Care and Feeding

My Daughter Was Invited to Eavesdrop on Her Friend’s Therapy Session

A tween girl listens on the 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 12-year-old daughter’s friend “Maya” was complaining to her about how much she disliked going to therapy and how she disliked her therapist. After my daughter told her that she hadn’t liked therapy either when she “had to go,” Maya did something questionable. I saw it happening, though I didn’t understand what was going on at first. My daughter was on the phone with Maya, looking very intent as she listened—she wasn’t speaking at all. Then suddenly she muted the phone and told me: “Maya’s in a therapy session right now. She called me during it so I can listen, so I can hear for myself how bad it is.” I’m pretty sure I looked surprised and said something like, “Oh, my. Yeah, that’s supposed to be confidential. I sort of wish I didn’t know that.” My child clearly already knew this was somewhat sketchy behavior, and she abruptly ended the call. (It was only after this that she offered the backstory of their previous conversations—including Maya’s request that she listen in.)

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My daughter has assured me that she won’t participate in invited eavesdropping again, and I’m confident she’ll say no if asked. Do I have a duty to inform Maya’s parents (or take some other action)? I think the kids have some right to share what they want to share with each other, and the therapist is the one who is not supposed to break confidentiality. But I’m sure Maya’s parents would like to know that this happened. If I tell them, my child will feel like I broke her trust and might be less likely to tell me things in the future. And Maya may feel that my child broke trust with her, by telling me. I would like to do nothing more. Can I do nothing more?

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—Doing Nothing in the Mid-Atlantic

Dear DNitMA,

You not only can do nothing more, you should do nothing more. It is not your place to discuss this with Maya’s parents. If a friend of your child’s is engaged in dangerous behavior, intervening to help keep her safe—even if it means betraying your own child’s trust, and being responsible for a rift between the children when the friend learns that her trust has been violated—may be in order. (I say “may” because there are circumstances—when the parents themselves may be a danger to the child—when relaying confidential information to a struggling child’s parents will do harm, not good.) But Maya’s letting her friend listen in on a therapy session does not constitute a danger to her—it only demonstrates immature judgment (and the girls are 12, so expecting consistent maturity is a losing proposition). If your daughter is up for it, she might urge Maya to speak frankly to her parents about how she feels about the therapist. While refusing to see a therapist is going to be a nonstarter (surely there is a reason her parents have gone down this path), requesting a different therapist, if this one is not a good fit, is not beyond reason. You might also consider suggesting to your daughter that she offer Maya this advice: why not talk to the therapist about how much she hates therapy?

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If your child isn’t interested in doing any of this, let it go. And for good measure, even though she’s promised you she won’t be party to this childishness again, remind her that she always has the option of saying no to friends who ask her to do anything she doesn’t want to do, and anything that feels even vaguely “sketchy” to her. And that if she says yes to something and then, in the midst of it, begins to wish she had said no, it’s never too late to do so.

Slate Plus Members Get More Advice from Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, Our Kids Are Furious With Us Over How We Paid for College: “I don’t think we need to apologize for our choices, but I also feel like “tough love” hasn’t helped the kids work this out.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am the mother of three beautiful, intelligent and accomplished adult children, two daughters and one son. As children and teens, they were always close, sharing similar interests and friends. The girls (the eldest and youngest of the three kids) always struggled a bit with each other: they have very different personalities, for one thing, and there’s a four-year age difference between them; my younger daughter might also have been somewhat jealous of her big sister. When there were conflicts, the elder sister tended to give in, to keep the peace.

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Now they are both in their 30s, and I am heartbroken and at a loss as to how to handle what’s going on between them. The younger sister has lived thousands of miles from the family for over 15 years; whenever she visits, she stays with her sister. Each time, they both genuinely seem to look forward to the visit—but it has never gone well, always ending in an argument and bad feelings on both sides. The most recent visit, however, REALLY did not end well. Big Sister was tired of always giving in; they both said horrible, hurtful things to each other; and now they are not speaking to each other. Neither will apologize.

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I have listened to both sides and have endured endless discussions of the situation. I have tried to remain neutral. It has now been six months since the visit. Both are still furious; each has declared she will never speak to the other again. I am afraid this will happen, even though each has also expressed her grief over not having a sister any longer. They are missing out on the joy that is part of an adult sibling relationship! And while I think they recognize that, I am not sure they fully grasp how much they will regret not fixing this before it’s too late. I cannot fix it for them and I am afraid I will never see this happen in my lifetime. I do not want not be an intrusive, preaching mom. I know I cannot take sides in this battle. How can I help them resolve this?

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—Heartbroken on the Sidelines

Dear Heartbroken,

You can start to help—indeed, it is the only “help” you can or should provide—by refusing to listen to them on this subject. If either of your daughters brings up the other, wanting to vent yet again, determined to relitigate their battle in the court of Mom (once again hoping you will pronounce the judgment in her favor), say, “I love you very much, but I’m not going to talk about this with you. If you want to talk about it, call your sister.” If this is met with outrage, or even just a reminder that that’s the point, she isn’t talking to her sister, feel free to say, “Oh, that’s a pity” and change the subject. If either of them tells you how sad they are about not being in touch with the other, say, “Yes, that’s very sad.”

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This is all, Mom. Nothing else. I know you’re sad about what’s going on, but it has nothing to do with you. And it sounds like it’s been brewing for a long time—maybe even since early childhood. They will have to work it out. (Or they won’t. It is absolutely not true that joy is part of every adult sibling relationship.) I know it breaks your heart to imagine that two of your children will remain estranged, but your heart is beside the point here. These two women will either figure out how to make their relationship work or figure out how to live without each other.

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If it makes you feel any better, my money is not on a permanent freeze between them. If despite a history of conflict, every single time your youngest child has visited her hometown, she chose to stay with her big sister—and every single time her little sister was due for a visit, Big Sister invited her yet again to stay—my guess is that these two have a complicated relationship that means a great deal to both of them. They may be more comfortable fighting than not fighting, but I don’t think they are going to stop speaking forever. They seem to need each other to yell at.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Our dear dog Rosie passed away after a long, happy life in our family. It has been difficult for all of us, but our 9-year-old son, Leo, has been taking it particularly hard. Rosie had been with him for his whole life and they were truly best friends, practically siblings as far as Leo was concerned. This loss has left him heartbroken, and my husband and I are doing our best to comfort him. We’re struggling with something odd, though. Rosie slept most nights in Leo’s bed with him, and Leo will not let us wash the blanket he sleeps under because “it smells like Rosie.” I’m glad he feels comforted by his blanket, but it’s dirty and needs washing! I worry that Leo will never want us to wash it. My husband suggested that we buy a new blanket for Leo to use in bed—one he won’t mind our washing regularly—so he can keep his “Rosie” blanket and just hug it whenever he wants to feel connected to her. Is this a good idea? Should we buy Leo another blanket, or try to convince him to let us wash the one he already has?

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—Rosie Scented

Dear RS,

I’m sorry to hear about Rosie’s death. You don’t mention how long it’s been, so let me begin by saying that if it’s been a matter of weeks, not months, I would let this go for now. It won’t hurt Leo to sleep under a blanket that is not perfectly clean, and if it makes him feel better during this first, sharpest period of grief, it’s not unreasonable for you to put his comfort over hygiene.

But not forever. At some point, you will have to wash Leo’s blanket (smelling of dog or not). I suspect you have a lower tolerance for everyday household dirt than I do—I don’t wash our blankets nearly as often as I wash our sheets, for example, but I also decided long ago that “clean house” was the lowest item on my long priority list—so I can’t say how long it’s OK to wait until you wash it (when you just can’t take it anymore?). But before you wrest Leo’s blanket from him, I would have a series of conversations with him about how hard and sad it is to lose someone we love. You say you’ve been doing the best you can to comfort him, but have you let him be sad? Have you let yourself be sad with him? The best form of comfort for children can be to encourage them to express their feelings, even (especially) the hardest ones, and to share with them our own grief and struggles. You can tell him, too, that you understand how much he wants to hang on to Rosie in any way he can, and talk about the many ways he (and you) can do that—by thinking and talking about her, remembering her in private, looking at photos of her—but it is also time to let Leo know that death is a part of a life. Books can help. I’ve only just discovered Anastasia Higginbotham’s Death is Stupid, which was published last year—I’m thinking it might be useful to read it with Leo.

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And then you have to tell him (gently) that his blanket needs washing. I think your husband, while clearly well-intentioned, would be doing Leo a disservice by not helping him move on from his attachment to the smelly blanket. It’s part of our job as parents—and for me it was always the hardest part—to help our children work through the awful stuff, even when working through it causes them pain (and pains us terribly to see). Buying him a new blanket and letting him keep the dirty one to hug for comfort doesn’t move him forward, which is what you need to do for Leo, slowly and with love.

Speaking of moving forward: I know everyone’s timeline in these matters is different, so I am not urging you to act more quickly than feels right to you, but adopting another dog would go a long way toward this. It would be hypocritical of me to rush you, as it took me four years after the death of my elderly, beloved Molly before I felt ready to bring home another rescue puppy … but once I did, I couldn’t believe I had waited so long. (And yet here I am, six months after losing her, and I know I’m not ready to start over again.) When you feel ready—and Leo feels ready to open his heart to another dog (please don’t surprise him with a puppy for Christmas! Talk it over first)—it will make all the difference in the world, I promise.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two sons, Noah (8) and Josh (10). The other day, a beautiful heirloom vase that has been passed down in my family broke. My partner and I were both at home, but we were working in other rooms; the boys were in the room with the vase. They know they’re expected to be careful around delicate objects, but they ARE kids. I heard the vase shatter, so I got up to investigate, saw the broken vase, and asked the boys what had happened. Noah said that Josh was throwing a ball around and hit the vase with it. Josh maintained that he was drawing and had nothing to do with it, and Noah was running around and ended up knocking it over. I ended up siding with Noah, because his tone sounded more convincing and Josh had a ball near him. Josh was grounded and we revoked his TV and iPad privileges for the week. Josh was very upset, and over the first few days after that I heard him crying in his room multiple times; when I checked on him, he told me to go away. He was unwilling to talk to me or even look at me. Then, midweek, Noah went to my partner sobbing and admitted that he was the one who had broken the vase, and that he had blamed Josh because he didn’t want to get in trouble. He said he felt bad that Josh was so distraught. Noah also said he was sorry for what he had done. So I told Josh that he wasn’t in trouble anymore, that I had made a mistake. But he’s still distant and sad. I want to make it up to him and communicate that I love and trust him. How can I show him how sorry I am for punishing him for something he didn’t do?

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—Vased and Confused

Dear Vased,

The only way to communicate to your son that you love and trust him is to actually love and trust him (I’m willing to believe the former is true; I have my doubts about the latter, and so I bet he does too). You can talk till you are blue in the face about how you made a mistake, but unless you own up—to both him and yourself—to how big a mistake it was, you’re not going to get anywhere (plus, it’ll happen again). Why would you have “decided” to blame your older son when both children insisted they weren’t responsible? Why would you “side” (your own word!) with Noah? How can you possibly make such a judgment based on “tone” (and circumstantial evidence)? I understand that you were upset about the broken vase, and I will spare you a lecture on the foolishness of leaving delicate objects around and expecting children to be sufficiently careful that none of them break—and then being so angry when one does break that you cannot think clearly (hmm, see what I did there?). But there is nothing unreasonable about Josh’s reaction to your overreaction and rush to judgment. It’s going to take time to regain his trust, and words alone won’t do it. But words will help—if you find the right words. Instead of “I made a mistake” plus a blanket “I’m sorry,” try something more heartfelt, and something that speaks directly to the source of his sorrow over this. “It was wrong of me not to believe you when you told me the truth. It was wrong of me to think I could figure out who was lying. It was wrong of me to believe your little brother over you. In the future, if I don’t know something for sure, I won’t pretend I do.” You might add: “Parents like to think they’re always right about things, but that’s not always true. I’ll try to remember that from now on.”

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Owning up to your failure will go a lot farther than doing something to “make it up to him.” Please don’t buy him something to ease the pain (I know you didn’t say you were going to, but I thought I’d head you off at the pass, just in case). Please do proceed more cautiously in the future.

And please put the fragile doodads away until the kids are grown. You’re just asking for trouble.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

I work in a day care where I observed teachers teasing and laughing at a 16-month-old little boy because he only wants to wear a diaper. He takes off all of the rest of his clothes and, I was told, “He’s always done this.” Apparently, the behavior stopped for a while, but now has reappeared. Last week, he was taken from the young toddlers’ room, placed with the infants, and told he had to stay with the babies unless he kept his clothes on. I am very concerned about humiliating a child in this way. What to do?

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