Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Q. Relationship With Son’s Ex: Our son had a longtime childhood friend, Jane, and they started dating in high school. Jane’s mother died when she was young and her father was neglectful due to alcohol abuse. We helped Jane get her driver’s license, paid for her college applications, and she occasionally lived with us. We grew very close to her and she considers us adoptive parents. Now, after six years together, our son has broken up with Jane after getting involved with another girl at their college. Jane is devastated, and so are we! My wife and I want to keep our promises to Jane—namely that we would help finance her books and dorm costs and that she could stay with us during school breaks, as her father is homeless. Our son insists we stop all contact with Jane now that they’ve broken up because he doesn’t want to see her and wants to feel free to bring his new girlfriend around. I can’t in good faith leave a young adult we’ve parented for years in the lurch, but we’re reaching an impasse with our son and he’s now angry with us. What should we do?
A: What a tragic situation, and how kind of you to step up and fill the breach in this hurting young person’s life. If only Jane had been your son’s dear friend, and not his girlfriend, this would be so much easier. It was essentially destined that this high school romance wouldn’t last, and now it hasn’t. You have obligations to two young people. First, to your son. Yes, you can be sad he and Jane broke up, but that’s normal, that happens, and you cannot put the weight of the world on him for wanting to move on from his high school girlfriend. You also can’t tell your son that when he comes home during the holidays his former girlfriend will be there. However, you can’t abandon her. So this is a very tricky needle to thread. First, try to establish some nondevastated communication with your son. Tell him that you understand that high school romances end and you are excited to meet his new girlfriend. Then explain all of you are in a difficult position because you, as adults, feel a moral and financial obligation to Jane. Explain you and his mother are going to do your best to discharge that without ever making him feel as if he’s done something wrong by breaking up. Say that you will not do anything behind his back, but you and his mother also want to help Jane move forward. She is alone in the world, and you two want to help her be less so. Then you and your wife need to have some talks with Jane. Surely, a girl who’s been through what she has needs counseling—not just to get over your son, but to get on with her life. She needs a larger network than the two of you. Maybe she can spend holidays with a roommate or a friend—while also visiting you two during, say, a short school break when your son is not planning to come home. You can tell her what you plan to do as far as financial support is concerned, but you two also need some counseling on how best to help her. Maybe, with Jane’s permission, you can talk to the dean of students on her behalf and explain her situation and that she needs attention and aid. But first, re-establish good relations with your son and some ground rules that honor his needs, while helping him see that his parents can help Jane without him feeling emotionally burdened.
Q. Daddy Wants a Gun: My 82-year-old father is doing well for his age but is not as swift and smooth as he used to be. Lately, when we go over for dinner, my dad gets my husband alone and asks him to buy a shotgun for Dad to use for “protection.” My parents live in a quaint small town, in a home with an alarm system. About as far from gun-toting crimes as one might imagine. If my mom knew my dad was asking my husband to buy him a shotgun, she would flip. My husband, however, is much less direct. He simply stalls and says things like, “I haven’t seen any shotguns for sale lately.” Then my husband gets in the car and tells me what a bad idea this is. I wish he would say as much to my dad because I feel like Dad needs to hear that this is a bad idea from someone, namely the person he keeps asking to buy him a gun! Do I need to step in? Or do I keep out of it and let my husband continue to slow-play Dad on this?
A: It sounds as if your father does not have the wherewithal to get a shotgun for himself. Your husband had made it absolutely clear he’s not going to buy one. I think that your husband’s temporizing may be a better strategy than outright refusal. It could be that if your husband tells your father this purchase is not going to happen, it could motivate your father into trying to get the gun himself. But this way, he can secretly express his desire to your husband, and your husband can continue to respectfully listen, and do nothing. That sounds the best way to keep everyone safe.
Q. My Stepson’s Night Terrors: My 7-year-old stepson has been having a lot of nightmares lately. I know he crawls into his mom’s bed at her house, and when he’s staying with us, he sometimes snuggles with his dad. The other night my husband traveled on business and my stepson asked to sleep in my bed. I felt weird about it and said no, but he could try the floor. He feared monsters would be able to get him down there, so we both spent a sleepless night on the couch. Was I heartless, or can a 7-year-old sleep in bed with his stepmom and not have it be weird?
A: Let’s hope this is a passing phase, but your stepson’s parents need to gently talk out with him during the day what’s going on at night and what’s in his nightmares. This is a 7-year-old who has been through a lot. His parent’s marriage broke up, and now he has a new stepmother. So it’s understandable that he may have some anxieties that get exacerbated at night. But even 7-year-olds with the most stable lives can experience nightmares. For his sake, he needs to be able to be comforted and fall back asleep in his own bed. But there isn’t anything weird about him crawling into the bed of the beloved adults in his life. It says something lovely about your relationship with him that he feels you are a beloved adult, and there’s nothing untoward about your stepson falling asleep next to you.
Q. Re: Daddy Wants a Gun: I think it might be worthwhile to talk to Dad about what exactly he wants to protect and why. My late grandmother pawned her engagement ring without talking to anyone for fear someone would cut her finger off for it. A friend’s father sold all his tools at a garage sale for a fraction of their value because he was convinced someone would break into his shed and steal them. Dad may have something specific in mind that he somehow thinks a gun would protect.
A: Good point about this desire for a gun possibly being a sign that Dad is experiencing some paranoid thoughts that could be indicative of some mental issues. This is something the letter writer needs to keep an eye on. I hope she can bring her mother into the loop without the mother flipping out. Maybe Dad is just worried because of stories in the news, and he can be reassured that he and his wife are very safe, and safer without a shotgun.
Q. Don’t Poop Your Pants, It’s Not Nice for Others: My mother was into organic and natural remedies before it became mainstream, and one of the main tenets of her beliefs was the incompetence and narrow mindedness of doctors and the medical system, which meant that I saw a doctor twice my whole childhood. Starting as a child, I had major issues with leaving major “gifts” in my underwear, most of the time in social settings. The situation did not stop as I became a teenager, yet some vitamins and long speeches about how it made people uncomfortable and I should stop were the extent of her actions. It took until I was 15 to find the courage to walk by myself into a doctor’s office and tell him I poop my pants on a regular basis to get a simple daily pill and resolve my problem. Twenty years later, I still resent her for putting her beliefs ahead of her son’s comfort and happiness. Yet I cannot see how bringing up the subject now would be beneficial: She would get hurt, and hearing sorry would not bring me closure either. Is that the type of things you just keep quiet about and just need to find happiness in the problem being gone?
A: Not finding unwanted gifts in your underpants should be its own reward. Your mother was so caught up in her own nutty belief system that she sacrificed your health to it. Fortunately, it sounds as if no permanent damage was done. You should look back and be proud that you had the guts to address what was wrong with your guts at such a young age. Surely, since your diagnosis, she was brought into the loop with the doctor and told you had a serious malady which thankfully could be medically addressed. I have talked about my dislike of the concept and term “closure,” but that doesn’t mean that wrongdoers shouldn’t acknowledge the mistakes they’ve made and hurt they’ve caused. If your mother still rails against the medical system, that gives you the perfect opening to say, “Mom, you do know that I have [medical condition here] and I had to get myself to a doctor to be treated. So I have empirical evidence that there are conditions for which traditional medicine is crucial, and even life-saving.” This may prompt her defensiveness, or it may prompt an acknowledgment. But that you now have a sphincter that’s closed in social settings is more important than seeking closure from your misguided mother.
Q. Re: Nightmares: If the stepmom is uncomfortable with having the kid in her bed, then she may try implementing a ritual for the kid when he has a nightmare. Try changing out his pillow or pillow case (after thoroughly checking for bad dreams that may be hiding inside), and maybe read his favorite story to get him to fall back to sleep. Perhaps some air freshener labeled “Monster Spray” could be sprayed in the closet and under the bed. It depends on the kid, but sometimes it helps to know there’s a grown-up on your side fighting those nightmares right beside you.
A: Thanks. This reminds me that during this period in my daughter’s life, I would come in her room with the “monster towel” and swat the monsters away while yelling, “Get out of here monsters or else I’m going to smack you!” and then slap the towel on the wall. She would end up laughing hysterically and then dropping off to sleep. So I agree that joining with the stepson to stop the monsters could be very therapeutic.
Q. Crazy Classmate: There’s a 31-year-old man in my major at college who makes a habit of pursuing 18-to-19-year-old undergrad girls. He makes all of us really uncomfortable in general, but we try to just ignore him. However, recently he’s been harassing my friend X from China, who won’t say no to him (but is equally as upset and creeped out by him). He follows her around and keeps hitting on her even after she’s said she has a boyfriend. Should I tell him to leave her alone? He won’t come after me—I’m too intimidating. Should I let it go, or address it?
A: Go with X, who may be too intimidated to do it herself, and talk to whomever at your school you report this kind of harassment to. This guy needs to get on the radar, and he needs a serious warning about not harassing—even stalking—his much younger classmates.
Q. Re: Daddy Wants a Gun: Original letter writer here. Yes, I think my father gets paranoid from watching too much TV news. I asked him the other day why he wants a shotgun, he answered, “I just want one.” I’m not sure he has anything specific to protect, but he thinks it will give him peace of mind—an old macho idea. I can’t think of a way to get Mom in the loop on this without her flipping out. They are often diametrically opposed on hot topics.
A: Since you’ve opened up this conversation, tell him you understand his fears, but that where he lives is safe, the news is in the business of riling people up, and that a shotgun will not make him safer, it will put him in greater danger. Then keep an eye on this—and occasionally tour the house to make sure he hasn’t purchased one on his own.
Q. Gluten-Free: I have a legitimate, near-fatal allergy to gluten and I have had it my whole life. Often when I say to people I’m eating with that I’m gluten-free, I get snarky comments about how it’s just a fad. Is there any way to politely convey that I have a real allergy, without being a killjoy?
A: You can say something like, “Being gluten free is the dietary fad of the moment. But for those of us with celiac disease, it’s a lifetime issue. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the intestines are destroyed when they react to gluten. I won’t bore you with the details, especially, at the table, but having celiac disease is no fun, but at least it can be controlled through dietary measures. Lucky for those of us who have this, the gluten-free movement has made our eating choices so much broader. But, please, let’s talk about something else.”
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.