Care and Feeding

My Teen Is Faking a Disability on TikTok

A 14-year-old boy waves at his cell phone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo 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 14-year-old son is pretty active on TikTok. I monitor his activity fairly routinely (with his permission) and I’m positive he’s not sending or receiving inappropriate videos, interacting with people he doesn’t personally know, or anything else high-risk. Instead, I’ve discovered something else disconcerting: He is faking having a major, extremely stigmatized disability.

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My son is fairly neurotypical—he suffers from anxiety and depression, as many teens do, and has found therapy helpful. But I discovered a set of TikToks he posted where he’s claiming to have been diagnosed with a very specific disability—he’s posting things like “if you do x, you probably have y” and also sharing videos of himself doing certain actions that are characteristic of folks with this disability. I know beyond a doubt he does not have this disability. I’ve talked with his therapist extensively, as well as his pediatrician, to confirm. Neither saw any indication of anything remotely like this in him.

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I’ve overheard him talking with some friends before about “Disability TikTok,” and it makes me wonder whether he’s found some sort of “home” in this corner of the Internet, and that he’s pretending he has this disability to make himself feel more valid, welcomed, or seen. But I’m horrified he’d pursue this farce, especially because folks who really do have this disability have intense obstacles that my son will never have to face. How in the world do I go about starting this conversation with him? Should I bring it up at all? What do I say? How can I affirm him while decidedly NOT affirming his choice to fake a serious disability? Please help.

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—Father of a Faker

Dear Father of a Faker, 

You should absolutely bring this up with your son. He believes he has an undiagnosed disability. Not talking to him about that is not an option. First, let him know that you’ve seen his TikTok videos. Express your surprise that he self-identifies as a person with this condition and inquire further about why he feels he should be diagnosed with it. If possible, find the root of his conviction on this. There’s a reason he feels so strongly that he has this condition (or that he wants people to believe that he has it), even if you and his health care professionals say he doesn’t.

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After you’ve had this talk, if he remains convinced that he has this disability, offer to have him assessed (or reassessed) by a new specialist. It may seem like an unnecessary step if you’re still skeptical, but offering him an additional assessment will affirm your commitment to getting him any assistance he needs and also remove all doubt about his self-diagnosis.

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This isn’t a simple matter. As his parent, you can’t chalk this up to him wanting to find his corner of the internet. His desire to find community could be part of the equation, but something larger is at issue here. Keep communicating with him and his health care professionals until you find out what it is.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

When I was a child, my mother was often cruel to me. One of my earliest memories is of her screaming at me while trying to twist my feet in opposite directions for accidentally breaking a pane of glass. I couldn’t have been older than 3 or 4 at the time. While this is an extreme example, I have lots of other disturbing memories of being criticized for my weight, my academic performance, and as I got older, my sexual health. Nothing was private for me while I lived with her, and as a result I’ve grown up into an adult who has a strained, distrustful relationship with their mother.

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Because of this lack of trust, I choose to keep in low contact with her. She lives a one-hour drive away, and I see her occasionally on family birthdays and Christmas. I never leave my 8-year-old daughter alone with her, because I noticed her making the same kinds of body-shaming comments to my daughter that she’d made to me. She has complained to other relatives about how little time she gets to spend with my daughter. Recently, my mother has started volunteering at my daughter’s school. Before doing this, she asked me whether my daughter’s school needed volunteers, I said no but I didn’t explicitly tell her not to. She’s started working in the school cafeteria anyway, as she sees this as a way to get to see my kid more often. I’ve spoken to the principal about my concerns about her being there, but unless I have a court order or a restraining order they won’t ask her to leave. My daughter understands that she does not stay or spend much time with her grandmother because I don’t think her grandmother is a safe person for her to be around. I haven’t gone into details about why that is, and she has never shown much curiosity about it. Is there anything further I can do to try and keep my daughter safe? I am exploring my legal options, but if you have any advice for me, I would love to hear it.

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—Go Away Grandma

Dear Go Away Grandma,

I’m glad you survived what sounds like an incredibly difficult childhood at the hands of an abusive mom. It sounds like you’ve given your mother opportunities to interact healthily with both you and your daughter. I’m sorry to hear that she hasn’t become less critical or antagonistic over time.

In light of that, your instincts about limiting your 8-year-old’s interaction with your mother are sound. She shouldn’t have unlimited or unsupervised access to your daughter in your absence. While her job as a cafeteria worker shouldn’t provide her with that level of access, I would have another conversation with your school’s administration asking about their policies during the lunch hour and in the halls. Can kids walk the halls alone? Do lunch employees have open access to the school? If so, your daughter’s teacher and the principal should work with you to ensure that your daughter is never alone without a buddy in the school.

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It doesn’t sound like having another conversation with your mother about any of this will help, if she’s gone out of her way to circumvent your efforts to keep her time with her granddaughter monitored and infrequent. But having age-appropriate conversations with your daughter about her in-school interactions with her grandmother would be wise. Ask if she saw her. Ask if they talked. Ask what kinds of things they talked about. Ask how she feels about seeing her at school. Remind her that your mother was not kind to you as a child—that she hurt you—and that your daughter should pay close attention to how she is being treated by her grandmother, as well. It’s OK for her to be wary of their interactions with each other. Your daughter’s responses should inform your next steps. If those answers are benign, continue to limit their access to each other outside of school as you see fit and stand down about their chats at school. If your daughter expresses discomfort about the way her grandmother engages with her at school, continue looking into your legal options.

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For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding, 

I have four kids, three school-aged kids with my wife and one older teenage daughter, “Emily,” from my first marriage. I had fallen out of contact with Emily after her mother and I divorced. Sadly her mother passed away last year, so she has moved in with my family. It seems that in the years between when I moved out and now, my ex and daughter fell on some hard times. I only have Emily’s word on this, but by her account, she and her Mom were homeless for a period of time, or lived with some suspect character, and generally dealt with a lot of financial insecurity. I feel badly about this, but Emily’s mother never reached out to let me know how bad things were. My issue now is that Emily is telling stories that are scaring my younger children. She has them convinced that I am going to leave their mother and they will end up living on the streets or something. I don’t want to ask her to lie (although I do think some of her stories might be exaggerated), but I don’t need her stirring up trouble with the younger kids. What should I do?

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—Distressed Dad

Dear Distressed Dad,

Emily has a precedent for the warnings she’s giving her siblings, and it’s one that you set for her when you divorced her mother and “fell out of contact with Emily” for years. She’s only telling them about her own experience with you and her mother who, by your own admission, you hadn’t spoken to since leaving their home. Your letter suggests a great deal of skepticism about what your oldest daughter has been through. That is stunning, since it seems like you would have remained willfully ignorant about whatever fates befell her and her mother if you hadn’t been forced by her mother’s passing to reestablish contact. How can you express such easy disbelief in your daughter without ever having confirmed her whereabouts or well-being before last year?

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Rather than accusing Emily of “stirring up trouble” with your younger children, own up to your past decisions and the role they have played in Emily’s experiences and how she chooses to share them. Make sure that she receives professional support through counseling for grief, for any trauma-related conditions she may be suffering, as well as for parental neglect (and to be clear, you’re the parent who neglected her).

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If you believe that you’ve changed between your first marriage and your second one, then demonstrate that for all of your children, not just the ones you have with your current wife. Once you do, Emily may have less reason to believe that you’ll repeat a pattern of abandonment, and your younger children won’t be so easily “convinced” that you’re capable of it.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I really messed up. For the first 10 years of our oldest daughter’s life, we lived in a lily-white suburb, sent her to basically all-white public schools, and enrolled her in sports teams that had little to no racial diversity. We also did not do a good job of enforcing boundaries with both of our parents (four elderly relatives total) who said a variety of non-PC things—never racial slurs, just broad statements and generalizations reflective of an older, less tolerant/respectful/open-minded time period.

Recently, in an attempt to gain more distance from our extended family and provide our daughter with a more multiracial childhood experience, we moved closer in the big city and enrolled her in a more diverse school. This also means her sports teams and after-school activities are significantly more multiracial. We’ve tried to teach her about accepting everyone’s differences, systemic racism and inequality, and her role in interrupting racism, but it’s hard to tell how much has stuck. She’s only been to two weeks of school but comes home every day miserable. She says there is fighting at her school and she doesn’t know who to hang out with. Apparently the kids tend to stay in cliques largely separated by race; there are a few other white students but they haven’t been very welcoming to her. She’s nervous about approaching a nonwhite group because of the aforementioned lack of racial mixing at the school.

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My partner and I have gently encouraged her to keep being kind, open, and friendly, and give the school a chance, but it’s brutal to see our kid so miserable every single day. My mother chastised me for “turning a kid into a social justice pawn to solve her parents’ guilt” which, though untrue (I think?), has made me feel awful. I can’t help but think we have just messed this up start to finish. Should we pull our kid out of her new school and transfer back to her old one? Do you have any words of wisdom for how we can support her through this transition? Please help.

—Mired in Mess

Dear Mired in Mess, 

You seem well-intentioned. After a decade of enrolling your daughter in predominantly white schools while living in predominantly white neighborhoods and allowing your extended family’s “non-PC” stereotypes to go unchecked, you’ve decided to make a change. It’s a commendable goal, and by relocating, you’ve made strides to achieve it.

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You say that you’ve tried to teach your daughter about racism and disrupting it, but it’s hard to tell how much of it stuck. That’s because, before moving, you hadn’t created many opportunities to demonstrate to her what it looks like. Because of her insular upbringing, she had no real-life examples to reference. She wasn’t taught, through your commitment to creating community with different cultures and deepening your understanding of their experiences, how to interact with the different groups at her new school.

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As a result, you’ve made her your family’s first real-life example. While I don’t think that means she’s a “social justice pawn,” like your mother asserted, I do think your guilt over 10 years of relative inaction led to an overcorrection—throwing your daughter into the deep end of diversity, without the tools she needs to stay socially afloat. You expected her to figure out how to do things, after two weeks in a new school, that you weren’t able to do at the family dinner table for 10 years.

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If you haven’t already, join any parent-teacher organizations or school committees you can. Read a few books that will help you all refine your approaches as a family. To start, try Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race and Susy Lee’s Raising Kids Who Care: Practical Conversations for Exploring Stuff That Matters, Together. Be patient with yourselves and with this new experience. It’ll take time to acclimate.

In the end, if your daughter is still unhappy at her new school, it’s fine to enroll her somewhere else. Challenging systemic racism isn’t something that one child’s enrollment in a less white school can achieve, and if that was your main reason for sending her to her current school, it’s OK to admit that you tried a new approach and it didn’t work. But don’t abandon your attempts to offer her more diverse experiences. There are many ways to achieve that other than relocating homes or schools. Never stop trying to find them.

—Stacia

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