Care and Feeding

Is It Inappropriate for My 12-Year-Old and Me to Share a Bed?

A mother wraps her arms around her 12-year-old son.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by ThitareeSarmkasat/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 am a single mother to a 12-year-old boy. Because of our circumstances, between the ages of 0 and 9, my son and I shared a room and often a bed. At about 7, he would start the night in his bed, but then always wound up in mine. This was extra rough because I only had a twin bed.

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Cut to a few years later, and we both have our own rooms and my bed has expanded. Most of 2019, he slept in his bed and his room the whole night. Sure, there were the odd nightmares or something else where he would need to crawl into my bed, but they were rare.

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Last year was a disaster all over the place, and my kid spent most of the pandemic with his grandparents, just a few blocks away. I’d see him but it wasn’t practical to have him home with me since I work the night shift as a nurse. Now, with school back in person, he is back to living with me. But since he came home he has regressed, and he has spent more nights in my bed with me than not. Otherwise, I have to lay down in his bed and snuggle him until he is totally asleep.

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I’m very aware that he isn’t a small kid anymore and is very much in the throes of puberty. At this point am I doing some sort of psychological harm allowing him to sleep in my bed? Or snuggling him for a little bit on his bed as he falls asleep? What is “normal” here? When does allowing the opposite sex kid to crawl into bed cross a line? I just want to make sure I’m not going to cause more issues!

—Trying Not to Cross Lines

Dear Trying Not to Cross Lines,

If your son shared a room and a bed with you until the age of 9, it’s not that unusual that he still struggles to sleep alone at 12. It’s only been three years since you began the process of separating your sleep routines. Your family’s pandemic circumstances have resulted in some understandable regression, but it’s not too late to steer your tween back to his own room and bed. And that’s definitely where he should be at this point in his development.

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Clearly, you and your son are close and he still relies on you a great deal, especially at bedtime. It’s OK to carve out time for pre-bedtime cuddles and even to let him climb into bed with you in case of a nightmare, but at this point, nightly bed sharing should definitely be phased out.

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Remind him of 2019, when he was sleeping so well independently. Figure out what you both did well to ensure that year was a success. Tell him how important it is for you both to return to the good habits you set back then. As a nurse, you need your rest, and as a student, he needs his. Whether he realizes it or not, sleeping together is disrupting sleep for both of you. It delays his process of figuring out how to fall asleep and stay asleep on his own, a skill he’ll need for the rest of his life, and it places you in the unenviable nighttime position of putting off your own well-deserved relaxation in order to ensure his.

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Puberty is an excellent time for setting new boundaries. Sleeping alone should be one of your son’s. Expect some initial pushback but try to remain firm in your refusal to let him keep sleeping in your bed. If it’s still an issue after a few months, consider seeking the help of a counselor to determine if he’s suffering from anxieties you’re no longer able to address with him on your own.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Is it wrong to read a book while my 2½-year-old son plays? I don’t mean reading aloud to him. I mean reading a book for my own pleasure. I understand the importance of not “being on your phone” constantly while in the presence of your children, but I can’t decide if reading falls into the same category. If it matters, I don’t use an e-reader, I read physical books. While play time doesn’t come naturally to me, I do spend plenty of time on the ground with him building, doing puzzles, play-eating food from his kitchen, coloring, kicking the ball around, and reading to him, of course, but he’s also pretty good on his own. Often, I find myself sitting in his playroom or outside in the yard unsure what to do with myself. I can see distraction being a factor for safety purposes, but I don’t plan on reading heavy novels or anything that would be completely engrossing. I’m thinking something more like the Jessica Simpson memoir and other light material like that. Is this OK?

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—Bored Mama

Dear Bored Mama,

This is 100 percent OK, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t owe your toddler 24 hours of undivided attention. It sounds like you’re engaging your 2½-year-old quite a bit, which I’m sure he appreciates. But it’s just as important for him to see you engaging yourself in independent activities that you enjoy. You’ve noted that he seems OK on his own, and that’s probably because he’s already observed you being OK on your own. He’s learned how to play independently because you’ve allowed yourself to pay attention to something other than him—and he’s been perfectly fine while you did! As long as you can both see each other from your reading nook, dive into whatever books suit your fancy. If he needs you, he’ll make it known and no tome is so engrossing that you’ll be able to miss a 2½-year-old’s cries for your affection or assistance.

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

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

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I’m a mother to a fantastic 3-year-old. I generally approach parenting with as calm and gentle an approach as possible. And people see me as a good mom. I am a good mom, and I work really hard to be the best one I can be. But I have secret OCD. I’ve had it since I was a tween. I get bad panic attacks in the middle of the night (when you push it down all day, it pops up to bite you at night). I’m not very effective at getting things done without causing myself great stress. And I have intrusive thoughts, sometimes violent ones (that I have not and would not EVER act on).

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I really want to get relief from my mental state. But the issue is my daughter. A friend of mine had his kid get taken away from him. His daughter, like mine, is mixed race and beautiful. The kind of kid that people just love to “save” (yes, I know not all adoption situations are like this but his was, for sure). I know therapists can be mandatory reporters. In the recent past we’ve been on Medicaid, and living off my meager savings, though now I have managed to get a job with health insurance. But because the pandemic has been so tough on our finances, we’ve had to move in with extended family. Add to that that our family is mixed race, and that I have mental health issues including scary, intrusive thoughts, I can see the case that someone could build against me. I can’t help but obsess that they’re going to take my daughter away.

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I hide all of this from everyone, including my daughter very effectively, so the only one really suffering is me. My question is: Would a therapist who knows my whole story report me as an unfit parent? There is no real way I could trust a therapist while thinking this, so is there such a thing as completely anonymous therapy? Should I just hold out for the next 1½ decades until my daughter isn’t a minor and they can’t take her away from me? I’ve held out for two decades thus far. If I had to, I’d be strong enough to do it again. But I don’t want to.

—Needing Relief in the South

Dear Needing Relief in the South,

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You’ve shown remarkable stamina in coping with your condition without medical intervention until now, but you shouldn’t be expected to do so for the rest of your daughter’s childhood. You deserve to seek and receive the mental health resources you need without fearing that you’ll lose custody of your daughter. I also want to directly address the way race factors into your fear about seeking help. There is documented racial disproportionality in child welfare agency intervention, and your concern about what that might mean for you and your daughter is real and valid. But for what it’s worth, several nonprofit and governmental agencies that are aware of the problem are working toward reform efforts.

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You’re also right that therapists are mandated to report any abuse or mistreatment a child receives at home. I am not a lawyer, but I believe that if your mental health issue does not result in any harm to your daughter, your parental rights should be protected under Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It stipulates that child welfare programs, activities, and services can’t unlawfully discriminate against parents with disabilities. Having OCD should only result in child welfare program intervention in cases of abuse and neglect.

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It may be a good idea to discuss your concerns with a potential counselor or therapist before scheduling a first appointment with them. Make sure that you both understand your rights and responsibilities before forming a counselor-patient relationship. But don’t let your fear of what may happen in therapy deter you from seeking it. Finding adequate help to manage your condition will not only improve your quality of life but also your daughter’s. It sounds like the latter is especially important to you.

Wishing you both the best.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have a lovely 2½-year-old son and have been trying since he turned one to have another child. We recently lost a pregnancy after finding out at eight weeks the baby had no heartbeat, which was quite devastating to us. As part of the accepting and grieving process, we decided to name our baby and frame one of the ultrasounds for our room. What is the appropriate way to explain this to a toddler? We have started including our baby’s name in his bedtime prayers for the family but otherwise have not said anything—mainly because he’s at an age where if we started telling him about his “sister in heaven” he would probably repeat parts of it resulting in day care asking us questions that I’m not sure I’m emotionally ready to answer as the loss is still so recent. Is there a right timeframe or way to discuss and remember a loss like this with our son?

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—Grieving Mama

Dear Grieving Mama,

I’m so sorry for your family’s loss. The steps you’ve taken—naming the baby, framing the ultrasound, and including the baby in your family’s prayers—all seem like healthy ways to acknowledge your collective grief. It may seem like a logical next step to talk more about what happened with your toddler, but there’s no rush to explain it in detail just yet. Two and a half is still quite young to fully understand death and loss. Research suggests that some children begin to understand loss at about age 4, with a more specific understanding of the irreversibility of death coming a little later, at 5–7 years old.

In the meantime, continue talking to your husband about the language you’d like to use to discuss the baby you’ve lost. Whether you call her an angel baby, a sister in heaven, or the family member you didn’t get to meet, it will be easier to explain more about her and how it felt to lose her when you’ve given yourself more time to process and when your son is old enough to ask questions and understand your answers.

—Stacia

More Advice From Slate

My husband and I are expecting our first child, and the daycares we’re considering have long waitlists. We’d have an advantage if we joined the church one of them is part of, but we are atheists. To further complicate things, my husband’s parents would like us to baptize our child in their church, which is different from the day care church. We don’t know which, if either, is the right thing to do. What do you think?

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