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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 daughter is horrendously anxious about school and test-taking. Though we’ve never explicitly pressured her about grades—in fact, we consistently message that we value her health and happiness far more than her marks—she attends a high-pressure magnet school where peers are extremely grade-focused. She gets physically sick from nerves multiple mornings per month, especially when a test is coming. SAT prep turned into a knock down drag-out battle every weekend until we gave up and allowed her to manage her own studying; she didn’t study and bombed the test, which of course made her feel even worse about herself.

I feel awful for saying this, but this behavior has honestly taken a huge toll on our family’s happiness, and I’m sick of it. We have two younger children. My daughter’s anxiety creates a lot of attention and emotion surrounding her (especially when she’s not in a good place mentally) and I sense our younger children are frustrated by the dynamic. At times, they’ll mimic her behavior and upon further check-in, it becomes clear they’re not actually anxious, and are just wanting attention. It feels like our entire family’s emotional state lies at the whims of a 16-year-old. I hate that I feel resentful about it. We brought her to a therapist, but she said she didn’t like it and refused to go for a third session. We’ve even considered pulling her out of the school, but she loves her friends and her teachers, and we think forcing her to switch schools would hurt her mental health even more. What should we do?

— Anxiety in Atlanta

Dear A.A.,

I’m so sorry that your family is going through this. Key word: your family. This isn’t just your daughter’s issue, nor is she an issue for the rest of the crew to be burdened by; this is a family challenge that needs to be confronted as a family. Perhaps the therapist you selected was not a good fit for your eldest, but I suspect that the entire household would benefit from some professional support. Your daughter requires some help in managing her anxiety, and the rest of you need some help in managing how it impacts the family dynamic. You, specifically, need to be able to grapple with these feelings of resentment that have been stirred by the turmoil in your home so that they do not become directed towards anyone or anything.

Also, you want to be very careful about assuming that your other children are not also suffering from anxiety. We have received a number of letters here from young people who are the siblings in a dynamic like the one you describe who are seeking help with getting their parents to understand that they are also coping their own mental health issues; they have found resistance, perhaps because their families do not want to believe that another child could be going through such a thing.

With the partnership of a new professional, assess your daughter’s needs and decide if continuing at the school she “loves” is something she can afford to do from an emotional standpoint and if so, how you can make this a better experience for her. Talk to her teachers and guidance counselor if you have not; though I cannot guarantee their support and understanding, capable, competent educators will be empathetic to what your daughter is experiencing and may be able to help support your efforts to help her approach school with less worry. Sending you all the best.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

When my son was just over a year old, he was bit badly by our family dog, and required surgery to close the wound. He’s left with a large scar on his head that is quite visible unless his hair is left very long. We’ve never spoken to him about the incident; he just knows that the dog was not nice to kids, so had to go to a new home. He’s starting school in the fall, and we’re feeling like this is the time to discuss things, before the scar is pointed out by a classmate, and he’s left with questions. What’s the best way to go about this? We’re still upset and horrified that it happened, and don’t want that to impact him. He’s a sensitive kid, so I want to be mindful of that too. Should we even tell him, or wait for him ask if it’s brought up? Never cut his hair again to avoid difficult questions? Please help!

— Avoiding Haircuts and Questions

Dear A.H.Q.,

Poor baby. It’s time to tell him what happened. Help him to understand that not all dogs are mean to kids, if you haven’t already gotten him into the habit of having positive interactions with dogs. (Even if your house is forever dog-free now as a result of the incident, you want to make sure he’s able to walk down the street without fear—especially considering how many hardcore dog people will say “Oh, it’s fine, he’s friendly!” to a freaked out person instead of focusing on getting their fur baby out of their personal space.)

Explain that he is beautiful and perfect, but that his scar is unique, so people may be curious about what happened. That’s fine, but they should be kind and respectful about it. There is nothing wrong with him; however, sometimes, small kids do not know how to react to things that are unfamiliar, and they may end up saying something that is not nice. If that happens, he should try to remember that it means nothing about who he is and what he looks like, and while that may not always be easy to do, you’ll be there to remind him.

Also, make sure that whatever you are doing with his hair to obscure the scar is both flattering and comfortable for him. Consult a stylist if needed; the last thing you want is for him to become the kid with the “weird” hair, because the weird hair is hiding a “weird” scar. (If “weird” hair is his preferred aesthetic in time, that’s a whole different conversation, but I think you know what I mean!) Best of luck to you.

· If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a twenty-something married woman with no kids of my own, but I have two nieces who are 3 and 5. I was there for their births, have helped planned birthdays and outings, babysat whenever asked, and generally want to be as involved in their lives as possible. I love them to pieces, and so does my husband. However, we seem to have hit a wall in the past few years with the girls. Each one received a tablet for their respective second birthday and since that day, they essentially don’t even look our way. They are hypnotized. Every family dinner, every outing, every visit—both girls are slack-jawed in front of the tablets watching shows like Cocomelon over and over. They want nothing to do with anything else and will scream and carry on if there is no screen in sight. I have tried offering to read with them, new coloring books, offers of outings without the tablets, and all have failed. They have also taken to hushing nearby adults, so they can better hear their shows. I don’t feel able to comment on my sister and brother-in-law’s parenting methods or tell them that they’re giving my nieces too much screen time since I don’t have children and have no right to. But, is there a way for me to reconnect with my nieces? Please help me be more interesting than the screen.

— Auntie Off Screen

Dear A.O.S.,

It is unlikely that you are going to defeat the screen-time monster your sister has created, but you can find ways to bond with your nieces in a way they can appreciate … which would be, at this point, via a screen. Identify a game that you can play with them on their devices, either one they already love or one you can dazzle them with, and get them to see how cool you are that way. Show up to your next gathering with a few details about Cocomelon or whatever else they are watching obsessively, tune in beside them and let them explain anything you may be missing. Don’t criticize your sister or BIL directly, but do let them know that you are desperate for some screen-free time with the kids and ask how you can best facilitate that.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My younger brother recently got a divorce. As a result, I feel like I have no personal relationship with my parents anymore. When I visit with them, my brother is always there. When I call, I am routinely rushed off because he needs something. Activities now revolve around my nephew’s custody schedule. Basically, my brother monopolizes all my parents’ time. It’s further compounded by the fact that my parents spend the winter away and my brother is a teacher who has the summer off, so he also has more access to them during the time they are most available to us.

I love my brother, and get on with him well. My family enjoys spending time with him and my nephew even when my parents are gone for the winter and most of the time, I don’t mind him being around. It’s my parents’ behavior that has started to bother me. For example, they take weekend trips and do lots of activities with my brother and nephew, but my family isn’t always invited which is fine except the reverse isn’t true. They took my brother and nephew on an out-of-state long weekend last summer, but when we tried to plan something for my family, there were only a few weeks left until school started, we were informed it had to be a weekend my brother didn’t have my nephew, and when I chose the only weekend meeting that criteria, I was told that it didn’t work because they were already going on a trip with my brother that weekend. We were not invited to join in. My mom and I have a tradition of Black Friday shopping that I hold dear; she invited him this year and said she knew I wouldn’t mind. I did, but don’t know how to say that without sounding like a terrible person. I actually hate shopping and just value time with my mom.

Like most kids, mine have lost a lot to the pandemic. Their school’s annual Grandparents’ Day celebration has been cancelled for a second year in a row, but it was still a half-day of attendance so that students’ grandparents could still pick them up for lunch, as is tradition here. When I told my parents this, I was informed that my nephew, who attends a different school, also had a half-day and would be joining them for lunch; they got angry when I suggested that they merely spend the day with my two school-aged kids (I have a younger third child) because they never get time alone with them, unlike my nephew. Also, he’s five years younger than my middle child and a picky eater, so the outing would have to center him and his needs.
Plus, I knew my brother would tag along because he doesn’t like to miss any of his visitation time. So, you may ask, why not have the whole family go? Dining is limited to parties of six because of COVID, and I know it would be me, my husband and our youngest who don’t make the cut.

I’m very frustrated and am not sure how to address the issue without sounding like a spoiled brat who hates her brother. I understand that the divorce has been difficult on him and that he has needed extra support, but I hate that it has been the demise of my and my family’s personal relationship with my parents. I don’t know how to move forward. My family may be facing a move due to my husband’s job which will take us out of the same area as my parents and brother within the next six months. My parents have declared that they can come see us a lot because after all, there’s the every-other-week that my brother doesn’t have his son. Please help.

— Sidelined Sister

Dear S.S.,

I’m deeply curious about the dynamic of this family before your brother’s divorce—really, before either of you were married and had children. Which of you was more independent growing up? Is there any other factor at hand that you can point to that may explain why your parents are, at this point, so much more accommodating to your brother than they are to you? Have they always skewed in this direction, and perhaps the divorce has made things more intense/impossible to ignore? Or is this a definite shift in how you all have functioned historically?

Was this a particularly contentious divorce, or an otherwise uniquely devastating break-up? Not to suggest that a divorce must be a grand spectacle of trauma to compel a family to action, but I wonder if there’s a reason that your parents are going so hard for your brother like this

No matter what, you owe it to yourself and your kids to let your parents know how you feel. There is a middle ground somewhere that involves you being appropriately empathetic to your brother’s new challenges, and your parents being able to recognize that just because your marriage is (I’m assuming/hoping) solid, that doesn’t mean that you no longer warrant consideration or support. You can and should acknowledge the guilt you feel over your reaction to this, but also that it comes from a very valid place. Let them know that you, too, want to be supportive of your brother and nephew, but that you are simply feeling pushed aside. Hopefully, your parents will step up and extend the care that you need just as they did for them. Best of luck to you.

— Jamilah

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