Dear Care and Feeding,
Our 13-year-old daughter “Joy” attends a private, nonsectarian K-12 school. Most of her classmates are on the wealthier side; they have access to psychiatry services and can receive diagnoses without systemic obstacles (I would say about 40-50 percent of her friends have received a mental health diagnosis). Joy herself does not have any mental health diagnoses, but has been running into a very particular sort of issue over the past 2-3 years. About once every other month or so, one of her friends will act in a frustrating way—spreading gossip, not communicating for days on end, ghosting on a hangout invitation, etc.—and blame it on their mental health. Think: “My depression got bad, sorry I didn’t text.” Joy has had a hard time navigating this—especially when she’s putting in considerable effort to show up for her friends and include them in things, only to not receive support when she reaches out for help.
I’ve tried to help her understand how to walk the fine line of respecting the impact mental health has on the way people show up, while also not letting herself be treated like a doormat by friends who continually flake. But to tell you the truth, I don’t necessarily understand this fine line myself. In my opinion, a diagnosis is helpful in that it can increase one’s self-understanding and ability to successfully navigate the world, but it doesn’t exist to excuse away bad behavior. Do you have any thoughts on how to help my daughter navigate this? Am I holding her friends to an unreasonable standard? What ideas or suggestions do you have for how to be empathetic but also expect respect from others?
—Mom in Massachusetts
As a person who is currently diagnosed with clinical depression and someone who has plenty of friends with the same diagnosis, I’ll say that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” way to handle a person who suffers from this illness.
In the interest of full disclosure, due to my depression I’ve been known to flake on people, not return their texts/calls, and be completely aloof, and it has cost me many friends over the years. One thing I’ve realized as I navigate this mental minefield is my behavior is my responsibility, and I can’t expect people to allow me to treat them in a certain way without repercussions. I’ll also say that it takes a special person to effectively have a relationship/friendship with someone with depression, because it requires a ton of patience and empathy.
That said, it really comes down to how important these friends are to your daughter. In my case, many of my friendly acquaintances dropped by the wayside because they didn’t care enough about me to deal with my “baggage.” In other cases, my best friends are the ones who completely understand me and know that a depressive episode could come at any time and they will allow me the space and grace I need. If your daughter doesn’t feel that the juice is worth the squeeze, then maybe she should look for a new circle of friends. If she does value them, then she should move on to the next step.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with her setting boundaries or letting her friends know how bad it makes her feel when she gets ghosted. I think I’m more qualified than most to say that a diagnosis of clinical depression is not an excuse to treat people poorly, and I respect when people I care about call me out on that. She can say something along the lines of, “I’m sorry that you’re having a rough time, but I really look forward to hearing from you or seeing you and it hurts my feelings when you don’t follow through. I’m here to support you in any way, but I think we may need to take a break if this continues.” Your daughter shouldn’t sacrifice her mental health for someone else, just like I wouldn’t expect anyone to do the same for me. If her friends’ relationships are important to them, they will do whatever it takes to get their minds right.
In the meantime, she should do more research on what it’s truly like to be a friend to someone with depression and understand that she shouldn’t take any of this personally. I shared my personal experiences, but this article also has some good tips. Remember, one of the few times it’s actually acceptable to break out the “it’s not you, it’s me” line, it’s from someone with this illness.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I am concerned about my grown daughter’s relationship with her teenage mentor. My daughter, “Kendall,” is 23 and an artist. She has become well-known in our area’s queer art scene, and has had the opportunity to lead a number of classes and workshops. That’s where she met “Anna,” who is 15 and a budding artist herself. Kendall and Anna got along well from the start and Kendall ended up taking Anna under her wing as a mentor. If it stopped there, I would have no problem with the relationship. However, it seems like there’s more going on beyond a professional mentor-mentee relationship, and I’m concerned that my daughter may be acting inappropriately with Anna. My other daughter, “Mackenzie,” said that Kendall has a private Instagram (a “finsta,” as she calls it), and all of the pictures she’s been posting lately are of her and Anna together, photos of just Anna, or drawings/paintings of Anna. Mackenzie showed me images of Kendall kissing Anna on the cheek, Kendall and Anna holding hands, among others of a similarly close nature.
Mackenzie agrees with me that something seems suspicious about this “mentorship”, and we ended up deciding to ask Kendall about it together. That did not go well. Kendall insisted that she and Anna are not in a romantic or sexual relationship, and that as white cishet women, we have no business policing the interactions of queer women. Although we specifically stated that we were worried because of Anna’s age and the power dynamic, Kendall accused us of homophobia and internalized misogyny. She also claimed that as artists, they’re just more emotionally expressive than other people. This might be my privilege speaking, but I don’t find her argument convincing and I don’t think her identity justifies these intimate interactions with a minor. Anna is a kid and the idea that Kendall might be taking advantage of her kills me inside. Am I justified in being worried about this? If so, is there any way that I can intervene?
Dear Mentor Mixup,
You absolutely should be disturbed about this mentor relationship, and there are plenty of red flags that justify your concerns. As a straight man, I know some people may take issue with me judging the actions of a queer woman, but I’m going to do it anyway. There is no excuse for an adult of any sexual orientation cuddling with a child outside of their family, engaging in hand holding, or even cheek kissing. Not to mention—as you note—the power dynamic at play here. Everything you describe is super weird to me at best and abusive at worst. Your other daughter feels concerned as well (and she understands that generation better than either of us), so you know something is up.
Try to probe her on all of the secrecy. If everything is aboveboard, then I would tell your daughter that everything needs to be out in the open, which means no more private Instagram accounts. I also wouldn’t let Kendall try to gaslight you into believing you’re some sort of a bigot for stepping in on this relationship. Mentors don’t behave the way she’s behaving toward her mentee. I would insist that any and all physicality needs to stop now. In the event that she chooses not to stop, then I would tell her that the next step is approaching Anna’s parents about this.
I understand this sounds way easier than it is, but abuse is serious, and you have to take actions now to protect Anna and your daughter. Kendall will probably be extremely upset with you, but it’s certainly better than any repercussions that can result from her current actions.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My son’s teacher, “Ms. Washington”, recently sent an email to the parents announcing that she would be starting maternity leave soon, and another teacher would take over. However, the new teacher is my ex.
In college, I dated a girl who we’ll call “Amy.” It started out really well, but over time it devolved into a really toxic relationship, and the breakup was rough. Eventually I met my current partner, had our kids, and we’re now very happy.
A few years ago, one of my friends had mentioned that Amy was now working for the school district, but I didn’t make much of it because I didn’t know the details and it’s a large district. Of course, it just so happens that Amy is the teacher that was chosen to replace Ms. Washington during her maternity leave, and now I’m worried about how to deal with this situation. It’s painful to look back at that relationship, and my surname is rare enough that Amy will probably connect the dots. I don’t even want to think about what parent-teacher conferences might look like. I’m honestly considering asking for my son to be moved to a different classroom, or to have another teacher grade his work. Because of our past, I’m concerned there could be a conflict of interest in Amy working with my son, and I would be more comfortable with someone else. That being said, I could be overreacting or asking too much, and I’m worried that if I take my son out of his class, it could hurt his friendships. What should I do about my ex teaching my son?
Dear Teacher Troubles,
I don’t have a way of gauging just how “toxic” your relationship with Amy was, but I would like to believe that as a licensed professional, she would treat your son with kindness and respect. I also believe some perspective is needed here, because this relationship was long enough ago that you have a school-aged child with someone else. Don’t you think it’s a little self-centered to believe she hasn’t moved on as well? Time is one of the most effective healers in the universe, so your past relationship may not even be on her radar these days.
It seems like you’re getting ahead of yourself here. Why not just wait and see how things go before you uproot your child from his friends and other classmates? Again, this woman is a professional. Do you think she’s going to risk her livelihood to spite you and your kid? Plus, this is a temporary arrangement, not something long-term.
I’m not saying that it won’t be uncomfortable, but you’re making this about you instead of your son. I highly recommend that you keep things the way they are, and I have a good feeling you’ll be pleasantly surprised. If I happen to be wrong, then you can take the requisite action then. Maybe I’m placing too much faith in humanity, but I cannot see her acting like a vengeful woman from a Lifetime movie towards your son.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Our 8-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son are fortunate enough to have both sets of grandparents living nearby. In fact, they have dinner with each set at least once per week, The problem is that my husband and I come from rather different backgrounds and our parents have some vastly different table expectations. His parents are fun, informal and a bit wild at the table. Dinners include sharing napkins, picking up non-finger food, loud jokes, and the occasional belching contest. My parents are all about sitting quietly with a cloth napkin on your lap and using the correct fork. It’s a bit like dinner at Rosanne’s house versus dinner with the Gilmore grandparents. At one table if the kids need the salt, they must say, “please pass the salt” or face a gentle reprimand for reaching; in the other household, “please pass the salt” is met with laughter and the suggestion that “if your little arms can reach it, get it yourself.” All of this is very confusing to the kids. Our daughter has difficulty pivoting and our son now claims to not enjoy my parents’ house because it is boring. And it well may be. Both my husband and I feel caught in the middle, and I strongly suspect that each set of grandparents is pushing their own table agenda a little too hard. To be fair, my husband grew-up as one of nine kids and family meals were a time of bonding, fighting, and togetherness. Meanwhile, in my family meals were a way of teaching etiquette and upholding traditions. My parents are also over a decade older than his. At home without the older generations, we meet in the middle. While we expect the kids to use forks and napkins and not reach across the table, we do open space for jokes and fun conversation. But twice per week, there are extremes. How do we navigate this? I want our kids to be close with both sets of grandparents, but this is ridiculous.
—Conner vs. Gilmore
Dear Conner vs. Gilmore,
This is the rule of thumb I would use: How would you want your kids to behave at a restaurant? Or at a dinner with other families? Would you be cool with them belching and acting wild in those scenarios? If not, then you need to ensure they act accordingly.
Listen, I’m not saying that your kids should behave as if they spent hours in etiquette school, but I think a happy medium is fine. In order to arrive there, your husband needs to have a talk with his parents about their table manners and tell them to dial it down a bit. If they scoff or laugh at him, he should reply by saying, “Do you want your grandkids to act like this in public? They look to you for guidance. There are ways to be fun at the table without getting too crazy.” If they are of sound mind, they should fall in line.
In the event that their behavior continues, you might try cutting back the weekly dinners and find another weekly way to bond with them like reading, playing outdoors, watching movies, etc.
Sometimes grandparents overstep their boundaries and it’s up to the parents to bring them back down to earth. I’d like to believe if time with their precious grandkids is on the line, they’ll do whatever it takes to ensure they’re able to spend as much time with them as possible. You should also have the same conversation with your parents to ensure your kids aren’t expected to behave like emotionally-distant cyborgs at mealtime. Most importantly, you need to tell your kids what is and isn’t acceptable manners at dinnertime and ensure they follow them regardless of what outside influences believe.
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