Care and Feeding

My Daughter’s Close Friend Has Been Excluding Her From Birthday Parties

A teenager blows out candles on a cake.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter has a childhood friend she has grown up with. Their birthdays are eight days apart. My daughter has invited her friend to every birthday party from age 4 to 16. In all those years, my daughter has never been invited to the friend’s birthday parties. When the 16th birthday rolled around, the friend came to my daughter’s party and my daughter asked the friend if she was having a party. The friend said, “Yes, but it’s only for school friends.” They do not go to the same school. My daughter was crushed, and I was furious. I blame the parents who are friends of our family. My wife acts like nothing happened and is still friendly with the friend’s parents, but I don’t want to even want to be near them. I know I should move on but I’m having trouble forgiving and forgetting.

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— Furious and Unforgiving

Dear Furious,

Have you ever asked the other parents about it? There could be numerous reasons that your daughter hasn’t been invited historically. Many elementary schools have a rule that you must invite the whole class to a party; that’s a lot of bodies. The friend may have several non-school friends and the parents know that if they invite one, then that will start an avalanche of “But we have to invite so-and-so too!” She may not want to have one person attend a party where everyone else knows each other, for fear they won’t all get along, or that she’d have to be glued to the one non-school friend all party. The other parents might simply not think any of this is a big deal, which is valid. The point is, you are choosing to have a scorched-earth attitude without investigating whether there is a reasonable explanation. If your feelings are hurt, the mature thing would be for you to talk to your friends about it. The same advice goes for your daughter who, at 16, is quite old enough to have this kind of conversation with her friend, too. Keep your calm, ask questions, share your feelings, and don’t blame. If it turns out that they don’t care about your friendship as much as you and your daughter do, better to know it now so that you can move on. But if it’s an innocent situation, you’ll know and can make peace with it. Bottom line: I think your wife has the right approach here. If you choose to sit and simmer instead of talking it out, that is a choice you are making, but to me it seems like an overreaction.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m not a parent, but I often provide childcare for my mom, especially for my 5-year-old brother, J, who is about 20 years younger than me. My question is this: how do you explain disability to a kid that age in terms they can understand?

I am autistic, and J is starting to notice certain things I have trouble doing, and because he doesn’t understand, it hurts his feelings. For example, I have pretty severe auditory processing issues. That means I have a very hard time making out speech when there’s background noise, like a TV, or air conditioner, or a toy that makes sounds. So, he’ll say something, and I won’t understand, and then he gets sad and frustrated because he thinks I’m not listening or don’t care. I do! I just can’t hear!

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The other problem is fine motor skill stuff. My hands are just not great at being hands. Anything that involves holding a writing implement or handling small objects goes very slowly. He’s getting to the age where he’s interested in Legos and art and such, and when I play with him his feelings get hurt when I go slowly, or don’t draw very well, or can’t take Legos apart. He interprets it as me not caring enough to play, which I get how, from a 5-year-old’s perspective, it would look like that.

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I understand why he’s frustrated! These things also frustrate me. I’ve tried explaining that it’s not personal, just things I have a hard time with, but I think he was just confused. What I’m really asking for is what language to use with a kid this age to explain disability. When I Google, all I find are “tips to help your kids accept their autistic classmates”—which I’m thrilled exists, but what I need is tips to explain “my disability means I have a deficit in this area and it is not personal, I promise.” And ideally it would be about a caretaker, not a peer. Do you have any advice on how to do this? There’s just not a lot out there on explaining an adult’s disability to a kid, but we really need to remove this commutation barrier because it’s bumming us both out.

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— How Do You Talk to Children Anyway?

Dear How Do You,

When I have had to explain difficult subjects to my kids, I have used the “A Kid’s Book About” series. These books are great at explaining complex themes to kids in concrete, straightforward ways. I have used A Kid’s Book About Racism and A Kid’s Book about Cancer, so I’d recommend A Kids’ Book About Disabilities as a starting point to developing an understanding about what it means to have a disability. The factual approach of this book can give you and your brother some shared language about how to talk about disability and being patient and flexible with others. Another book I have really enjoyed with my kids is Just Ask by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, which talks about a variety of disabilities from fictional kids’ and adults’ perspectives with the underlying message that all people operate in the world differently from each other. It’s a great book about how there are many ways to “be” in the world.

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When you’re in situations where you’re overstimulated by noise, you might consider verbiage like “help me listen” to encourage him to turn off the noisy toy or repeat himself. Put him in the position of being a helper to you, not a “victim” of your inability to listen. Similarly, can you give him a tactic he can use when he’s getting frustrated—maybe a deep breath through the nose? Teach him tha when he is feeling mad, he should take the breath to give himself a patience boost, a waiting superpower, or whatever language you think might work. Then, when you are about to play Legos, you can remind him that you might be slow but you will do your best, and that his waiting superpowers will help you keep playing. You might also consider asking him how he wants you to play Legos that day—as a fellow builder, or just watching him.

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Kids are naturally impatient and are only beginning to understand that other people have feelings, needs, and differences from them in the world. At this age, he thinks that his life experiences and abilities are what everyone else has. In teaching him about your autism in these small ways, you are giving him some of the building blocks of empathy. You are also giving him a sense of control and contribution—most kids love being helpers and having a job.  And, even though it’s probably hard and frustrating for you, remind yourself that his love, lessons, and fond memories with you will pay off and make your brother a better friend and classmate as he grows up.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

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My family of four isn’t poor, but like many others we are struggling with inflation and the rising cost of groceries. We’re managing in all the usual ways–shifting to store brands, shopping sales, buying in bulk, and holding off on some special treats and more expensive items.

The problem is, we also need to shift the way my kids, ages 5 and 9, treat food in our household. (To get it out of the way, neither are particularly picky eaters and they don’t have any underlying sensory issues. Additionally, they are both relatively active, at healthy weights for their age and height, and can self-regulate pretty well.)

The first issue is snacks. We cook them breakfast and dinner and I pack them school lunches every day, but snacks are kind of a free-for-all within reason. My husband and I both work full-time from home, and to save our sanity during the pandemic and beyond, our philosophy on snacks has sort of morphed into “sure, whatever, as long as you get it yourself and eat it at a table.” We are present after they get home from school but are usually scrambling to finish up work. But I’m starting to get exasperated about behavior like guzzling down half a box of Go-Gurts at a sitting (those are supposed to be reserved for school lunches!); opening unopened packages of perishable foods like lunch meat (now I have to use the whole pack within five days); and taking huge portions and leaving most of it uneaten on a plate. This is wasteful and stressing me out!

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The second issue is the constant complaints about what I cook for dinner. I always take their preferences and tastes into consideration and serve at least one thing I know they like. Also, I’m a really good cook! But they seem to have this attitude that dinner’s not worth eating if it’s not in their top three favorite foods. Yeah, we’re having a lot more beans lately. But I can’t cook spaghetti and meatballs every night, and I’m tired of getting grief about it. All I want is to feed my family a balanced diet without breaking the bank.

I liked that my kids were independent in getting themselves food, but I feel the pendulum has swung too far. Short of locking up fridge and pantry, how can I course correct this food free-for-all?

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— My Grocery List is Not a Democracy

Dear Not a Democracy,

Independent snack-getting can be a gift to any parent, but it can also go off the rails, as you are experiencing. It is perfectly ok to rein it in a little. I wouldn’t even mention money—even though that might be the root of your concern, this is really a broader, more basic issue of them not making responsible choices. Sit the kids down and say that you’re noticing some habits from them around snacks, and you need to put some rules or guidelines in place. Explain that just like we need to respect each other’s property, we also need to respect that food is not some bottomless fountain that should be wasted. You can dictate that nothing new can be opened without your permission, or that open snacks must be finished before new ones of the same category are opened. You can explicitly state some snacks or snack categories are off limits. And you might give them each a snack bowl or bag of some kind and instruct them that their portions must fit in that container and be finished before they take second helpings. It also might behoove you to make snacks off-limits an hour or two before and after a meal. Lack of hunger, and the knowledge that Go-Gurts are out there for consumption if you don’t like beans, can definitely impact a kid’s willingness to eat the healthy meal in front of them. Post the rules somewhere and hold the kids accountable to them.

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As to dinner: hold firm. Your kitchen is not a restaurant, nor, as you say, a democracy. Continuous whining loses privileges. However, you can offer a concession to give them a bit of control. Maybe each kid gets to choose one meal a week (within reason of course—no candy for dinner), or if you meal plan they can arrange what side dishes accompany each entrée. It might be annoying, but I tend to believe that if a little extra work on the front end can end the chronic irritations, it’s worth it.

Finally, if food waste in general is an issue for you, consider ways you can minimize it– maybe veggie scraps all go into a bag in the freezer to be turned into a soup or broth later, or you start backyard composting so you at least save money on fertilizer in the garden.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have three kids: a 10-year-old son Eddie and 8- year-old twin girls Julia and Sophia. Sophia has diagnosed anxiety and has a hard time socially. She is also very sensitive. She and Julia are very close and Julia has been advocating for her sister at school, socially and otherwise.

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About a month ago, Sophia came to me and confided in me that she doesn’t like the way that Julia and especially Eddie treat her. Sophia thinks they baby her. Sophia apparently came to this realization after something her therapist said.

Julia in general treats herself and her sister as equals, but if Sophia is feeling shy Julia completely takes over in a way that makes Sophia uncomfortable. Julia and Sophia have a good enough relationship that Sophia feels comfortable advocating her needs to Julia. Sophia talked to Julia, and Julia is working on being better at supporting Sophia in the ways she wants to be supported.

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Sophia asked me to talk to Eddie about the way he treats her. He speaks in a much calmer and gentler tone of voice with Sophia than he does with Julia. He also very carefully chooses his words around Sophia in a way that she obviously notices. Eddie constantly offers to help Sophia with her chores, or just help in general. Extreme examples include stealing her homework so that he could edit it, taking her glasses to clean them while she was showering, and grabbing dirty dishes out of her hands to bring them to the sink and clean them for her. Every time those things happened, we immediately shut it down and he understood that he crossed a line with that behavior.

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He says the reason he jumps in is because he knows that Sophia often feels like she is a burden on the household. While he said he would try to be a better supporter of Sophia, he has not. In the past month, it’s even gotten worse. I appreciate that Eddie is attempting to be nice to his sister, but he needs to communicate with her so that he can actually be helpful instead of harmful. How can I get Eddie to stop?

— Caring for a Confused Carer

Dear Confused Carer,

Have you tried explicitly telling Eddie that his actions are not only hurting his sister’s feelings, but hindering her as well? The butterfly parable comes to mind here—the story of a man who came upon a butterfly struggling to get out of the chrysalis. After watching for a while, he carefully pried the chrysalis open to help the butterfly out. The butterfly got out, but it immediately collapsed and couldn’t fly. Eventually, it died. As it turns out, that struggle gives the butterfly’s wings the strength they need to help a butterfly fly. You can find lot of print and YouTube versions of this story, but I like this one because, though cheesy, the introduction spells out the lesson just the way your son needs to hear it.

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Sophia needs to learn to work with her anxiety, not avoid it through the beneficence of others. Your son needs to understand that by “helping” her, he is preventing Sophia from learning how to thrive. This understanding might help give him more intrinsic motivation to stop coddling Sophia. But he might still need reminders. A sticker chart or some other kind of positive reinforcement could be an aid here. (If he’s honestly not trying too hard to change his behavior, I might reverse that to a privilege removal system.) And if Sophia is having trouble advocating for herself to Eddie, you might consider a codeword that she could use to stop his behavior, like “butterfly,” or a word of her choice, which she can say when Eddie is overstepping as a signal to make Eddie back off. Codewords can be very helpful when direct confrontation is challenging.

At some point, perhaps Sophia would like to invite her siblings, or just Eddie, to a therapy appointment where they can have some guided conversations. It sounds like these three have the makings of a very tight and supportive relationship if Eddie can just learn to channel his energy differently. The therapist may be able to find different ways for Eddie to look out for his sister and keep their relationship growing in the right direction.

—Allison

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