltdowns before, and every meal inevitably ends in one because something sets her off. I hate seeing my little sister getting so upset and scared, and I want to be a good brother to her. Why is this happening? How can I help her? And is there any way I can mention money? My parents still owe me 50 bucks for painting the shed, but I can’t ask them!

—Mo’ Money, Mo’ Meltdowns

Dear MMMM,

Being a good brother is not always an easy job, but I think you can do this! First off, it’s clear you see there’s some relationship between your sister’s adoption story and her anxiety about money. It might not seem rational to you, but feelings sometimes aren’t. You love your sister so you can probably understand that the story that turned out so happy for you—a new sibling!—wasn’t as happy for her. It might take a long time for her to be able to work out the sadness of losing her first family, no matter how great a life she now has with you and your folks.

The best thing you can do is try to be understanding. These are big problems your sister is dealing with, and she’s still a little kid. She’s lucky to have therapists helping her through it. For now, it could be an act of real generosity on your part to avoid a subject that you know triggers this response in your sister. It might be annoying—you want to be able to talk about anything you want over dinner—but it’s a small inconvenience if it guards the feelings of someone you love.

This is something you could talk about with your parents, if you can get some time alone with them. You let them know that your sister’s reaction to the discussion of money upsets you, because you don’t want her to be hurt, and sure, because it’s inconvenient, and makes you tense and feel like you don’t know what’s going to set her off. Maybe they can share with you some of what they and the therapist are working on. Maybe the therapist will have some advice for you, or even suggest a way you could help.

I know you probably just want to say to your sister: “Mommy and Daddy love you and you’ll always be a part of our family!” That’s sweet, and beautiful, but it might not be enough to help her work through this. You might not be able to solve this one through words, but actions will go really far. Keep being the patient and thoughtful brother you are; keep talking to your parents if you’re feeling frustrated or confused by things. Good luck to your whole family!

—Rumaan

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