Care and Feeding

My Son Has Suddenly Developed a Very Worrisome Habit

A toddler hugs his teddy bear very tightly and looks stressed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fizkes/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’m a mom to an absolutely delightful 4-year-old who has developed a sudden hoarding habit. He’s always been an age-appropriate “collector”—shells on the beach, reluctant to throw away a broken toy—but his habits have taken an upsetting turn. Within the last month or so, he’s begun to refuse to throw anything away. This means hysterics if he opens the trash and finds his half-eaten breakfast waffle in there, tearfully begging to save a dead bug, or putting balls of (thankfully, unused) toilet paper in his toy box. So far, I’ve managed with a combination of subterfuge (by doing dishes and tossing trash when he’s in bed) and a little tough love. We’ve talked a lot about how old food brings bugs or makes you sick. I’ve set rules like, “I’ll save your breakfast until lunch, but if you don’t eat it then, we have to throw it away” (he doesn’t eat it). I’ve even kept a piece of bread in a container to watch it grow mold as an illustrative experiment. Nothing changes his mind. One other relevant fact is that this phase coincided with transitioning from his nanny, whom he’s known his entire life, to preschool. This transition was rougher than anticipated and sparked a lot of questions about change, like, “Where will I live when I’m a grownup?” followed by tears at the idea that he will not live at home. His hoarding feels related and anxiety-driven. Should I be worried, go with tough love—like making him cry it out when I throw out that last bite of brown banana—or just wait for this to pass? If you’re wondering, we’ve never experienced food or resource scarcity.

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—Am I Raising a Hoarder?

Dear AIRaH,

Please don’t go with tough love or waiting for this to pass. I grant that I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but I have experience with a child who suddenly begins what you are calling hoarding (if you want the details, you can read all about it in the final section of The Middle of Everything—the part called “Hope Against Hope”), and while I won’t go deeply into it now—writing about it once was hard enough—I will tell you that this holding on to trash was a symptom of significant anxiety in my then-6-year-old.

“Nothing changes [your son’s] mind” because anxiety cannot be reasoned with. And if I’m right that his “hoarding” is an expression of his distress, it won’t simply pass. It may go underground, which would mean that you would no longer have to contend with the problem at hand … but this is not what you want either. You want to address it at its source.

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And yes, I do think (again, with the caveat that I am not a mental health professional) that the rupture of a lifelong relationship is indeed what triggered this. In my daughter’s case, there was a triggering event too. But the trigger is pulled on a gun—to keep this awful metaphor going—that was already loaded. That is to say: some children are predisposed, through their own genetic makeup, their own particular brain chemistry, to anxiety. So it’s not that every child will have an outsized reaction to the loss of their nanny since birth (some people are just born sturdy)—but yours most likely has. This is a situation that needs evaluation. And I’ve said this before but it’s worth saying again: please take the time to find someone who will evaluate your son thoroughly, whose first line of defense will not be medication. It may not be easy. But it will be worth it. (And before people write to me, outraged that I am “anti-meds,” let me say that I am not anti-meds when they are needed, when intervention without medication fails. But with a child this young, working with a pediatric psychotherapist—who can also help identify and guide you through some ways to help your son at home—may make all the difference. It did for us.)

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Dear Care and Feeding,

When I began puberty, I got no help from my parents. My mother was squeamish and avoidant: she couldn’t stand talking about anything sex- or body-related, and left me on my own to figure things out. My father was worse—physically violent and verbally vicious. He would say things like, “You have so many pimples because you are so ugly inside, it’s coming out on your face.” And so I started adolescence with the wrong bras, pimply and hairy, standing for hours in the drugstore trying to figure out what I could buy in order to fix myself.

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Now I have an 11-year-old daughter of my own, and I am determined to do right by her. I have spoken to her calmly and openly about puberty and bought her everything she needs; overall I’ve treated the whole thing as kind of fun. As a result (and this is both a blessing and a problem), she is not self-conscious at all about her appearance. She has hair under her arms, and before she went swimming recently I told her, “I always shave off the hair under my arms and most people usually do. Do you want me to show you how?” And she said no. She has bad acne but does not want to go to the dermatologist or put on the cream I got her, because she just doesn’t care that much. I am a feminist and would 100 percent support her choice to opt out of beauty standards, even though I am pretty conventional about such things myself. But I don’t feel that that’s what’s happening here, that she is making an informed choice. She is just a clueless kid like I was, wandering through life without realizing that people are looking at her and judging her. I feel neglectful, like she doesn’t have a mother to tell her what she’s supposed to do. On the other hand, it would break my heart to be the one to make her feel bad about how she looks and inculcate into her the idea that she has to care about how other people look at her. I feel like no matter what I do, I will be either neglectful like my mother or cruel like my father. Please give me the right things to say.

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—I Wasn’t Trained for This!

Dear IWTfT,

I feel for you, struggling with the wounds of your own childhood and the legacies of your parents’ neglect and cruelty, even as you are committed to doing better—way better—for your own child. But here’s the hard truth (which I myself had to come to grips with in my daughter’s childhood): she isn’t you. One of the hardest things about parenting when you are someone who is cognizant of the damage done to them—knowingly or unknowingly, whether one’s parents were able to do better and didn’t, or were doing the best they could (which wasn’t good enough)—is coming to grips with the fact that you cannot undo the damage done to you through your parenting of your own child.

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And I do think you’re having trouble separating her needs from yours. That you recognize that her lack of self-consciousness about her appearance (thanks to you!) is indeed a blessing, one that I wish I could bestow magically on every 11-year-old girl, suggests to me that in your heart of hearts you know she’s better off. That you don’t want to be the one to make her feel bad about the way she looks supports this suggestion. And that you have followed up your concern that “she is just a clueless kid like I was, wandering through life without realizing that people are looking at her and judging her” by saying that you don’t want to “inculcate into her the idea that she has to care about how other people look at her” drives home to me not only how deep this conflict goes for you—because these are entirely contradictory thoughts—but also how much you have projected on to her. She is not the clueless kid you were. You’ve made sure of that. She is genuinely unself-conscious, which is not the same thing at all.

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A couple more thoughts. Most people don’t shave under their arms. Lots of girls and women do, sure. But you’ve already told her this. Now let it go. With any luck—from my perspective, anyway—other girls she knows will reject this “tradition” too, and she will find her tribe (brave, unself-conscious girls with better things to think about and do). And if that doesn’t happen (and, alas, it may well not, given our culture), she’ll shave her armpits when she is ready to/feels the need to. Same with treating the acne. You’ve given her all the information she needs about that, too. Now step back and let her decide what to do with that information. And try, if you can, to take pride in what you’ve done right (many things). The magic words you wrote in looking for? No words at all—not now.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My stepmother has been interfering with and complicating my relationship with my dad for 30 years now. This only escalated as I got older until she realized I was a conduit to grandchildren. At the time, I was married to my now ex-husband, and she ingratiated herself to him as well as his first wife, so that she could be the “#1 grandma” for my stepkids and eventually my son. Fast-forward through a lot of misery and a divorce, and I find myself very happily married to a kind and supportive man, living several hundred miles away from my dad and stepmom. Every single time I try to arrange to see them, my stepmother finds some way to include my ex-husband and/or his children. My dad is incredibly important to me, but I’m bothered by my parents’ constant inclusion of my ex, since he did serious damage to my well-being. After raising the issue several times and getting nowhere, I’m struggling with how to view my relationship with my parents. Should I find a way to accept that my dad is more willing to hurt me than to establish and respect my boundaries with my ex?

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-Confused and Confounded

Dear Confused,

I’m truly sorry that your relationship with your father has been so battered by his wife. And I don’t think the prognosis is hopeful: if your father has allowed (indeed, enabled) his wife to interfere with his relationship with you for three decades, it seems unlikely that this is going to change now. But I’m afraid I also have the sense that if 30 years of his doing nothing to stand up for you hasn’t brought you to a place of accepting that he isn’t willing (or maybe able?) to prioritize your needs over your stepmother’s, odds don’t seem good that you are going to have much luck with that now.

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That said, as regular readers of my column know, I am the poster child for finding a way to keep difficult family members in one’s life if at all possible. I’m not sure it will be possible in this case. Still, by my lights, it’s worth one more try—this time, a very direct and specific try. You say you’ve raised the issue several times, but you don’t mention how. If you’ve never done so, tell your father plainly, frankly, that you will not and cannot spend time with your ex. Period. You don’t even have to explain it, except to say that it makes you unhappy. And then, when your stepmother lets you know that your ex is being included in a get-together, your answer needs to be, “I’m sorry, we won’t be joining you for that.” If you’re already visiting in your parents’ home and he shows up at the door without warning, get up and leave. If your dad doesn’t get the message then, I believe you can consider yourself having done everything you can. What you may need to “find a way” to do is give up on your father. I hope you won’t be offended when I say that a good therapist should be able to help you through the grief this is going to cause you. And I think there’s 30 years’ worth of grief for you to face—so even if you choose not to give up on this relationship, you might want some help with that.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My spouse and I have up to now been on the same page about screen time for our kids. We limit them to an hour a day under normal circumstances. But now we have come to a disagreement about what counts as screen time for our 9-year-old. He has recently gotten into coding. And I think that time spent on coding or related online exercises shouldn’t be limited the way we limit watching YouTube Kids or playing Minecraft. To me it is not the medium (a screen) that is the issue, but rather the mode of activity. And to me, coding is a form of highly intellectually engaged problem-solving that happens to take place on a screen. My spouse tends to think the problem is the medium itself. I also should note that I have a bias based on my own experience. I was a precocious programmer in my 40-years-ago grade-school years (I finished my high school’s programming sequence by sixth grade) and have many fond memories of gluing myself before Commodore PET, writing TurboPascal until my bladder was about to burst. That my son has a strong interest in and aptitude for coding thrills me! And while in the end I did not choose to become a computer scientist or developer professionally, I’ve definitely gotten a lot of mileage out of being able to code in the career I did choose. I think it would be great for my son to have the same advantage. But an hour a day will neither satisfy his desire nor build his competence. Still, I take the point … it is a screen. What say you?

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—Screening the Screen

Dear Screening,

I think you’re right. With a couple of caveats.

I do think there should be exceptions to the screen time rule (I wouldn’t limit a child’s time reading on an e-reader, either). I understand your spouse’s concern, of course, but I think this rule is being enforced too rigidly. This brings me to my first caveat: If you are going to have a special extended-hours rule for coding, you will need to keep an eye on your son to make sure he’s doing what he says he’s doing (and this won’t be as easy as, say, glancing over at a kid curled up with a Kindle reading a novel). And when I say “you,” I mean you. Your spouse may fear that it will be up to them to police his screen time (you don’t mention how this one-hour policy is usually enforced, or by whom). Make sure you’re the one taking responsibility for this, and also that you’re being very clear (to both your spouse and your kid) about why this screen time rule exception is being made. Which brings me to my second caveat, and to a suggestion that you carefully read my answer to I Wasn’t Trained for This! Please be sure that this is really, and entirely, about your son and his needs, not your own wish for a childhood do-over.

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—Michelle

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I’m in my 30s and live about a three-hour drive from my 60-year-old parents. I’m close enough to see them some weekends now that we’re all vaccinated, but far enough that I am not in their space nearly as often as I once was. Each time I return home to see them, I am increasingly concerned by how shabby and dirty their space is—think wooden shutters falling apart and broken plumbing, with pet hair, dirt, and clutter EVERYWHERE. Do you have any ideas about how I can sensitively broach this subject?

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