Care and Feeding

My Ex’s Sexual Assault Case Made the News. How Do I Help Our Son?

So far, he’s refusing to talk about it.

A teen boy looks angry and withdrawn with his arms crossed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by SergiyN/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,

Last year, my ex-husband was involved in a highly publicized sexual harassment/assault case that made the national news. He disappeared from social media and locked down his web presence, but his name and face were still shown across the country for a few days. We have shared custody of our 16-year-old son, who lives primarily with his dad and comes to visit me all summer each year. My son was understandably devastated by the incident, but has become withdrawn and refused to talk to me about it. I pulled back as not to pry. It’s now been almost a year since I’ve seen my son in person, and have no idea how to have this conversation with him. My ex-husband was subsequently charged and pleaded guilty, so I know my son must have some feelings about this. I don’t want to put him in therapy, as I tried that when we first divorced; my son hated it and refused to talk to me for three months after his one (and only) appointment. This situation is generally heartbreaking for all involved, and I don’t know how to even broach the subject with my son, who it has undoubtedly greatly affected. What should I do?

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—Confused Mom

Dear C.M.,

Please do not hesitate to get your son some professional help now because of his earlier negative experience with therapy. This is a situation that clearly calls for intervention: It is more complicated than you can be reasonably expected to understand and solve for, and though your son may really hate the idea of talking to a stranger—or anyone—about his feelings, it is imperative that he does. Perhaps you can do family therapy together, the two of you, as you are both having to cope with the ramifications of your ex-husband’s actions and how a year of distance has affected your relationship.

His relationship to his father is certainly a point of concern. At worst, he may see him as an irredeemable villain, or perhaps as a victim of “me too” and “cancel culture,” someone who got a raw deal. As such, his dad should not be the primary person tasked with walking him through the process of coming to terms with what took place, especially considering the other things at stake beyond their bond; there is also a need to be clear on what your son understands and believes about boundaries, and how he should engage with other people’s bodies.

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Prioritize getting the assistance you both need to get through this period. Remind your son, and yourself, that his father’s actions are a reflection on his father, not on the family, and that he does not have to grow up to make the same sort of choices. Do not look away because this is uncomfortable, and do not let him convince you that he’s doing OK. Get help. Wishing you the smoothest therapist search and most healing of healing journeys possible.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a question about a tween neighbor. I’m relatively new to our neighborhood, and there’s a kid nearby who seems to be a bit neglected. He has a single mom, whom I’ve not met, who works long hours (she’s not an essential worker, but she works elsewhere and is only home late in the evenings, it seems). Her 12-year-old is home alone all day long doing virtual school and just hanging by himself. I’ve only interacted with him a handful of times outside in the neighborhood, but he seems to struggle with some social cues (e.g., he doesn’t always make eye contact, only wants to play with kids who are much younger than he is). He also seems really, really lonely and—I feel absolutely terrible writing this—a little creepy. He wears a terrifying Joker mask, sidles into conversations among neighbors on the street, and then interjects with something random. He told me he only has one friend at school, and he hasn’t seen them in over a year. He strikes me as the sort of kid who really needs structure and has none. He spends all day, every day alone, online.

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Neighbors tell me that this mom has never really been around (even before COVID), and she’s told her son to just spend time with the neighbors if he’s bored. I really feel sad for him, but I also don’t really want to insert myself into this situation. What is my responsibility here? I don’t want to call CPS (unless I need to), but I also don’t want to wait on their doorstep for his mom to come home, only to be told that she’d be totally fine with her son hanging out with me when he’s bored. (I can’t sign up for this for a variety of reasons.) I don’t want to make things harder for him during this terribly hard time, and I also obviously don’t want to invite him into my home, but I feel like I have some moral obligation to make sure he stays on the right path. Do I? Is there a way to ensure his mental health is OK without essentially volunteering to care for him? Or should I leave it alone?

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—Nosy Neighbor

Dear N.N.,

You don’t have to take this on as a major project, but giving just a little bit of attention to this kid and his unfortunate situation may—may­—go a long way. Can you try to make time to meet the mother to express to her your concern about some of her son’s behaviors? Perhaps no one has told her about his strange interjections, and how his Joker mask makes smaller children feel. Also, when you interact with him, be positive and kind. Find ways to let him know that there is someone in this neighborhood who cares about him. Even though your life may not allow you to be deeply connected to/in constant conversation with him, you can make a point of chatting on occasion, offering encouragement or even suggestions about some of his habits, and just keeping an eye out to make sure there’s no immediate sign of danger going ignored. If it seems that he is neglected to the point where there should be some sort of intervention, I think you have enough of a view of him to make that assessment and act accordingly. Be part of his village; it sounds like he could use it. Good luck to you, and to this poor kid.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Last year, my sister-in-law bought a Cricut machine and has since made my kids thoughtful and sweet T-shirts with favorite characters and phrases on them. She’s an amazing aunt to them, and I appreciate this kind gesture. However, after a few times through the washer and dryer, it’s not uncommon for the vinyl to start peeling off. My schedule is busy, and I typically don’t do any sort of special laundry care for any of our clothes, even those my husband and I wear. I honestly would rather not take the time to find their “special” shirts every laundry cycle, but I don’t want to offend my SIL if she sees part of a design has peeled off their shirt. This is such a low-stakes question, but do I ask her to stop making them shirts? Is it my responsibility to be sure these shirts get special laundry care? Do I hide them away so that they only wear them when she visits (usually about once a week)? Is there another option I haven’t considered?

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—Cautiously Concerned About Cricut

Dear C.C.A.C.,

Have you asked your SIL how to properly care for her creations? I would imagine that someone who makes as many Cricut shirts as she does would have figured out a way to keep them alive longer. Also, if they can’t easily be integrated into your usual laundry, why don’t you keep them in a special pile or bag and just wash them once there’s enough to justify a delicate laundry cycle? Let these be “special” shirts and keep them in good shape by taking them (or having your kids take them) out of the usual clothing rotation. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that you’ll have the kids in these shirts once a week, but it’s also not a tremendous sacrifice to occasionally have to wash some extra laundry in order to allow your SIL and your children to enjoy her crafting. You can also ask about other Cricut projects the kids may enjoy if the shirts are really getting that out of control: Let her know how much they love getting presents from her, but that you’re having a hard time keeping them looking good, and see if there might be something else she can make that doesn’t have to be washed.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My mother-in-law and I get along. I always take her out for Mother’s Day and her birthday, since my husband is always on the road and her other sons live out-of-state. I also treat her to lunch at least once a month to be kind and spend time with her. Her kids never do this sort of thing.

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For the past four years, I have been holding back from telling my MIL about basic etiquette at the table. She talks with her mouth full, and food always comes out flying. She gets food on her chin. She uses her fingers instead of a knife sometimes to push the food on her fork. She’s been burping lately, loudly, and it really grosses me out. I know how to avoid looking at her every time she talks with her mouth full, but now I have to listen to her burp? I feel like she got really comfortable with me. How do I tell her to stop all these bad habits without hurting her feelings? She’s very sensitive, and I have no idea how to approach this. I have been thinking about just cutting back on our lunches.

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—Grossed Out Daughter-in-Law

Dear G.O.D.L.,

I wonder if the refusal of her children to take her out to eat is connected to her lack of etiquette; or, perhaps, she has experienced long periods of time in which dining out was not an option and she doesn’t know quite how to behave at the table as a result. Either way, this is very gross and sad, but also something that probably can’t be entirely fixed at this point in your MIL’s life. She’s old enough to have a married child, which means she’s had bad table manners for a pretty significant amount of time, even if she was a very young mom. I don’t know the dynamic between you (though I’d imagine she thinks you’re, at the least, a sweet person), but I’m not confident that she’d react well to your pointing out how icky her behavior is. I’d recommend finding activities you can do with her outside of a restaurant, such as thrifting or going to a park or perhaps grabbing a drink or coffee instead of a full meal. Good luck!

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— Jamilah

More Advice From Slate

I had a baby two months ago. About two weeks ago, my husband had to go out of town for a few days, so his mother came to stay with the baby and me. One night I heard the baby crying, and heard my MIL go to him. I thought she was going to bring him to me to nurse so I stayed in bed for a while. When she didn’t bring him, I figured she was just rocking him back to sleep and went to see if she needed anything, like a bottle from the fridge. When I entered the room I saw her holding my son to her breast, letting him suckle. I was (and am) livid. I took my son back to my room and told her she had to leave first thing in the morning. I want to call the police, but my husband thinks that would be taking things too far. We’re at an impasse. Should we call the police? I’m hesitant to let her near my son again.

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