Care and Feeding

My Daughter’s Saying Some Worrying Things About Her Mom’s Boyfriend

How can I bring this up with my ex without betraying a confidence?

Collage of a man wearing a hoodie pulled over his head, obscuring his face, and a teenage girl sitting down with her hand on her forehead in distress
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ridofranz/iStock/Getty Images Plus and leolintang/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 divorced man in my 40s. I have a reasonably good relationship with my kids’ mom. She’s dating a man that I never liked for various reasons, although I don’t interfere with their relationship. Last year, my older daughter casually told me that this man had crossed a creepy line a few years earlier (think along the lines of asking what color underwear she was wearing on a regular basis), and I would have done something had I heard this around the time it happened. From what I hear, her mom laughed it off and minimized it. I was frustrated that I hadn’t heard this earlier, of course.

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Now, my younger daughter (a high schooler) has told me in confidence that for reasons that are only partially clear, she has panic attacks when this man is present, and she’s even let her mother know. However, he still shows up periodically and my daughter runs to her room so that she doesn’t have to interact with him. She’s told me that she has had arguments with her mother about this man, that he’s “broken her heart” multiple times, and he has also been in multiple inpatient hospitalizations that don’t seem to have changed him for the better. This came out in a tear-filled conversation and she said, “Don’t tell Mom, because she told me not to tell you.”

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I suggested we find her an adult to talk to about things, and she would be very willing to see one. It pains me to see her internalize this, but it wouldn’t have come out if I didn’t start the conversation. My role as a dad is to allow my kids to grow up happy and safe and I think I can help at least my younger daughter. How can I bring this up with my ex without betraying a confidence? I feel that if I say anything, she might take it out on my daughter, as she consistently chooses this boyfriend over the kids and loves to share how everything in her life is great. But given this, I’m ready to hire an attorney if I need to rewrite our custody arrangement.

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—Mad, Sad Dad

Dear MSD,

This man seems to have sexually harassed two of your minor children and I am a little perplexed that you seemingly need for someone to tell you that you need to do everything in your power to get your children the hell away from him for good. If you need to go back to court to get custody, then do that. Instead of rushing to confront your ex (let’s not even bother with giving this man any decency), get to the business of identifying your legal options and figuring out how soon you can make this happen.

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Sometimes confidence must be betrayed, and this is one of those times. Your daughter can forgive you for that—I don’t know how well she will forgive you for allowing her to remain in a situation where she is subjected to the behavior of a predatory man who sounds like he may be a danger to himself and others as well. Get your kids, Dad. They need you now—and not just your youngest. I’m not sure what you would have “definitely done” if you’d heard about your older daughter’s alleged abuse years prior, but you haven’t done anything despite knowing about that and this? Your girls are watching your inaction now and suffering in the meantime, sir. They both will need support to cope with what’s happened thus far. Your need to keep your child safe doesn’t end with high school, and I assure you this nightmare hasn’t ended for your elder daughter. Get to moving immediately.

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From this week’s letter, “My Nephew Threw a Fit Over a Gift I Gave His Brother: “How do I give appropriate gifts for everyone while forestalling disappointment in the future? Did I do something wrong?”

Dear Care and Feeding,

We have four adult children (all in their 20s/early 30s) and are currently facing a great deal of family conflict around the unequal way we raised them. To be honest, we were pretty strict parents with our oldest daughter “Lily.” From the outset, we told her that at 18, she’d be moving out—living with us indefinitely was not an option—and she’d need to pay for college by herself. She got into an expensive Ivy League school that did not offer enough financial aid. She was heartbroken and ended up going to a lower-ranked, yet still excellent, college on a full merit scholarship. She followed through with our expectations and never asked us to move back in, even when she took a low-paying job right out of college. She made it through her 20s with a few bumps and bruises but is now engaged to a man with a high-paying job, and she has even earned her graduate degree! We’re very proud.

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In contrast, our youngest child “Jen” was raised without many of these same expectations: We knew we could pay for her college, and having had the benefit of seeing our other children leave the nest successfully, we weren’t as insistent that she move out immediately. We paid full price for a private college for Jen (equally ranked to Lily’s) and she graduated with no debt. We also allowed her to live with us during her first year after college; she had secured a job, but wanted to save money for a down payment on a house. She ended up buying a home at 23 (Lily wasn’t able to until 29) and as a result is now significantly wealthier than Lily is.

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Lily and Jen have always had some friction, but now their main conflict is the unequal expectations we had of them. It’s true we were much harder on Lily, and Jen had a “safety net” her older sister never benefited from. Lily has held on to a lot of resentment for this and has started to throw it in our faces during family arguments. In my opinion, we were doing the best we could, and it seems ungrateful of Lily to complain when her life is going so well right now. I think she’s harboring jealousy around Jen’s financial success and it’s making her feel insecure.

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The jealousy is starting to color every interaction between Lily and us, and between Lily and Jen. Did we do something wrong? How should we handle this moving forward? Is it reasonable that Lily’s upset? Should we do something to “level the playing field,” so to speak? I’d appreciate any advice you can offer.

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—Torn in Tulsa

Dear Torn,

Lily has all the makings for some deep resentment, but she is also at a point in her life where she has to learn to look at how fortunate she is and to appreciate all that she has, more than she resents the disparity in how she and her sister were raised. What you and your spouse can do to help that is to simply acknowledge the difference and apologize, if there’s anything that you sincerely regret or feel bad about—such as being stricter with Lily and making her feel unwelcome to stay in your home beyond the age of 18 just because you were worried she would be unable to learn to live independently. You needn’t apologize for having different means at different times, but Lily should hear you recognize how both the change in your financial status and your parenting ideologies affected her and her sister, and that you did the best you could for all of your children. Acknowledge her feelings and encourage her to express them respectfully. You don’t owe her a check, just understanding and empathy. Hopefully, she can extend the same to you sooner rather than later.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m (17F) the oldest in a family of six. I have a younger brother with autism (“James,” 15) and two other siblings (“Dave,” 14, and “Liz,” 12). I love them all to death, and they’re all incredibly smart, creative, and caring. That’s not to say my family is perfect, however. There were parental issues as we were growing up and we all were affected in different ways. As a result, my family has been left a little bruised. I think we would greatly benefit from family counseling, but that’s another issue, as my parents don’t 100 percent believe in mental health, or that there’s a problem at all. I put myself in my school’s counseling program, and that’s helped some.

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I’m writing because Liz has entered what I think can best be described as a phase. She’s very irritable, petty, and rather aggressive and rude, and whenever I ask her to do something or tell her that she needs a minute to calm down, I get a very snarky response. It was the same with Dave when he was growing up, so this is nothing new. The weird thing with Liz is that it’s usually over very trivial stuff. For example, Liz acts like she’s my mother—ordering me around, telling me that I need to do various things, yelling at me. I am doing things that need to get done, and I am responsible, so I’m not sure where this is coming from. Or if Dave asks her to take something upstairs, since she’s heading up anyway, she will purposely ignore him until she’s halfway up the stairs, and then the two will start arguing about how she could have taken it up, she was “already on the stairs.” She’ll purposely continue arguments, even when we request her to stop talking, calm down, and come back in a little bit when everybody is more relaxed. Our mother has stepped in multiple times, telling Liz to back off, punishing her if necessary, etc. My father blames my brother for the arguments (they have a long history of arguing), but I feel this is unfair to Dave because, as of late, the problem is usually Liz, and Dave has been making an effort to get along with her, and he’s come a long way. My mother and I have both talked to Liz, and Dave is currently actively avoiding Liz to avoid any arguments, but confrontation is inevitable.

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As I mentioned previously, I went through this with Dave, and I know someone who is in a similar boat as I am, so I’m trying to handle this as best I can. But, as you know, we’ve been in a pandemic. I’ve had friend breakups, had to move in the middle of all this, and while I’m happy where we are now, I’m still stuck at home with them. In short, I’m tired. I’ve been putting up with this every day, nonstop, dealing with my own mental issues, balancing several crazy social situations, am in my first relationship, and am currently frustrated with the school system in my new state. It’s gotten to the point that sometimes, whenever I wake up or hear Liz’s harsh tones, I die a little inside. I love and want to hang out with my siblings but it’s hard when they inevitably start arguing and I’m caught in the middle. I don’t want to do this anymore. I low-key want to ignore them and tell them to “figure it out,” but I know that’s not fair on Dave. So here I am. I’m nearing a breaking point. I need a solution or advice, or both?

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—Worn Out and Weary

Dear WOaW,

You have a lot on your plate, and being the eldest sibling of a large family has been said to feel like a full-time job of its own, so it’s not surprising that your sister’s latest phase is rubbing you the wrong way. I think the best solution would be for you to focus on ways to manage your stress. Talk about these stresses with your school counselor. With the pandemic, changes in your social life, the move, and just regular teen stuff—as well as the family issues of the past and present you mention—I think you’d greatly benefit from having someone outside who can listen to your concerns on a regular basis.

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As far as Liz’s behavior goes, try to remember what that time period felt like for you. The hormonal changes and introduction to menstruation alone are enough to make a once-chill girl turn into a very unpleasant version of herself. Let her know that you are there to talk and that you understand that she’s going through a difficult time, but don’t allow her to speak down to or yell at you without correcting her, either. Be as patient as possible, but take the self-care breaks you need when you can; if listening to Liz yell at your brother after a long day at school is stressing you out, it may be easier to take a nap or a walk than to try and redirect her energy. No matter what you do, be sure to always prioritize your own ability to feel OK, and that means remembering that you aren’t Liz’s mother, nor is there anything you can do to make this stage in her life go away or end sooner. The best you can do is to be a loving sister who is happy and whole herself, and to be supportive of both Liz and Dave (and I’m sure he’d be grateful for some extra encouragement from you when Liz is giving him a hard time). Wishing you all the best luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a 12-year-old girl living in Japan because of my dad’s job. I’m from the U.K., and we went back to visit family this summer after a year away, and I realized just how much I missed it. I never wanted to move here in the first place and I want to move back next summer. I don’t think my mum wants to be here either; she misses her mum and sister, who are easily our closest family members. I know I’m lucky that I have this opportunity, but I’m jealous of all the people that don’t have to move like this. I don’t want to go to boarding school here, and I think my mum would come back with me, but my little brother doesn’t want to leave my dad—and I promised I wouldn’t leave my little brother. My parents say we are here for our education but I’m not happy here. We have lived overseas before but I was much younger then, and my dad has a contract and if he breaks it, it’s very unlikely he will be able to go overseas again. One of the things that really gets to me is that my grandma and aunties won’t be here for my 13th birthday, and there’s nothing I can do about that. What do I do? Do I stick it out or follow my heart and go home?

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—Want to Go Home

Dear WtGH,

As someone who moved away from my loved ones not that long ago (across the country, though, not to another continent), I can deeply relate to how you are feeling, and even though it was my decision, the longing and isolation that I feel are very difficult. I can only imagine how challenging that would be at 12, when someone has made the choice for you.

I think you owe it to yourself to tell your parents exactly how you are feeling—all your feelings about being in Japan, going to boarding school, not having your family members nearby, all of it. That is not to say that they will or even can change anything; however, it gives them the ability to have your feelings in mind when they decide what to do next. Perhaps there’s a different school or a situation in which you can return home next summer or not long after that, but you won’t know until the folks in charge understand just how strongly you feel about where you are. Try to be understanding of how difficult this sort of decision you are looking for them to make would be—either to change your dad’s employment somehow or to divide the family temporarily—and acknowledge that when you speak to your parents. Let them know you’ve done your absolute best to be accommodating, but that you’re truly unhappy. Wishing you all the best.

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—Jamilah

More Advice from Slate

My 6-year-old daughter really loves a current popular music group that uses the F-word in a couple of its songs. In one song, the word’s used as substitute for the phrase “messed up.” In another song, it refers to having sex. She sings along to both songs, and I’m not sure if I should tell her it’s a grown-up word she shouldn’t be using, or if drawing her attention to it will make her want to use it at times other than when she’s singing these lyrics that she doesn’t understand, since for 6-year-olds I know it’s sometimes exciting to break the rules.

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