Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a 17-year-old girl who’s been raised in a super conservative, Christian household. Up until seventh grade (when a teenage neighbor gave me my first pair of skinny jeans), I wore dresses to school almost every day. The only music my family listens to is either Christian or instrumental. I’m the oldest of nine siblings, so my parents have no idea how to handle a teenager (I still get put in timeout when I “talk back.” It sounds funny but it’s really not). I don’t have a phone. For a long time, I was super sheltered and struggled to fit in at school. But sometime in middle school I realized just how nerdy I was and cleaned up my reputation. I changed my music from hymns to Taylor Swift, changed my clothes from dresses to crop tops, and watched the magic happen. My friend group expanded, my teachers didn’t single me out, I was doing great.
Minor detail? I didn’t tell my parents about any of it. Obviously, they noticed the clothes, but I made the conscious decision not to tell them who all my friends were and every detail of my life. I knew they would want to know everything about everyone, and I desperately wanted them to be less involved in my life. I know, I know, I should have just told them to back off a little instead of keeping secrets. When I went to high school, I kept it up. I didn’t mention that I walked home from school with a bunch of guys or that my friends and I did prank calls late at night for fun. (Both of those things would get me into serious trouble.)
And finally—finally!—I’ve met an amazing guy who I really, really like. And we want to get into a relationship. But my parents will never go for it. They don’t even know he exists. And I could keep it a secret, but I’m not staying quiet anymore. They need to know that I’m dating. My problem: If I tell them, they’ll explode. I’m not “allowed” to date until I’m 18, and this would blow their minds. How can I explain to them just how much I’ve changed? I really need this to work. What can I do to explain that my life has changed and I’m dating someone without making them even more overprotective? I’ve lied to them for so long I don’t know what to say to help them understand why I did what I did.
—Lying Through My Teeth
I wish I could tell you that standing up for yourself to your parents would net you the sort of result that you’re looking for—your freedom, their respect—but from what you’ve shared, I’m not terribly confident that you would get that outcome. You should absolutely begin speaking to them about the rules that you are struggling with and make the case to them that you are a responsible young woman who is ready to have a phone and to go on dates. However, if you open up to them about the things that you have been hiding all this time, you will have to deal with whatever their reaction may be, and it very well could be punishment and/or further restriction of your social interactions. Talk to your parents about what you want, but also understand that so long as you are in their care, they are going to have expectations for you that are not the same ones you’d choose for yourself.
Start, if you haven’t, thinking seriously about what life at 18 looks like for you. Will you remain in their home, still forced to contort your behavior according to what they think is best? Will you be off at school? Do you plan to get a job? You have to plan for a life in which you are the one who is in charge of your cellphone use and your social calendar. That doesn’t mean you rush out of their home without a safe place to stay, or that you should move right in with a boyfriend (please don’t!)—it may be the case that you require your parents’ support a bit longer and, thus, must navigate their rules a bit longer. Either way, you should work on having some concept of when that will be, as well as a set of strategies for surviving them in the meantime. That may include continuing to be dishonest about parts of your life. Advocate for yourself, but don’t make yourself a target for their anger and judgment if you don’t have to. Protect your peace and your ability to function as you do now, existing in the world outside their home as the person you truly desire to be. A secret boyfriend will likely make them livid. Start the conversation asking for a first date instead. Wishing you all the best, and a safe journey to freedom.
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From this week’s letter, My 5-Year-Old Stinks and Refuses to Do Anything About It: “Is he just trying to assert his independence?”
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have one niece who is 10 years old, and to say she’s had a difficult path over her lifetime would be a bit of an understatement. She was the product of an unwanted pregnancy, and when she was an infant, her parents (one of whom is my brother) violently argued constantly, screamed at her when she cried, and then pushed her onto my parents to raise for the first six years. Then my brother took primary custody and had a carousel of women flitting in and out of her life. She’s a smart, cool kid but she has no stability, she’s super shy. I have been pressuring my brother to take her to therapy for years, but he refuses. Now it looks like he’ll be getting divorced soon. I have no rights here, obviously, but I want to at least make sure she doesn’t end up depressed like I was as a preteen. How can I create a safe space for her to open up about her feelings even though I don’t see her often and we’re in a pandemic?
—Not So Safe and Sound
Dear Not So Safe,
The best thing you can do for your niece, in addition to continuing to lobby your brother to put her in therapy, is to make yourself available as a safe, stable person to talk to on a regular basis. Schedule regular phone dates, maybe twice a month to begin with. Check in on her outside of those times. Send meaningful gifts, like a journal with a handwritten note from you encouraging her to record her feelings, and books chosen with her in mind. When you speak to her, establish interest in being someone she feels comfortable talking to about anything going on in her life. Acknowledge her challenges without listing them out, and let her know that you care, that you’re there, and that there’s nothing she has done or could have done to cause any of what she’s had to contend with. Be consistent with your contact, even if it takes her some time before she gets comfortable opening up to you. Good luck to you both.
Catch Up on Care and Feeding
Dear Care and Feeding,
My 10-year-old stepdaughter has an issue with rubbing herself too much. My partner says she has been rubbing herself on cuddly toys since she was a toddler. I know this is pretty normal, and we have had age-appropriate chats about keeping it private, maybe a bit of a bedtime thing before sleep (she has told me it helps her relax). She mostly now rocks back and forth on her heel, but I have walked into rooms and found her rubbing herself on corners of furniture and on cushions, a few times a day.
There are a few things I am worried about. The amount she does it: I have found her doing it watching TV, while she is supposed to be doing her homework, while she talks to her friends on FaceTime and especially when playing games on her iPad. She does it so much that she has rubbed the tops of her feet, knees, and elbows raw; she complains that her knees and feet are sore and has told me and her grandma that her vulva is sore. I have also seen her rubbing herself in front of her friends on her foot and on furniture. She has said she doesn’t know she is doing it and can’t help it.
Now the kids are getting older, they are more likely to understand what she is doing. She is about to go away on her first overnight school trip, and I am worried she will do it in front of her classmates and be “the weird kid that rubs herself.” I am trying to encourage privacy and to help her stop doing it so much that she hurts herself, without shaming her and giving her a masturbation/sex complex that she takes into her teens/adulthood. Am I getting too worked up about this? If not, how can I help without shame?
—Ashamed About Shaming
Dear Ashamed About Shaming,
I assure you you aren’t getting too worked up about this. Your stepdaughter is masturbating, at times to the point of physical pain, in view of friends and family members on a regular basis. She’s not a toddler—she’s old enough to know the actual name for what she is doing and the potential ramifications for doing it publicly, as well as why it is inappropriate for her to do it anytime, anyplace. It is imperative that she understands that masturbation—which is not bad or shameful! —is a private activity and that making it public violates the safety and comfort of other people. Be very clear with her about that before she goes on this trip. The fact that she’s not merely doing it unconsciously, but to the point where she’s rubbing multiple body parts raw, would be reason enough for me to suggest that you talk to your husband about getting her into therapy. What is it that she’s coping with that is making her constantly need a self-soothing technique? This is not an awkward habit that is working out for her—she’s harming herself and that needs to come to an end as soon as possible. Again, masturbating is a normal, healthy thing for a girl her age, but what you are describing is much more complicated, and I hope you are able to get your husband on board to do something ASAP. Good luck to you all.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am embarrassed to admit that my husband and I might not be the best dog owners. We have a 12-year-old Chorkie (Chihuahua-Yorkie mix) named Clementine who we absolutely adore. However, we haven’t taken her to the vet since we had kids, four years ago. The last time we took her to the vet, they said she might need to have all/most of her teeth pulled out, and it sounded like a frightening/extreme scenario, and we went to get a second opinion … except we never got a second opinion and just carried on as if nothing was going on. Now, four years later, I am getting very concerned about her health in general (nothing is wrong with her, I just know she is getting old and I want to make sure she is healthy), but my husband is worried that if we take her to a vet, they will scold us and say we’re bad pet owners because of her teeth. To be fair, she has definitely lost several teeth over the years, but I thought that was normal for dogs to lose teeth like humans. Will a veterinarian be upset with us for not taking our pup to the doc for these last four years? If so, how can I make it right, other than of course taking her for the regular recommended checkups in the future?
—Fraidy Cat Dog Owner
Dear Fraidy Cat Dog Owner,
Like humans, dogs lose a set of “baby” teeth early on, and like humans, when an adult dog loses teeth, it’s a sign of a problem. Stop worrying about what some stranger is going to think, and do what’s right for Clementine. I’m sure your vet will have met a number of clients who haven’t kept up with their pup’s recommended yearly checkups, and that they’ll be more interested in seeing what, if anything, is up with Clementine (in addition to the overdue dental work) and getting you back on track with your pet care. Don’t wait until she’s showing you signs of pain to get her to a doctor—not when you’ll have to admit to yourself that your hesitation was largely about being shamed for not doing it sooner. The clock is ticking. You don’t have a young dog anymore. Don’t find yourself in a heartbreaking situation if you don’t have to. And remember, you took responsibility for your dog’s life when you took her in as part of your family, so you owe it to her to make sure that her needs are met to the best of your ability. Much luck to you and to Clementine.