Care and Feeding

My Daughter Says Her Life Is Pointless

How can I help her?

An older woman sitting with her elbows on her knees looking worried
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Victor_69/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 29-year-old daughter who has been battling anxiety and depression for most of her life. I have to say I’ve learned a lot from her and have worked on my own issues because of what she’s been through and learned. My question has to do with how to help her now. She does not trust traditional medicine (she didn’t get a Covid vaccination; she won’t take prescription medications). She has participated in therapy off and on and she has tried acupuncture, both of which have helped to some extent, but she has not been consistent with them (either due to cost or to lack of motivation). Yesterday I texted her to ask how her day was going and her reply was, “Pointless—everything is passing me by.” I know she feels like she’s not where she wants to be in life: she is the only one of her friends who doesn’t have a child yet, she is in a job she hates, and while her dream is to be a chef and own a restaurant or else to have an online presence in the food industry, she has been unable to do anything to get there (she says she knows what she has to do but can’t do it). She feels stuck, she says; she feels she is a bystander in her own life. I really don’t know how to help or what to say to her anymore.

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—Concerned and Helpless

Dear Concerned,

It is heartbreaking to see our children—no matter how old they are—suffer. And many parents can empathize with this awful feeling of helplessness when these children are full-grown adults, and what we can do for them is limited to listening, offering advice when asked, and providing financial help—if we are able to, and if they will accept it. The fact is, there isn’t much you can do to help at this point: she has to want to help herself. Participating in therapy on and off suggests that she has never committed to it (and therapy doesn’t help much without a commitment). Her refusal to consider the possibility that medication may provide her some relief is certainly limiting her options—and if her depression remains untreated, she is unlikely to be able to move forward. I would say that the only thing you can do for her at this stage is continue to love her, to listen when she needs to talk, and instead of texting her to ask how her day is going (at this point you know how her days are going, don’t you?), text her only to say Love you or to deliver a piece of interesting news or ask a question you don’t know the answer to.

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If she ever asks you if you think there’s something she could be doing, take that opportunity to (cautiously and kindly) tell her that the time has probably come for her to avail herself of the kinds of help that have made all the difference to others in her situation—medication and consistent, regular therapy. Meanwhile, take care of yourself. The two of you may be stuck in a vicious circle of misery/worry that is making you both feel worse. Resist the urge—even when you’re on the phone or physically together—to ask her how she is, how her job is going, how her friends’ kids are, etc. And if even without prompting she launches into her litany of sorrows, tell her truth—that you are deeply sorry to hear that—and find something else to talk about: family gossip, the latest shenanigans on “Love Island,” a great book you’re reading, something delicious you made for dinner last night. If she accuses you of not caring about her desperate unhappiness, tell her honestly that you do—but that you just don’t know what to do about it. I wish you both strength, and peace.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letterMy Friend’s Daughter Stole a Highly Intimate Possession. Should I Confront Her About It? Lately Maggie has been having a hard time: she became very isolated during the pandemic; she is exploring her gender and sexual identity…”

Dear Care and Feeding,

My almost 5-year-old son has crocodile tears every time he doesn’t get to buy something when we visit or are even near any store/attraction/gift shop. Huge tears, frowny quivering lip—the works! I have tried everything I can to combat the tears. I talk to him about why we are going to the store, what we need to purchase and that we aren’t getting anything extra. He does chores in exchange for an allowance that he can use to purchase something he selects at a store on certain occasions. If we are traveling, I will let him know ahead of time if we are going into a location that I think will have trinkets or stuffed animals and whether we plan to purchase anything or not (and once I give him an answer I do not waver on it). Depending on how long his crying lasts, he might be given a timeout to sit by himself for a moment to calm his body down. But none of this—not discussions ahead of time, distractions, or timeouts—seems to prevent this behavior. And it is getting to be more and more of a nuisance the older and bigger he gets. Any ideas for what I can do?

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—Turn His Frown Upside Down

Dear THFUD,

I’m sorry your child takes it so hard when he can’t have what he wants. But he’s not throwing a tantrum, right? He’s just sad. I mean, I get it: this seems like outsize sadness over the acquisition of things. But I’m puzzled—OK, downright disturbed—that you find your child’s tears and quivering lip “a nuisance,” that you’re sure he’s faking it (“crocodile tears”) even as you acknowledge that he needs time to calm himself after each episode, and that you’re punishing him for his tears.

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I’m not going to wade into the deep waters of why he is reacting in this manner to being told he can’t have a new toy, but I will say this much: when you have a sad child on your hands, none of what you’ve listed here is going to make a dent in his tearfulness. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that explanations in advance citing chapter and verse of your plans not to buy him anything, and punishing him with timeouts later for being sad, would make matters worse. Maybe it’s time to find out why he’s so grief-stricken? Ask him (softly; with genuine concern, not irritation or anger) at a time when he isn’t crying. Ask him when he’s happy and relaxed and playing with the many toys I’m sure he already has why he was so sad when you said no earlier that day, or yesterday, or last week. He’s old enough to tell you. Can you be patient enough with him to follow this to its source? And then see what can be done if there’s something else—something bigger—that’s making him so sad, and wanting a new toy and being told he can’t have it is “just” a metaphor?

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And if he can’t or won’t tell you, maybe he can articulate it to a therapist, or (more likely) demonstrate it in play therapy. Or maybe, if you stop to really think about it, you can figure it out yourself.

Alternate suggestion: if you are absolutely sure these aren’t tears of sadness—sure that I am barking up the wrong tree, that your son is just a kid who wants more stuff and somehow has the idea, despite all your efforts, that crying will persuade you to give in—you might just try ignoring it.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My almost 4-year-old is very concerned about death. This isn’t out of nowhere. In the last 18 months, our dog died, our foster puppies died (a congenital issue), and her great-aunt died. While she wasn’t very close to her great-aunt, she is close to her aunt, and at the funeral (her first), it upset her to see how sad her aunt was. My husband and I are very open; we answer all her questions as directly as possible and try to follow all the tips (e.g., we use direct language, explain permanency/no more pain). We aren’t religious, so we don’t talk about the afterlife (and she hasn’t asked). Her comments/questions come and go but are usually practical (why do we bury people’s bodies?). However, last night at bedtime, she was talking about our deaths. She cried and said heart-wrenching things like, “If you die, I won’t have a mommy anymore,” and, “If you and Daddy die, I will be all alone. No one will take care of me.” I tried to comfort her (“I will always be your mommy” and “Your daddy and I are taking good care of our bodies and will likely live till we are old and will always take care of you”; I also talked about our extended family). Nothing I said seemed to help. And frankly, she isn’t wrong: if I died, no one else would really be her mommy, at least not in the same way. And we live far from extended family and see them in-person maybe a couple of times a year.

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Eventually, she calmed down and fell asleep as I rubbed her back and sang her favorite lullabies. Honestly, I felt sad afterwards. I still do, all these hours later. Death is a part of life and it is everywhere—Disney movies, Bluey, even on the sidewalk as we see dead birds and bugs. But are we handling her questions about death correctly? Do you have any other suggestions? How do we know when it’s no longer a normal amount of fear and something bigger? She woke up this morning and was her usual self, even if I wasn’t.

—Death is All Around Us

Dear DiAAU,

I’ve addressed this question in various ways before, but it’s important to revisit it because it’s a perennial one. Your daughter is right on schedule to be asking questions about death, which is indeed all around us. Even without the experience of the deaths of pets or relatives, all children eventually make the connection between the deaths in stories (and, yes, on the sidewalk) and the deaths of their parents, and it frightens them. The deaths of parents in fairy tales—and Disney cartoons—can help them explore and work out their feelings, but reassuring conversations with their parents are also crucial. (And keep mind that her asking about her own death may be right around the corner.)

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One thing you might want to think about is whether your own unsettled feelings came through in last night’s conversation with her. Look, I get it. The idea that we may die before our children are grown is terrifying. (As the parent of a grown child, I can tell you that it’s bad enough to think about the effect our death will have on them.) Everything you said to your daughter last night is true, but if you don’t feel it—and if you don’t find a way to feel that she’ll be OK no matter what—she will pick up on that. Children always know when we are lying.

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This is not an unfixable problem, I hasten to say. Last night may have been the first time this came up, but I guarantee that it will not be the last. As painful as it is to think about, it’s important for you to come to some sort of peace, to know who her guardians will be if both you and your husband die while she is still a child (it’s important to have a legal document in place, too). And as much as you don’t want to think about this, you might want to ask yourself if, in the event of your death, you would want your husband to remarry and provide your daughter with a kind and loving stepmother. Again, this is not something to say to your child. But your own sense of (relative) calm, of having worked this out in your own mind to the extent possible, will come through when you reassure her. And in any case, I promise that she will come through these fears—and through the knowledge and fear of her own eventual death when that realization dawns. I’ve said this before too, but it’s worth saying again: every one of us knows that someday everyone we love is going to die, and that we ourselves will die, and we all find ways to live with that knowledge.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My mother-in-law constantly misgenders my spouse (who uses they/them pronouns). She and I get along well, and I do believe she is trying, and that she wants to do right by her child (her “son,” she would say—and then say, “Oops, sorry”). She tells them—and me—that we have to be patient, that she grew up in a part of the country and at a time when such things were unheard of. I understand that. I am a little less sympathetic when she insists that “they” is too confusing (“I keep thinking you’re talking about more than one person!”). I mean, lots of people have been able to make that transition (no pun intended)—it’s not that hard, nor is it that confusing once you get used to it. How can I speed this up? It’s getting frustrating.

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—Running Out of Patience

Dear ROoP,

You can’t speed it up. If her heart is in the right place, she’ll get there. I don’t know how long it will take, but I believe that if she wants to, she will.

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I want to pass along the strategy someone I love and respect very much just shared with me—the excellent way she has been responding when one of her own in-laws tells her how hard she’s trying to get this right about one of her children, and how her upbringing makes this especially difficult—and how “confusing” she finds using “a plural pronoun to talk about one person!” Instead of explaining it yet again, or taking it upon herself to educate her further—or getting angry or upset—she says, cheerfully, “Oh, you’ll get it! I know you will!” That vote of confidence, and the assumption that “I’m trying” is not a lie, seems to me the way to go when talking to someone who is not in fact the enemy. So many people aren’t interested in doing better, it’s worth doing what one can to encourage those who are.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

My daughter is a freshman in high school, and she recently got an assignment in life sciences that seems inappropriate. The assignment is for the kids to identify someone in their family who died of cancer, and then students are supposed to research that kind of cancer and create a poster presentation to display for the entire school. This seems like a terrible idea, and an invasion of privacy. Should I talk to the teacher?

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