Care and Feeding

My Daughter Is Obsessed With Her Weird Friends and It’s Freaking Me Out

She refuses to hang out with anyone else.

Three girls sit on a dock with the girls on the left and right making a heart with their hands
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 14-year-old “Lea” has attended the same summer camp for the past four years. It’s an overnight, monthlong program tied to our religious minority group and has a strong reputation in our community. We feel very fortunate that Lea loves camp so much—it’s made her more confident socially, helped develop her independence, and given her a slew of friends across the country.

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However, we’re running into a very specific issue: Lea has started using “camp friends” as an excuse to basically be a hermit the rest of the year. She refuses to participate in local extracurriculars because she “doesn’t like the people” and spends hours online or on her phone every day engaging with her camp friends. She and the camp girls have sayings like “spend 11 months waiting for 1” (which I’ve interpreted to mean they spend the whole rest of the year waiting for their month at camp). Every vacation from school is spent at a reunion with camp friends elsewhere in the state.

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Technically, we can afford to fly her off to a reunion three times a year and give her a month at camp. But I’m not sure about the social ramifications. Inevitably, something will happen socially at camp that disrupts this utopian status quo—I feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, because these are teens and social dynamics are fickle—and I also worry that our daughter not investing in year-round social opportunities is robbing her of a chance to engage with kids who are not in our religious group. Lastly, I am concerned that she’s just not well rounded—a kid who does no sports, clubs, or other pursuits outside of school and camp will likely not fare well on college apps. Is this actually a problem? If so, what should we do about it?

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—Camped Out

Dear Camped Out,

Is there a problem? Yes and no, in my opinion. While I do think you need to intervene to ensure that your daughter has more frequent healthy social interaction with her peers—for the sake of her wellness and her college application alike—I don’t think you should overly concern yourself with the bond she’s forged with her camp friends. These very well may be lifetime friendships, and she is lucky to have a group of people with whom she feels so connected. What you need to impress upon her, of course, is that these are not the only people on earth with whom she can find that sort of kinship. Instead of cutting off her reunions and virtual chats, create some requirements for her with regard to participating in activities with kids locally. Allow her to choose, even if that means selecting the extracurricular that she’d hate the least, and mandate that she participate in order to continue visiting her camp buddies. Explain to her your concerns, patiently and without judgment. There’s nothing wrong with the friends that she already has; however, it’s not healthy for someone her age to only be in community with kids who live elsewhere in the country. Furthermore, as you note, it’s important that she learns to interact with and befriend people who don’t belong to her religious group, as she will likely have to engage with them intimately throughout the rest of her life. Talk about the importance of a balanced college application and, again, let her time visiting her away friends be contingent upon her meeting your expectations for local social engagement. Good luck to you.

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From this week’s letter, I’m Tired of Being My Kid’s Clown: “I really cannot do that silly thing five more times.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a situation I’m totally unsure how to handle. My husband and I have been married for a few years, together around six years. He has a child from a one-night stand who’s 9. He pays child support (actually pays more than double what’s required), but does not have any other active participation in his son’s life and never has. There was a DNA test done, so we know it’s his child. (This was a situation where he was told birth control was being used, but that seems doubtful now—it seems there’s a habit of birth control failure with this woman. She has three kids with three different fathers, all of whom were one-night stands, but that’s another story for another day.) We send gifts for all holidays and his birthday. We have a college fund for him that we started about three years ago. I know we could do more, but attempts were always met with extreme frostiness and we just kind of let things go that route. We live on opposite coasts from this child and his mom.

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We are now wanting to start a family. I want to be sensitive to the fact that this will likely cause a lot of feelings for both this woman and the child. How the hell do we navigate this? I’m concerned that she’ll lash out at my husband and me. I’m concerned the child might be particularly hurt if the mom wishes to leverage that as evidence his dad is evil or something (she’s the type to air all her grievances and thinly veiled accusations on Facebook and TikTok). I want to try to be prepared for and respectful of and sensitive to his child and the mother of said child if any big emotions come up. I also don’t want this to cast a cloud over our own family plans. I’m already stressed that I won’t be allowed to be happy about it, which I realize sounds selfish. Help!

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—Not-Quite-Stepmom

Dear Not-Quite-Stepmom,

As we all know, pregnancy can be a consequence of sex, and ultimately the decision of whether it will be carried to term lies in the hands of the person who is pregnant. It’s time to move entirely forward from focusing on the origin story of this child, as well as that of his siblings. This woman exercised her right to have your now-husband’s child and, faced with that information, he chose to participate only monetarily. Since making that choice, your man has lived with the reality that one day, this child will come looking for him and asking why he chose not to play an active role in his life. With or without the birth of subsequent children, your husband’s son is likely to feel hurt, disappointed, and rejected by the absence of his dad. Surely you know that a college fund or birthday presents won’t do much to change that. Perhaps one day, when he is much older, your husband will get an opportunity to share his side of the story with this young man, but regardless of how logical or even fair his decision may have seemed to him based on his lack of a relationship to his mother, it is ultimately the story of a child being rejected by his parent. These are truly shitty circumstances, and while I am empathetic to the idea of being forced into fatherhood, again, when we have sex, we are aware that pregnancy can happen—even if someone claims to be on birth control.

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With that said, there is little that you can do to prevent this woman from reacting however she sees fit to the news that your husband, who opted out of the work of fathering their child together, has decided to now become a parent. I am not saying that to suggest that she’d be justified in lashing out; however, it sounds as though it was not her choice or preference for your husband to leave her to do the hands-on work of parenting with only financial support to aid her. She very well may be hurt, on behalf of herself and her child, at learning this news, and while her own decisions may have led you all to this point, again, the headline here is that your husband has knowingly chosen to have a child in the world who doesn’t know him. Perhaps it is time to reconsider that decision; if this woman is the type to publicly air him out, then it stands to reason that her child, too, will be aware at some point that there is a father making the active decision to remain outside of his life. Can your husband live with this? Can you?

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You can be as sensitive as possible with regard to the birth announcement, however that may look (I can’t for the life of me understand why either of you would be social media friends with this woman, so I’m assuming she’ll either hear it on the grapevine or that she checks your pages—another hint that there is discontent with the current arrangement). But that isn’t going to prevent her from lashing out publicly. Instead of focusing on how she’ll react to news of your new child, I think you and your husband both should have some serious contemplation about why he isn’t in this kid’s life on some level and to decide if that’s really the right thing to do. Not liking or being partnered with a child’s mom does not allow one to abdicate fatherly responsibility; clearly, he agrees, or he wouldn’t be paying child support or sending gifts. I’m curious as to why he thinks it’s necessary to pay double what the state would require of him, yet thinks it’s also fine to be completely absent from this boy’s life. You two have some serious thinking to do, and I wish you all the best in sorting things out.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a daughter who was sexually assaulted as a freshman in high school by her then-boyfriend. She ended things with him shortly thereafter, and he switched schools. They are seniors now, and I recently discovered they might be attending the same large university. I don’t know if there is anything I can do to make sure they do not end up in the same form. Do I tell her and have her anxiety kick up because of it? Do I hope they never run into each other?

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—Anxious and Angry Mama

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Dear Anxious Mama,

I am so sorry that your daughter—and you—are going through this. Have you two had any therapy since the incident? I strongly urge you both to speak to a professional about the complicated feelings an event like this causes, and for some insight into healthy coping mechanisms. This is especially urgent for your daughter as she prepares for college, whether she’ll be living on campus or staying at home.

While she is aware that she could run into this person potentially anywhere, I don’t think you should let her be blindsided (if she indeed doesn’t already know about this) by the possibility that they might be students at the same college. Allow her to process this information now, so that she can prepare herself. Her anxiety may be triggered (another reason therapy is so critical), but imagine how she’d feel bumping into him walking to her dorm building, or in a class together. It’s better that she knows, sooner rather than later.

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I’m not sure if you all are in the U.S. (the term “form” made me wonder), but if you are, the university should have a Title IX coordinator responsible for dealing with issues related to sexual assault and harassment. While I don’t believe they would have jurisdiction over anything that took place off campus or before your daughter matriculates, you and she should familiarize yourselves with the resources and interventions they can provide going forward. At the very least, they may be able to help connect you with the university’s counseling services. Wishing the both of you the absolute best as you continue to heal.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My cousin and I are close in age and see each other for family holidays, but we’ve never had anything in common or particularly liked each other. A friend of mine hosts several, um, very intimate parties each year and I usually attend. I guess my cousin found out about them through a friend and talked to the organizer, who very thankfully realized we might be related and rejected him—but he told my cousin it’s because I would be there! How do I survive every family holiday from now until death besides faking grievous injury or illness?

—Christmas Is Canceled in Camden

Dear Christmas Is Canceled,

Christmas is not canceled. Yes, it’s awkward that your cousin can now infer something very personal about your sex life. However, consider that he went out of his way to inquire about attending such a gathering and may well have done so had you not been a guest—your knowledge of each other is the same. (It would have been way cooler for the organizer to say, “There’s someone you know coming and it would be super awkward. I’d rather not put their business out there but trust me, you don’t want to go,” and you are totally within your rights to speak to him and ask that he communicate that way about you going forward.)

Continue interacting with your cousin as you always have. It’s OK if it’s slightly awkward, because the two of you are probably having limited dialogue when you see each other anyway. No one can throw stones because you’re both in glass houses, which are totally fine for mature, consenting adults. Have an extra glass of wine with Thanksgiving dinner, and keep it moving.

—Jamilah

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

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