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,
I have a smart, funny, and motivated 14-year-old daughter, “Alina,” who has been homeschooled along with her tween sister “Penny” since the pandemic. Alina has recently been attending a private school a few days a week, as well as two community college classes, so she is gone most of the time. I trust her to make smart decisions and to keep herself out of trouble, although it is a little hard to drop her off in the mornings because I have no surefire way to communicate with her. She is not allowed a phone, and she hates using email. However, she has never proven herself to be unreliable, so I try to let her be a normal teen.
Alina has a group of friends that are mixed boys and girls, and they regularly come over after school. One of these friends, “Jenny,” is a gossip. She is quite the airhead and says whatever comes to her mind without really thinking it through first. I try my best not to “listen in” on Alina’s conversations with her friends while they’re here, but our house small, and Jenny is a loud talker! One day, I was in the kitchen preparing dinner, and Alina and her friends were in the living room with the TV turned on. I think that they thought I couldn’t hear them (I wasn’t trying to listen!), because the conversation switched to a boy that thought Alina was “hot.” I wouldn’t have heard anything if it weren’t for Jenny, something for which I am grateful for now.
At this point, I started listening in, I admit. And I was horrified by what I gathered from Jenny’s yapping—apparently Alina and this boy, some “cute rich white boy” that we’ll call Justin, hooked up in his truck during community college lunch period! My child is 14! Granted, I think that this boy is 15 or 16, but, just—no! How do I handle this? Do I confront her? Talk to my husband? Take her to the doctor? Talk to Justin’s family? Remove her from school completely? What if she gets pregnant? Did they use birth control?! I’m spiraling here. How do I best handle this?
— Not Ready to be Called Grandma
Dear Not Ready,
I agree you are spiraling, which is understandable, but there is a path forward. While this is not an ideal situation (14 is younger than I would care to be in this position, too), you learned about the situation early enough that you can act.
The first thing to consider is that you don’t know the details of this “hook up.” That’s why your job right now is to be calm, ask non-judgmental questions, and guide her through this new part of her life.
Sit down with your daughter and explain that you did not intend to listen in on her conservations, but that you heard Jenny say that she hooked up with Justin. Let her know you aren’t upset or judging, but you want to understand more about what she’s engaging in or planning to engage in so that you can help her move forward in a way that keeps her safe. The calmer you can be and the more matter-of-factly you approach the conversation, the better odds you’ll have of Alina being truthful with you.
Depending on her answers, you’ll have some choices to make. While you could try to “ban” her from sexual activity going forward, I doubt you’ll be successful, and you might even inadvertently make it more appealing (because then it becomes an act of independence or rebellion). So instead, put guardrails in place that will minimize the risk to her. You will need to get her on birth control, even if penetrative sex isn’t on the current menu. You might also agree on some behavioral boundaries, such as only having sex in a safe, private places (no more cars, no house parties), or encouraging her to abstain from reproductive penetrative sex until a specific age or level of seriousness of the relationship—whatever jibes with your values.
I also think that a major component of the whole conversation needs to centered around the emotional component of having sexual relationships. You want to be sure she’s having sex because she wants to, not because of some social expectation or an attempt to “land” a boyfriend. You also want to give her the language to think about the differences between intimacy and sex, so that she knows which one she is seeking, and the risks and rewards of both. After all, jumping straight to the physical act rarely cultivates a true connection between young people (often the opposite), if that’s what she’s hoping for.
Again, you have to keep your focus on changing the conditions of her sexual activity—not its existence. Like it or not, your daughter is maturing and exploring a new facet of her identity. If you can establish a healthy dialogue now, you have better chances of influencing her choices. Meanwhile, you might pick up a copy of Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein to get a better view of your daughter’s world and how to guide her through it.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have two great kids, 8 and 4 years old. Both are friendly, involved in activities, etc. My concern is that my oldest doesn’t have a “best friend.” He has plenty of friends, but I always get a feeling he is being left out. For example, I was driving him and a friend to our house when the friend asked if my son was going to his birthday party. He wasn’t invited (unless invites were not sent yet). I’m terrified that this is my fault. I struggle with social anxiety, so I am not the best at putting together play dates, reaching out to other moms, etc. My husband has repeatedly told me, “he’s fine, he has lots of friends.” At what age is it unusual (if ever) to not have a best friend?
— FOMO Mom
I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule about when and whether to have a best friend. Aside from a couple of cousins who lived 40 minutes away, I didn’t really have a true best friend until junior high. Towards the end of elementary school, I became closer to two girls in my neighborhood, but even then, I knew they had been friends longer and had a bond with each other that I didn’t necessarily share. Once in a while that bummed me out, but I don’t remember feeling particularly bad about it. Some kids don’t form that one special friendship until later in life. Some may never have it, moving in a crowd instead. So long as your son is content and confident in his relationships, you don’t have anything to worry about.
Try to go easy on yourself, too. People parent in all sorts of ways—some are SAHMs who can regularly set up play dates, others work full time and have their kids in aftercare programs until 6 p.m. Some parents send their kids down the street to invite kids to play, and others have the kids in tons of activities. I guarantee there is way more variety in how people parent and how strong their kids’ social connections are than you might be feeling right now. So, even though it can be really easy to feel like the odd duck who is conspicuously on the outs, give yourself grace. I’m sure you and your son are doing just fine, and as he keeps growing, you’ll both find your stride.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My teenage daughter makes loud, distressing noises in her sleep every night. She cries out in anguish many times every time she sleeps, even if she is just taking a nap. Not only is this distressing to hear (and it is LOUD), it makes me worry about her mental health. She has always been a sleep talker but over the years she has begun to sound like she is grieving or being mentally abused. She never remembers these episodes and they happen every night. What could be causing this, how worried should we be and do we turn to a therapist or a psychiatrist?
— At a Loss
I am not a doctor, but this sounds a lot like night terrors to me, which are episodes that lie somewhere between a nightmare and sleepwalking. The person might yell, cry, have a full fit or a full conversation—all without waking up. In the morning, they don’t remember the episode. Night terrors occur most often in toddler- and childhood, and though they can occur in the teenage years, it’s rare. If this strikes you as a possibility, talk to your daughter’s pediatrician about next steps. Because you mention this happening nightly and during naps, her quality of sleep might be suffering, or there might be other avenues the doctor would want to explore. Good luck.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My 4-year old son (“Liam”) goes to a full-time daycare. He’s in a class with 15 other kids, who he seems to get along with—except for one child (“Dylan”). I think Dylan is non-neurotypical, and he sometimes hits the other kids or has outbursts.
My son has started saying very exclusionary things, like, “I want to invite everyone in my class to my birthday! But not Dylan.” Or, “I play with everyone except Dylan.” The other day when Liam and his best friend were walking up to the school building together, Dylan and his mom came up behind us and I heard Liam and his friend start giggling and whispering to each other, “Oh no, look who it is.”
I’m really conflicted on how to respond. On one hand, my heart breaks for Dylan. It’s sad to see this tiny kid that no one wants to play with.
At home, we try to have conversations about neurodiversity. Liam has an uncle on the spectrum that he’s close with, one of his teachers is on the spectrum, and there’s another child in the class who is autistic but quiet that Liam seems to like fine.
On the other hand, I have been in a domestic violence situation and I know things like, “It’s not his fault he’s so angry, I just need to avoid setting him off, if I am understanding enough he won’t get mad” are things I told myself and part of what kept myself from leaving for a long time. I want Liam to know he doesn’t have to let someone yell at him or hurt him.
I know Dylan’s parents and teachers are working with him on his outbursts and hitting. I am confident my son’s comments aren’t mirroring teacher comments. How do you recommend I navigate coaching Liam on both being kind and inclusive but also willing to protect himself?
— Daycare Dilemma
I understand why your brain is making connections between Dylan’s behavior and your domestic violence history (I am so sorry you had that experience), but I would encourage you to separate them. An adult choosing violence, or choosing not to get help stopping their violent outbursts, is different than a child who has not yet developed those cognitive or behavioral tools—even if the action of hitting is the same.
Because your son is not in significant repeat danger from Dylan’s outbursts, I think your gut of aiming for inclusivity is a good one. In your mind, and in how you discuss Dylan, I would separate the behavior from the person—that is, try to shift your mindset away from “Dylan is a hitter” and towards “Dylan is a kid who sometimes hits.” That way, you’re focusing Liam on avoiding the behavior, not the person. Explain that Dylan is still learning how to use his words instead of his hands, etc., and that some people take longer to learn how to be a good friend. We don’t exclude people because they are still learning. On the other hand, when they do a behavior we know is wrong, it is OK to walk away and play with someone else. I might even explain to Liam that by giving Dylan chances to play kindly, but walking away when Dylan acts out, he is helping Dylan learn how to be a good friend. Of course, if the situation ever escalates to where Dylan repeatedly screams at or hits Liam, then you should shift to a more protective approach.
The other thing I would work on with Liam is the difference between telling someone you don’t like their actions in the moment, and talking badly about someone—especially within earshot. Again, we do not need to like everyone, but words can hurt, and we do not hurt others. You can give him people and places where he can vent his frustration about Dylan so that he begins to learn those social boundaries.
Finally, I’d encourage you to have an open dialogue with the daycare teachers. They sound very aware of what is happening within the classroom, but they might not know the extent to which it is impacting the kids’ attitudes about Dylan. To me, the fact that they’re reacting to him at the beginning of the day—clean slate time, before Dylan has had a chance to act up—shows how entrenched the kids’ attitudes about him have become. You don’t have to report every last thing that Liam tells you, but this general information could be helpful to the teachers in considering how to manage the classroom dynamics. Good luck!
More Advice From Slate
I feel like I am in crisis. I have three wonderful, adorable young children. For years, I have been unsatisfied in my marriage for very typical reasons. My husband and I have no physical and little emotional intimacy, though we do have a low-conflict household. I carry the bulk of the labor in our household concerning all domestic and child care responsibilities, despite the fact that I work full time at a stressful career. My husband is impatient with the kids and does not seem to like being around them. I can’t help but feel I’d be happier divorced. What should I do?