Care and Feeding

Should I Agree to Withhold My Stepchild’s Trauma From Their Dad?

A sad teenage girl gets consoled by her mother.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Rawpixel/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,

My 16-year-old stepchild confided in me that they were sexually assaulted at the age of 14. In the last two years, they have had mental health issues which their father and I have attributed to a combination of Covid restrictions, genetic predisposition, and simply being a teenager. While all of those things are certainly factors, learning about the assault provides me with insight into their struggles and behavior over the last few years that I didn’t have before. When they told me, I said that I was sorry it had happened, that it should never have happened, and that I believed them. I asked whether they had told anyone else, and they said that their other bio parent and therapist know. I respect the right of survivors to tell their own stories and am beyond grateful that they’re talking to their therapist about it, but I feel enormous guilt at keeping this key piece of information from their father. Am I right in keeping this to myself, even if I am fairly confident that they may never tell their dad?

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—Unsure and Uneasy

Dear UaU,

You’re right: this information is not yours to disclose.

I’m curious about something, though. When you and your stepchild talked, was the question of their telling their father (or not) raised by either one of you? I have to assume there is a reason they don’t want to talk to him about it—and you seem to be pretty sure of this too, or you wouldn’t be “fairly confident” they will never tell him—but I’m wondering whether this was made explicit, or if you and your 16-year-old stepchild had a silent mutual understanding about this.

I have a couple of not entirely unrelated questions, as well. Did you and your husband speculate aloud, to your stepchild or to their “other bio parent,” about those three causes to which you attributed their mental health “issues”? Were you aware that the child was in the care of a therapist (so, no speculation on anyone’s part needed)—or did a therapist just enter the picture recently (and thank goodness for that!)?

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But no matter what your answers are to any of the above, I will say it again: even though it doesn’t feel right to you to keep a secret from your husband, you are ethically bound to until your stepchild gives you permission to let him in on it, no matter how long that takes. And if his child never tells him themself—and never gives you permission to tell—that’s a secret you will have to take to the grave. But if I were you, married to someone whose child does not feel safe confiding in him, I’d want a full understanding of why. I don’t mean to make this sound sinister. It may be a matter of his child wanting to protect him—or fear that his fury at the perpetrator of the assault would lead to a dangerous situation (I can in fact think of a lot of different reasons for this secrecy). But I do think the reason matters, even if doesn’t—mustn’t—affect your honoring your stepchild’s wish for privacy.

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From this week’s letter, Can I Make Our Dog’s Impending Death Less Traumatic for My Kids?Our dog, who is 16, has had many health issues and the time is approaching where we know we will need to let him go.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

We live in a small city, where we are members of a religious minority. Our community is pretty much folks within this same religion, so in many ways our social circle feels like a small town in itself. My daughter “Jen” (she’s 15) is friendly with “Frances” (also 15) from our place of worship. Frances’s parents recently announced they are divorcing. Divorce isn’t taboo in our community, but it did become a topic of conversation among us, as Frances’s parents have been married for 20+ years and are well known to all of us. The other day, I was discussing the divorce with a friend on the phone. Jen overheard me and became extremely upset. She accused me of gossiping about her friend—which, to be fair, was partially true, but I wasn’t being mean-spirited; I was trying to understand more of what was going on so we can figure out what the family needs right now. I feel a little embarrassed and ashamed about this, to be honest. But I also don’t think it’s appropriate for Jen to eavesdrop and police my phone conversations. What’s the right way to handle this?

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—Overheard in Ohio

Dear Overheard,

The right way to handle this is to apologize to your daughter for gossiping, to acknowledge that it’s wrong and that you are embarrassed and ashamed of yourself, that you should know better and set a better example for her. I cannot imagine how or why knowing “more of what’s going on” between Frances’s parents would help you figure out what the family needs. (If you want to know what they need from you, just ask them.) I also can’t imagine why you’d suppose that talking about their divorce with another friend would provide that information in the first place. What you were doing is an example of gossip. Not all gossip is mean-spirited.

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As to Jen eavesdropping: If you are talking on the phone when your daughter is in earshot, I don’t think it’s fair of you to fault her for hearing what you say. If you want to gossip—or do anything else—in private, it’s your responsibility to do it behind closed doors, not her responsibility to hurry away before she hears or sees something she’d rather not. And as to her “policing” your phone conversations: she has the moral high ground here, to be honest. Scolding her for pointing out what’s true tells her only that you’re the one in charge (she already knows that; she’s already chafing at it, as teenagers do). Consider that speaking truth to power is something you might want to encourage, not clamp down on.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am going to become a first-time mother this summer. My partner and I couldn’t be more excited and are looking forward to spending the next few months prepping everything for the baby. My mother and my best friend are planning a baby shower and have already set the date and time, booked a place, and made most of the preparations. The invitations are planned to be sent out mid-May. A few days ago, my MIL told my partner that she is planning a shower. He thanked her but told her it was unnecessary since we already have plans in motion. She is very excited about the upcoming birth and insisted she wants to host a shower anyway. While I am grateful she’s excited and wants to do this for me, I also find this to be uncomfortable. I was looking forward to getting everyone together for the shower, but now I’m unsure of who to invite to which. Do I invite his mother to both? What about my mom? And what about friends, extended family, etc.? I definitely don’t want people to feel they need to go to both showers, or that they need to buy two gifts! It’s been suggested to me that if I invite everyone to both, they can choose which date suits them best. But I feel that doing that would only cause confusion. All of this has me stressed out over something that should have been so simple! What do you suggest I do?

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—Stressed Mom-to-Be

Dear Stressed,

Since a shower is something other people throw for us, not a party we throw ourselves—and thus not a party we invite anyone to (this is the job of the party-throwers)—the best thing you can do is step away from all of this. At most, you might tell your mother and your friend that your mother-in-law has mentioned wanting to throw a shower too and let them be in touch with her to work this out together. Either they’ll join forces or they won’t (it would be silly for them not to!). If they don’t—if anyone involved insists they have to throw their own shower—they can hammer out the details of that (good luck to them) without your involvement in any way. In other words: stay out of it. And let your partner stay out of it, too. (By the way, this kind of craziness is one reason that the tradition of friends, and not family, throwing showers was such a good one. I have given up the cause of trying to persuade people that this is among the handful of situations in which the old ways were better. But I will hold the line on the recipient of the gifts having any role at all in the party-planning, inviting, or—shudder—hosting it themselves. You have so many other, better, way more important things to be thinking and, yes, stressing about! Concentrate on those, OK?)

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My almost-4-year-old daughter is very resistant to potty training. She’ll go if we bribe her (most of the time), but never on her own, and it’s often a fight with multiple forms of bribery. We’ve gotten her big brothers to encourage her (neither of whom gave us this kind of trouble), we’ve bought her “special big girl underwear that only BIG GIRL PRINCESSES can wear,” and we have bribed her with everything fun, from candy to stickers to toys to trips to the zoo. No luck. And when it comes to #2, she absolutely refuses to go anywhere other than in her pull-ups (except for one surprising week, after which she went back to refusing). We tried putting her in underwear “like a big girl!” and she is so smart and so sneaky: she went into her room and changed back into a pull-up without us ever knowing! She’s very independent in everything else, but she just won’t use the potty. Do you have any suggestions?

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—Toddler Toilet Troubles

Dear TTT,

Oh, I do, yes! Suggestion #1: Let this power struggle drop. Stop bribing her, stop pleading with her, stop debating/arguing with her. Ignore the whole thing. Change her diaper/pull-up without comment. Suggestion #2: Take a deep breath (maybe not while changing a poop-filled pull-up) and remind yourself of this, will you? Every single child who is physically able to use a toilet—and you already know yours is—will eventually use the toilet. Battling with her over it will not speed up the process (it is, I’m pretty sure, just slowing it down). Comparing her progress to her older brothers is of no use to anyone.

The reason I usually leave potty-training questions to others, I’ll confess, is that I always want to say: It’ll happen when it happens, and looking back, you’ll wonder why you agonized so over it. I realize that no one wants to hear this. But you really and truly need to hear it. I guarantee that, at worst, sheer peer pressure will force the issue when she starts kindergarten (and I sincerely doubt this will go that long once you withdraw from the struggle with her, in which she is asserting the only power she has). So many things about raising small children feel like matters of life and death. Some of them are, sure. But potty-training isn’t one of them.

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—Michelle

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Nearly two months ago, I met a guy on Tinder, expecting nothing more than a casual hookup. However, we ended up clicking really well and have gone on a lot of real dates since then. I think I’m falling in love with him (and vice versa), and we are exclusive. There’s just one little problem: I never told him I have a kid. I’m a single mom, no dad in the picture, and my child is 3. I didn’t think to mention it initially, not expecting to enter a relationship, and since then I’ve just never found the right moment. I totally know this is wrong and my fault, but at this point I’m not sure how to break the news. We can’t keep on seeing each other only at his apartment or when my kid is at Grandma’s, and I really want my child to meet him. How do I get out of this mess?

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