Care and Feeding

My Ex-Wife Is Totally Scaring Off My Children’s New Friends

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by GlobalStock/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 ex-wife and I share custody of our two kids, who are 9 and 5. Both kids are at new schools this year; the 5-year-old started kindergarten and the 9-year-old switched from a private school to the local public school. I’m writing because I have an issue with the way my ex sets up playdates. While I set up playdates for my kids the standard way (I email the parents, we set a time, we introduce ourselves briefly and maybe chat a short time, and we let the kids play), my ex-wife likes to get to know the kids’ friends and their parents by taking everyone out to dinner—both of our kids, her husband, and the friends’ siblings and parents. This turns many parents away. It sounds like many of those parents tell their kids not to be friends with ours, which is upsetting to our kids who don’t understand why their new friends aren’t talking to them. When I talked to my ex-wife about this, she laughed and said something along the lines of “What, am I supposed to meet them at Walmart?” and then wouldn’t discuss it further. My 9-year-old is a social butterfly and is dismayed that a few of her friends are no longer allowed to play with her, and my son doesn’t have a lot of friends which is logistically challenging for me. Would it be strange if I reached out to the parents my ex-wife put off with her dinner invites and explain the situation?

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— Too Soon for Dinner

Dear Too Soon,

As a parent, your first responsibility is to your children, so I do think trying to do some investigation and/or damage control isn’t the worst idea. That said, you have to be careful to avoid appearing as if you are going around your wife or somehow positioning yourself as the “better” parent.

I’m a little confused from your letter about why the parents would tell their kids not to be friends with your daughter just to avoid a dinner invitation. Don’t mistake me, a family dinner with complete strangers also sounds like a personal nightmare to me—but are people really asking their kids to ditch your daughter because of it? Or is it possible that your wife has put some kind of rule out there?

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If you want to try to play peace broker, you could host a group barbecue for lots of the friends and parents and invite your ex-wife and her husband to attend. This would get her what she wants without anyone feeling on the spot. However, I think ultimately this is one of those situations where you and your ex-wife might need to have a heart to heart strategy session.

She needs to know if her actions are truly causing social strife for her kid(s)—and maybe you can convince her to stick to doorway conversations at drop-off, or coffee dates at the most. It’s also important to remember that, as the kids get older, meeting the friends’ parents will become less and less realistic. Practicing flexibility now may pay out as the years progress.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

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I am the mom of a 12-year-old daughter, Lydia. I love travelling, and Lydia…well, Lydia really, really doesn’t. We go on holiday about once a year and most times that involves going on a plane (my favorite part of the journey). However, Lydia is petrified of planes, and every time we’ve ever taken her on one (including this summer holiday) she has thrashed, screamed, and had panic attacks. We have tried absolutely everything—exposure therapy, talking through a plane journey, and everything else you could possibly find! I’m not quite sure what to do. I love going on planes and wouldn’t want to miss out on it for the foreseeable future, but Lydia is downright terrified. Do you have any advice on how to get her to chill out about it?

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— It’s Only a Plane After All

Dear Only a Plane,

I’m afraid you will not like my answer: don’t make her go on planes anymore. As you say, your daughter is completely terrified, but your question and sign off suggests that this is something she should be able to “just get over,” and I’m not sure that’s the case at her age. If your daughter had panic attacks in small spaces, would you lock her in a tiny dark closet once a year? Of course not! But isn’t that sort of what you’re doing with the airplanes? Forcing the situation is not being respectful to her, and not only may it potentially turn her off to travel wholeheartedly, you could also cause serious emotional harm.

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Just because air travel isn’t scary to you doesn’t mean you can dismiss her fears about it. If there is a reason she has to learn to be OK on planes (you live in an isolated area or something), or your daughter expresses a desire to get past her fear, then you can look into a desensitization regiment with the help of a therapist. But this is a moment when you need to be compassionate and, as her parent, adjust your expectations in order to meet her needs. If you love planes (as do I), you are welcome to take them on vacations with your spouse, friends, or solo. But when it comes to family trips, opt for trains and cars.

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Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

My thirteen-year-old son, Kevin, has developed the most disgusting habit. You know how some people crack their knuckles? He stretches his chest and back and somehow cracks his sternum. And it doesn’t have the normal joint cracking sound—it’s this heavier, wetter noise that sounds like something’s being torn apart in his chest.

He insists it feels fine to do, and the doctor backs him up that it’s harmless. I don’t think it’s unhealthy per se, but I simply cannot abide the sound it makes when he does it, which he’ll do three or four times a day. Inevitably, one of them is right before dinner, and it puts me off my appetite half the time.

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I want to order him to stop. But I don’t really have a solid reason—at least not one that’s for his own benefit rather than mine. I feel like it’s wrong to use arbitrary parental authority to tell a child what to do for something that isn’t for the child’s well-being. But at the same time, this really drives me crazy. What do I do?

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— Stuck in a Loop

Dear Stuck,

Obviously, after reading the description in your letter, I had to go to YouTube and listen to the sound for myself. I can understand why you don’t like it, though I wasn’t particularly bothered.

I did see a few videos suggesting that doing this movement could cause inflammation or joint stress if it’s done several times a day. Was the doctor you saw an orthopedist, physical therapist or similar specialist? If not, I might check for a second opinion, just to be on the safe side. Again, this is Dr. YouTube speaking, and I do not have a medical background, so take that for what it’s worth.

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Assuming you confirm that this behavior is innocuous, you absolutely can ask him to adjust his habit for your sake. As a point of comparison, farting is perfectly normal, but we still teach our children that it’s rude to do it in front of others. At minimum, we ask them to verbally excuse themselves if it happens in public. Your son should similarly understand that other people need not be welcoming to all the noises his body makes. Ask him to leave the room if he needs to crack the bone and apologize if he fails to remember. However, similar to farting, you may need to develop a bit more patience; sometimes a toot will escape, and sometimes a wet joint will crack.  We are all mammals, and that’s just part of the gig.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 3-and-a-half-year-old who loves routine. I know this is normal and healthy for preschoolers, but changes to the routine are extremely challenging. If we switch up our morning routine for any reason, she melts down, and it typically ends in a tantrum. She also loves to repeat conversations until they happen the exact way she likes. I will need to repeat the lines of the conversation in exactly the same way (sometimes using the same tone of voice) or again we have a meltdown.

Any advice for helping her deal with routine shifts or generally being more flexible? How much should we play along with these demands versus setting limits around what or how frequently we will repeat something?

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— Sometimes Things Are Different

Dear STAD,

There are a few tools you can incorporate to make changes to the routine easier to handle. Look up guides online about how to make a visual schedule, which is a chart that you can use to plot out the day. Some kids benefit from this being done for the day, while others prefer to see the week’s plans. While this kind of tool is often used with children with autism, it can be beneficial for anyone who needs help moving through their day successfully. This guide from the University of Utah is a good starting place. Similarly, come up with a visual and verbal signal that a change to the plan has to happen. Your visual schedule might include a “change” card, or you might carry a red square, similar to what soccer referees use, that you hold up when a change of plans happens. A friend told me that she had success with the book A Little Spot of Flexible Thinking, which uses storytelling about a rigid oak and flexible palm tree to help kids understand how to adapt to change. This book might give you some shared vocabulary you can reference when she is struggling, and you can even play-act some changes to routines so that she can practice appropriate responses before they’re needed.

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Regarding the conversation repetition, is it an organic conversation she wants to repeat, or is it a scene from a movie? In any case, I would try to proactively limit the number of repetitions you’re willing to do, and tell her, “We can do that conversation two more times.” If (and when) a meltdown occurs, do your best to separate the feeling from the behavior. Folks will often hear me say in my house, “you are allowed to be upset, but you are not allowed to kick and scream.” Then I redirect my toddler to a space where he can (safely and less frustrating-to-me) get his feelings out. The book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk also has some great de-escalation verbiage you might find useful.

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Keep in mind that (as I alluded to above) these types of behavior are consistent with neurodiversity, so keep the lines of communication open with your pediatrician; if the behaviors do not improve or they worsen, your doctor or a childcare worker might recommend an evaluation.

—Allison

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