Care and Feeding

A Child Has Suddenly Come Into My Care

What on earth do I do?

An older woman sitting with her elbows on her knees looking worried
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Victor_69/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,

Through a series of events too long to recount here, we’ve just found out that my husband’s nephew had a son we never knew about. Now this child’s mother has passed away, his father is in jail, and we are the only family available to take the child in.

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My husband and I are childless by choice in our early 60s, and the great-nephew is 10. We’ve never met him and know nothing about what his life has been like, but we can only imagine the stress and trauma he’s dealing with, based on what we’ve learned from the social worker who contacted us. This boy lost his mother at a young age, and his father lived with addiction and has been in and out of prison all his life. When he comes to live with us, he’ll be moving from a low-income neighborhood in Detroit to our suburb in Wisconsin. We are strangers to him. Our family is small, and we don’t have much experience with child development. We’ve bought parenting books, and we’ve set up an appointment with a child psychologist to help him with the grief and anything else he might be feeling.

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This might be too vague a question, but what does a 10-year-old need from guardians? How do we show him he can trust us, and make him feel like he can talk to us? Should we be signing him up for clubs and setting up play dates, or should we let him take the lead with settling into his new life? Any advice for helping this child would be appreciated.

—From Childless to Guardians

Dear From Childless to Guardians,

It may not feel like it, but you’re already taking a lot of solid steps toward helping your great-nephew adjust to a new and unfamiliar environment. Anticipating his possible needs and being willing to adjust to his interests and to his post-move experience are great instincts.

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Once you’ve enrolled him in school, set up a meeting with the counselor as well as his teacher. You will want to make sure they’re looking out for his social and emotional health. As he settles into your home and he is set up with regular therapy, you can talk to him about what interests he has. Would he like to sign up for a sports team? Did he attend church regularly, or would he like to get involved in a youth group? Obviously he has experienced an enormous amount of trauma—talk to the therapist to get a sense of what steps might be right for him as you help him get acclimated to this new life.

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On a very practical level, you might want to talk to friends or relatives who have children of a similar age, or who at least were parents, to get some information. What pediatrician do they recommend? Dentist? What is a good bedtime? How much screen time should a kid have at his age? What sorts of items could you bring into your home that might make him feel comfortable?

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Most important of all, though, children need stability, affirmation, and acceptance. They need to feel welcome and wanted, to know that your care won’t be conditional, that rejection and abandonment aren’t things they need to fear when they’re with you. It sounds like you are on your way to having these crucial bases covered. Your nephew is lucky to have you looking out for him.

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I wish you all well as you embark on this new journey together.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My boyfriend and I have been together for a year and a half now and are in a happy relationship. We just moved in together, and we’ve talked about what we want for the future as far as marriage and kids go. We’d like to date for another three to five years before getting engaged, and I got an IUD a couple months into dating to avoid any oops babies. He’s eight years older than I am. He’s my best friend, and I could see myself really happy starting a family with him.

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Early on he told me he had a “maybe baby” from a one-night stand years ago that he didn’t want (the girl said she was on birth control, he paid for the morning-after pill, etc). I didn’t think much of it then, but last night it came out that it is his baby. The woman took him to court, got paternity testing, etc. They settled it in court with him not having to pay child support or be involved.

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I’m hurt that he didn’t give me the full story sooner, and the whole situation has me feeling pretty bad about our relationship. I don’t like that he has a son out there that he washed his hands of, even if he didn’t want it or it wasn’t his choice. This is my first relationship where I’ve seriously considered marriage, but I don’t know how to feel about the whole thing. Should I mind my business and accept it as part of my boyfriend’s past, or stick by my gut that he should be involved in his child’s life? I don’t want to have kids down the line and not have them know about their half sibling, but I understand as well I can’t control or punish him for his past.

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—Perplexed in Phoenix

Dear Perplexed in Phoenix,

Your gut is definitely telling you something, and you should certainly listen. But your gut’s message isn’t that your boyfriend should be involved in his child’s life. No, your intuition is telling you that the father of your future children will have to be involved with all of his children in order for you to trust and respect him.

The questions of support and involvement have been legally settled by both parents, but you’re still feeling unsettled about them. That’s telling.

Choosing a husband and possible future father of your children is your business. That much is entirely within your control (unlike trying to compel your current boyfriend to be involved with a child he’s already sired).

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This isn’t about punishing your partner for his past or trying to influence his relationship with his oldest child in the future. It’s about what your fuller understanding of the situation has done to erode your confidence in your relationship.

Considering marriage is no small step. And it can be difficult to find yourself disappointed enough with your partner to reconsider. I’m sorry that’s where you are right now. But your letter reads as though you’ve had a wake-up call, and I think you should heed it.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

• If you missed Sunday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

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I’m writing to you as an adult, because I have a question about healing a relationship with my own parents. When I was 14, several other kids and I were physically and emotionally abused by a coach at our school.

I developed some ongoing physical and mental health problems as a result. My parents either didn’t understand or didn’t believe the full extent of it, but either way I was mostly told to do physical therapy and tough it out. When I turned 18, I sought mental health care against my parents’ wishes (they both deeply distrusted it) and was able to make huge strides in living with my health issues.

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After seeing years of change in my life with mental health care, my parents came around on the idea and even helped me pay for medication and encouraged my brother with therapy for his anxiety. Now, I’m in my early 30s and they still feel extremely guilty for all of it—and treat me like I’m made of glass compared to my siblings. They both (especially my mom) seem to fixate on the mistakes they made, and focus on making up for them now. But I just want to let it go, not talk about it, and be treated like my siblings. How do I make this happen?

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—Healthy on My Own Terms

Dear Healthy,

I’m both sorry you experienced trauma at the hand of a trusted adult and heartened that you’ve been able to receive care and counseling that have helped you process what happened in healthy ways. I’m also glad to know that your parents have come around and are trying their best to support you.

Try telling them what you’ve written here. While you’re grateful for their capacity for greater empathy these days, you’ve actually been doing the work of recovery for a lot longer than they have, and the best way for them to support you now would be to honor the strides you’ve made. You need them to live in the present, even as they process the past. You need them to treat your wounds like they’re already healing rather than reopening them, in order to prove to you and to themselves that they understand now how much they initially hurt.

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I hope they’re able to celebrate your hard-won strides with you. I hope they can move past their regrets and catch up with you on your path. I wish you all the best.

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Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have struggled with perfectionism most of my life, despite having wonderful parents. My daughter is 5. When she was about 3, I noticed that she was developing signs of perfectionism, so I assessed my own parenting and realized I would show irritation at her over things that I shouldn’t and would be too hard on her. So I have worked to be less hard on her both in my actions and in my own mind. But I feel like I did irreparable damage. She can’t take any correction, no matter how mild, without telling me she can’t do anything right. She is extremely sensitive to all emotion and tone. She always thinks people are being mean to her. If we don’t tell her she is doing something perfectly, she doesn’t want to keep doing it. I am not sure what to do. I have talked to her a lot about it, told her we love her no matter what, and also tried to show her how I deal with my own lack of perfection. But it doesn’t seem to be helping. It’s really sad. I know how destructive perfectionism can be. Any thoughts?

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—Perfectly Broken

Dear Perfectly Broken,

The good news is that your daughter is still quite young, and bad habits like negative self-talk and defeatism aren’t so ingrained that they can’t be reversed.

Point out, unprompted, when she’s tried something new and not performed the task perfectly. Tell her that trying is brave and not getting it right the first few times just means you’re trying to do something big, something that doesn’t come easily. That’s a big deal and it takes courage. Reassure her that you’re proud of her attempts and not just her more obvious successes. And let her know that sometimes the people who point out that you’re not doing something as well as you could are not being mean but instead trying to help you find ways to do it better. Those might be tough concepts for a 5-year-old, but if you’re consistent about course-correcting, it can be achieved.

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If your daughter is in school, it might be worth finding out whether this behavior is being exhibited there as well. If so, the teacher may have some ideas about what has worked in the classroom. If not, it might give you some further insight into her behavior, knowing that her perfectionism is only on display at home.

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Also, you mentioned that you’ve tried to be less hard on your daughter and that you’ve pointed out ways that you try to address your own perfectionism. Remember that young kids often look to their parents for behavioral cues, so it’s important that your own behavior around perfectionism is consistent. Model going easier on yourself so that your daughter has a daily example of how to do the same.

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As you work on these practices going forward, try not to be too hard on yourself if results aren’t immediately apparent. Correcting bad habits can be a bit trickier than acquiring them, especially when you started identifying them in your daughter two years ago. Wishing you both the best!

—Stacia

For More Parenting Coverage, Listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

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