Parenting advice from Care and Feeding.

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 two kids, ages 3 and 9 months. My husband and I have been very successful at modeling healthy relationships with food and sharing that with our toddler. We never make them finish their plates, we all eat together, and primarily eat healthy snacks but allow room for sweets and treats as well.

My problem is that their grandparents send ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE messaging around food. One grandmother wants to feed sweets all day, tells my toddler to “keep it a secret,” and gives out candies like they’re prized possessions. I am absolutely against secret keeping from parents for obvious reasons and have made that clear, so the result is that I can’t say no to sweets at their house and we all suffer the consequences (sugar high, sugar crash, won’t eat meals, etc. ). If I said to limit sweets, the secrets would resume.

The other grandmother frequently talks about sweets, cakes, and candies as though they are the undeniable pinnacle of human existence. Things like “No one would eat a banana if they could have a sweet” and “No one ever doesn’t finish a cookie!” And “Who could say no to having more chocolate?”  Neither grandparent is open to feedback, and any commentary I have on these circumstances results in outright denial, demeaning my values, and then of course, continuing with the behavior (or just making a big show of how sensitive I am and how “they can’t say anything” or I’m “so controlling”).

For what it’s worth, my toddler generally likes sweets but sometimes won’t even finish a lollipop. I see their behavior changing around the grandparents after they say things like this. Any advice for how to stop these messages from distorting the way my kids think about food?

— Sometimes I Prefer Bananas

Dear Bananas,

It’s great you want to teach your kids to have a healthy relationship with food, but try to back off a bit. It’s tough to tell if you’re talking about these issues in front of your kids, but if you are: restricting sweets or creating a culture of shame around them can lead kids to obsess over them, sneak them, or binge when they do have access to them.

Kids are pretty good at knowing what their bodies need in a non-restrictive food environment. And given that your kids are going to get plenty of negative messages about food and eating from our diet-obsessed culture, I don’t think they’ll be overly harmed by hearing Grandma rhapsodize over the joy of what many people consider to be one of life’s great pleasures. Ultimately, messages around sugar restriction are much more likely to distort their thinking about food than having some sugar at grandma’s house is.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My sons are 13 and 12 years old. Last year, both their dad and my dad, with whom they were close, died very suddenly. They’re struggling with these losses in different ways.

My father-in-law is 95. His health has been worsening for some years, but in the last two months, he has experienced a steep physical and cognitive decline. He can’t always remember his children, especially my late husband; and he becomes very angry, and sometimes violent, from time to time. He sometimes says that he’s going to end his life. My heart is breaking for him. It must be terrifying not to recognize people and not to have any sense of control. He will soon move into a memory-care home, but right now, my sister-in-law and a health-care aide are living with him. My MIL passed some years ago.

My sister-in-law has asked if we want to visit my FIL next weekend. (We haven’t been able to visit in quite awhile due to my job and also to his being in the hospital and recovering from a heart attack.) I’m torn. My kids love him, and I’ve told them generally what’s going on, but I’m afraid that a visit could be very upsetting – not just for my kids, but especially for my FIL.

I’m worried that he won’t know who they are and that he might become confused or angry, as he has been doing with others. My initial plan was to wait to see whether he’s having a relatively good day on Sunday and if so, visit, if not, reschedule. But my sister-in-law tells me that FIL goes from peaceful to angry and confused pretty quickly. I want to do whatever is best for FIL and the kids – maximize kindness and compassion, minimize fear, sadness, and confusion. I know there’s no perfect answer.  What would be kindest?

— We Should Visit, Right?

Dear We Should Visit, Right?

In general, I think visiting an ill relative teaches an important lesson about how we care for those we love even when it’s hard. However, since your father-in-law seems to be in the later stages of his illness and is exhibiting erratic and violent behavior, I think it really comes down to what you think your kids are emotionally equipped to handle.

They’re old enough to participate in a conversation about the changes in their grandfather’s brain and how they might affect a potential visit. I’m not sure if your FIL’s dementia is Alzheimer’s, but the Alzheimer’s Association has a resource page for explaining these changes to kids and teens. Let them know that although their grandfather still loves them deep down, the illness might make it difficult for him to remember things like their names, and can even make him feel angry and upset. He may no longer seem like the person they knew before his illness and as a result, the visit may make them feel sad. Find out how they feel about visiting once they have all the information, and follow their lead. If they don’t feel able to handle an in-person visit, perhaps you can visit alone and deliver cards or letters from your kids. Connecting with him in some way will make them less likely to have regrets later.

If they choose to take part in the visit, keep it short. Your father-in-law isn’t likely to have an accurate perception of how long you stay, and a 20-minute visit will be less taxing on everyone. Afterward, make some time to talk to your kids about the feelings that come up about the visit. If your father-in-law does act in upsetting ways, remind them that their grandfather does not mean to act that way and it isn’t anyone’s fault. The person he is underneath his illness will always love and care for them.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We have two dogs (7 and 1.5). My son is 2 and loves both dogs and tells us so. However, my 7-year-old dog has terminal cancer. At some point she will have to be put down. I have shed many tears already in the 6 months since her diagnosis and I know it will be hard for me when she passes. That being said, I also want to be prepared for my son during that time too. When that time comes, should we include our son in the process? Bring him with us to the vet for when we say goodbye? Let him stay with his grandparents that day instead? I know he’s only 2 but he’s an only child, and the dogs are his best buds and a part of our family. How can I support him in this transition, other than saying she’s gone to heaven/the sky? (An abstract idea for any child). I want to be prepared for when the time comes.

— Ruff Love

Dear Ruff Love,

Our beloved family cat had to be put down due to kidney failure in January, and I teared up a little just reading your letter. Like you, it was my first real experience with pet death, and you should know first off that it may hit even harder than you think it will. Loss of a pet seems to take an extra brutal toll on people, maybe because of the unconditional love our animals provide. This was hard on my 11-year-old son, who had a special and snuggly relationship with our cat, but I was amazed that he was able to bounce back from his intense grief more quickly than I was.

In the case of a 2-year-old, I feel strongly that bringing him along to the vet would be way too difficult for both of you. Instead, explain clearly to him what’s going to happen when the time comes, using words like “death” and “dying,” never “put to sleep,” a potentially confusing euphemism for a small child. If this is your child’s first experience with death, make sure he understands its permanence. Give him time to say goodbye to the dog in his own way and get his last cuddles in. For my son it ultimately helped him to know that our cat was no longer happy or enjoying his life due to his illness and that we were doing the right thing for him by letting him go so he would no longer be in pain. And of course, little kids are finely attuned to the emotions of their caregivers, so he’s going to feel and react to the stress in the house. So take care of yourself, but also remember that death is a part of life, and it’s OK for him to see you cry and feel sad as a result of your loss. This will show him how to grieve and process emotions when he needs to, an important lesson for all of us.

Dear Care and Feeding,

A while ago, I came across a video about a person talking about their struggles with ADHD. I thought the speech was very interesting and fell down a rabbit hole of finding out more about it. I found that a lot of the problems I have coincide with symptoms of ADHD, and after thinking about it for months, I started to wonder if I could have it. Recently, I brought up something related to ADHD for an essay for school, and was asking my mom a few questions about her opinion on the topic. She told me that she had been thinking for a while now that I could have ADHD, but she thought it could be easily fixed if I just “listened to her better,” so she didn’t bring it up. The only thing is, that’s kind of the issue in the first place. My entire life, my parents have been telling me to “just focus” and that I’m not trying hard enough or I don’t care enough. I really do try to pay attention in class and when others are speaking to me, but my attention just doesn’t stick and I don’t know how to fix it. I once heard someone say that trying to stay focused for them is like “trying to nail jello to the wall” and that is exactly how I would describe it. I know I shouldn’t diagnose myself, but I feel like having ADHD could be a real possibility for me. How do I ask for help when my parents don’t want to do anything about it?

— Am I Just Stupid?

Dear Am I Just Stupid,

First off – NO! As an adult with ADHD, I can tell you that neurodivergent people are anything but stupid. In fact, ADHD folks are wonderfully creative and quick-thinking, and can make connections others don’t see. We simply need help to accommodate the fact that our brains work a little differently. You’re right about one thing—people with ADHD will never be able to “just focus” or “listen better” without that help.

Almost everyone experiences some symptoms of ADHD and can find them relatable – the difference for me is that things like forgetfulness and inattention don’t come up from time to time, but on a daily basis, and so much so that they frustrate me and those around me and have negative consequences in my life. To know if you have ADHD, you really need to be assessed by a professional. Let your parents know how you’re feeling and ask directly for their help in getting screened. You may be able to do so for free through your school’s IEP assessment process. If so, make it as easy for your parents as possible by researching and letting them know exactly what they need to do to set that process in motion. (It may be as simple as sending an email requesting it.) Let your parents know the importance of being diagnosed as early as possible, especially given ADHD’s correlation with other diagnoses like anxiety and depression. Walking around wondering if you’re “stupid” has a highly negative effect on a kid’s self-esteem. Getting diagnosed not only provides an alternative explanation for what you’re dealing with, but it allows you to start getting the help you need to succeed.

—Emily

More Advice From Slate

My sister recently made the decision to medicate her 5-year-old daughter with Adderall. To give some background, my sister has mental health issues and has struggled with motherhood. There is very little structure, and the language she uses when talking to my niece is difficult to hear. There are extreme consequences for small behaviors, seemingly constant yelling, and my niece is often told to “go away” or to leave my sister alone. I truly believe my niece’s perceived “bad behavior” is a result of bad parenting and a lack of parental connection. She is sweet and cuddly with other family members, though is a bit strong-willed. It breaks my heart that she is now medicated. What should I do?