What’s the right age to tell kids about the “facts of life?”

By Amy Dickinson

October 1, 2014

Dear Amy: What is the right age to tell a girl about her period and the “facts of life”? My daughter just entered the fifth grade (she is 10).

Many of her friends have started to develop (she has not).

I was always told to answer a child’s questions when they ask, but she has not asked any! I believe sex ed is part of the curriculum in the coming year and I want her to know everything from me before she learns it in school.

We have a wonderful, close relationship but I could use some help about how to get this conversation started. 

— Just Wondering in Colorado

Dear Just Wondering: A child who has never had the experience of frank and open conversations about her body with a parent will not ask about these things — because she simply doesn’t know what to ask about, and she doesn’t know how to initiate this sort of inquiry with you.

She is at a good age to learn about the changes in her own body and what these changes mean in terms of her physical development (as a girl) and emotional development (as a person).

Girls generally receive lessons and material about the “facts of life” in fifth grade (ask her teacher); if she is lucky this will be accompanied by a written pamphlet and also some hygiene products. We grown women sometimes look back on this awkward school lesson and material with a sort of bemused fondness, but it is extremely valuable because it encourages a girl to take ownership of the process. Many girls find this quite exciting — and this is the attitude to encourage at home.

I highly recommend the book I have given to all of my daughters: “The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Younger Girls” by Valorie Schaefer (American Girl, 2012). This is a book to look at and talk about together. Your daughter will keep it by her bedside and refer to it privately too.

Teen’s tantrums sicken family

By Amy Dickinson

September 29, 2014

DEAR AMY: My 87-year-old husband suffered a life-threatening medical problem. Two of our granddaughters — ages 22 and 17 — visited his hospital room. When he inquired about the 17-year-old’s school performance, she melted down — crying and yelling, “You always put pressure on me!” — and ran from his room.

Her older sister tried to calm her and encourage her back into the room. It was fairly upsetting for my husband and, in my view, inappropriate behaviour.

It is now months later, and the teen refuses to make contact with us. Although a discussion and apology would be nice, at this point we would be happy for contact and a conversation.

I am troubled by the parents, who have essentially thrown up their hands: “It is what it is.”

They continue to have low expectations for this child. She has had tantrums all her life, and there have never been consequences attached to these episodes.

We have cordial relationships with our other grandchildren and their parents, but the elephant in the room is the unacceptable behaviour of the 17-year-old.

My husband would like to write off this grandchild. I don’t want to, and I see the behaviour of this child as stemming from some conflicts between our son and his wife.

Our older grandchildren have been wonderful and are also concerned with how spoiled their sister is. What do you advise?

- Very Disappointed

DEAR DISAPPOINTED: I agree with you that this child’s behaviour was atrocious. I also agree (somewhat) with your husband, although I interpret his suggestion about “writing off” this child as basically letting things lie until she can find a way to work her way back into the fold.

A huge consequence of her behaviour is that people don’t feel good about her, and she likely doesn’t feel good about herself.

Do not ignore the entire family because of what this girl has done. Focus your attention on the people who are behaving well.

She sounds like a very high-strung and challenging person. I don’t know if you’ve ever had an obnoxious teen on your hands, but it can be pretty hellish for everyone.

Your attitude should be, “She behaved very badly, but she is young and foolish — and life is too short to wallow in these bad feelings.”

It’s cider time.

It’s cider time.

When Grannie divorces, how to deal with awkward questions?

By Amy Dickinson

September 26, 2014

DEAR AMY: I am 65; my husband is 67. We have been married for 13 years. Now we are divorcing. He will be leaving our state after the divorce, when he retires, and won’t be returning.

My husband has been a step-papa to my grandchildren. The older grandchildren will understand his absence and why. My concern is that my three-year-old granddaughter continues to ask us, “Where is Papa Danny?”

How do I and her parents explain the divorce and that he will no longer be in her life? He rarely participated in family visits anyway (he’s that way even with his own side of his family), however my sweet granddaughter still will wonder and ask where he is and why she doesn’t see him anymore.

Because of certain circumstances we have agreed not to contact each other’s family members.

Can you please give us your advice?

— Divorcing Grandmother

DEAR GRANDMOTHER: Tell the truth, and do so in a way that is age appropriate and neutral (ideally “Papa Danny” would talk to all of the kids before he moves). When she asks, you should say, “Papa Danny moved away because we’re not married any more. Now he lives in a new house in (name the town).

If she asks, “Will I see him?” you should say, “I don’t think so, because he moved away and I don’t think he’ll visit us. But you’ll see me just like always because I live here. I’m staying in my old house and you’re going to come visit me, just like always.”

Answer any questions she asks, and if you don’t know the answer, say so honestly. If she acts sad, prompt her to talk to you and express herself. Give her positive physical and emotional affection. Offer her lots of lap time while you two read together.

For young children, the great treasure of having grandparents in their lives is the feeling the child has that they are with someone who is both wise and older than the hills and the stars. You may be feeling personally unsure or off kilter, but in the eyes of your grandkids, you can make the world whole. Be like that for her.

How to recover from an affair? Start with an apology

By Amy Dickinson

September 20, 2014

Dear Amy: My husband of 34 years had an affair with a co-worker, lasting for a year. He has had at least one other affair that I know of. With the aid of a therapist, I confronted him, and he said the whole affair was a terrible idea, and that he wanted our marriage to stay together. He agreed to cut communication with the woman. She moved away.

A year later, after working hard (on my end) to try to repair the marriage, I found out that the two of them had been having long weekly phone calls that my husband had gone to great lengths to conceal. I said that if he felt compelled to continue the calls, I would leave the marriage.

Fast forward another year. The calls continued in spite of repeated pledges by my husband that they were not occurring. I confronted the scarlet woman and told her to cut it out, or I’d spill the beans to her husband.

She did.

Here’s the problem: My husband has never apologized for his actions. He says if he is warm and loving, that should be enough for me, and I should get over these events.

My husband is pleasant enough but is hardly warm and loving. He continues to have multiple phone numbers and multiple e-mails in his name. I’m not accusing him of romancing women, but I feel insecure. If I try to bring up our relationship, my husband refuses to talk because he says all I do is tell him that he is a horrible person (that is not true). He refuses to talk with a therapist.

Any hope here? — Saddened

Dear Saddened: I do have hope — mainly for you. Your marriage? Not so much. Your husband seems determined to deny you the healing and intimacy you desire. Catching him, catching him again and being proactive in driving off his mistress is pretty exhausting. You are expending all of the effort to keep your marriage going. He is passively letting you.

"Pleasant enough" isn’t a very high standard in a spouse. "Pleasant enough" is the ultimate standard you set for your dental hygienist, not your husband.

You need to value yourself more. An apology is not the MOST your husband can give to you; it is the very LEAST he can offer. And he is not even willing to do that. Reread your letter to me. Continue with your therapy. And then do what you want to do.

My advice to a young writer?: Look in the mirror for material

By Amy Dickinson

September 20, 2014

Dear Amy: I just started school again, and it sucks — already!

I don’t really have friends, and my classes are boring. I’m so stressed already, not just because of school but other things also. My favorite class so far is English. It’s interesting.

I have a really wonderful imagination, so I think I want to be a writer, but I’m horrible at putting my imagination on paper. Can you suggest a way for me to be a wonderful writer one day? 

— Bored

Dear Bored: You can be a wonderful writer now, if you want to. The way to do this is to start to write down stories about your own life and experiences.

You should ask your teacher for recommendations for books to read that will fire your imagination and inspire you to write your own stories.

My favorite new book for middle-grade readers is “The Swap” by Megan Shull (2014, Katherine Tegen Books). This imaginative and funny book about a boy and girl trading bodies will give you insight about friendship and the stresses of school and family.

You’re already sitting on an inspiring, occasionally frightening, funny, complicated and truly unique story — and that is the story of you.

For this foster family, it’s nothing but grief

By Amy Dickinson

September 18, 2014

Dear Amy: My husband and I have been foster parents to a sibling group of three young children for the past year and a half. We recently found out that despite our hopes of adoption, the children will be leaving us soon, which is absolutely heartbreaking.

We live in a small town where everyone pretty much knows one another’s business, and I am dreading the inevitable questions that we will be asked about the kids’ departure everywhere we go.

We are not “career” foster parents and only became licensed to take in these children, so I’ve never had to deal with this sort of thing before.

Any suggestions on how to deal with the nosy but well-meaning masses? I don’t want to come off as rude but really have no desire to give anyone the play by play. 

— Sad Foster

Dear Sad: You are to be commended for your effort to make life better for these three children.

As you know, reunification with birth families is a priority for children in foster care, and well over half of foster kids are in fact returned to their birth families. One aspect of the fostering experience is the sheer bravery it takes to face the challenge of parting with children you love.

It would help if you keep in mind that these children were also present in others’ lives — whether neighbors, shopkeepers or the mail carrier.

A simple non-nosy question: “Hey, where are the kids today?” could plunge you into a complicated grief state. You don’t mention the specifics, but you should prepare a simple, truthful answer, such as: “The court made a decision, and they have been placed back with their birth mother.”

It’s usually the second, third and fourth question after a loss that provide the biggest challenge. These come from people who have follow-up questions or unsolicited advice (or who want to share the story about their sister-in-law’s cousin who had “the exact same thing happen!”).

Prepare yourself with this: “We’re struggling right now, and I’m not ready to talk about it.”

The agency that chose you to be foster parents can point you toward support. There are also many online discussion boards devoted to foster parenting, and you would benefit from connecting with other parents in this way.

She loves him; he loves porn

By Amy Dickinson

September 16, 2014

Dear Amy: I have been married for almost 10 years and have caught my husband with various forms of pornography. Recently I found out he has been getting erotic massages and calling “fantasy” phone lines. I’m devastated because he has betrayed my trust and our wedding vows.

I say he is cheating; he says he’s done nothing wrong. I overheard him telling his buddy, “I’m just a guy.”

Who’s right? Do you think the marriage is salvageable? 

- Distraught Wife

DEAR DISTRAUGHT: When it comes to this kind of behavior and the way it makes you feel, does it really matter who is “right”? (Hint: You get to define the boundaries of the marriage you want to be in.)

Your husband’s characterization of his activities as just being “a guy” is an insult not only to you but to guys in general. Most married guys don’t do this, but the ones who do want to normalize it.

Generally, when someone goes from viewing pornography to seeking contact through erotic phone services and then on to receiving erotic massages, it’s a sign that his sexual behaviour is escalating. You should ask your husband how he defines “cheating,” try your utmost to have a frank and honest conversation about this and get tested for STDs.

The question that gave me an instant hot flash

Amy Dickinson

September 13, 2014

Dear Amy: When we were dating, my wife was the sweetest woman in the world. She didn’t make a move without asking me. We had a few kids. She stayed home and raised them while I worked. The kids grew up and went off on their own. The wife got a part-time job to keep herself busy. Then she got promoted. Now she works full time, goes to business lunches and dinners, meetings and training sessions. She comes home, cooks and cleans. She doesn’t ask me what I’d like for dinner but makes whatever she feels like.

Our plan was for me to retire when I turned 62 (she’s 57), buy an RV and travel the country. Well, we bought the RV, but she can only go on weekend trips. Vacations are saved for when the kids come home.

She traded in the car I bought her to tote the kids around for a sports car that I can barely fit in. Now she’s talking about getting a smaller house because she doesn’t have time to clean “a big empty house.” I keep telling her we will have grandkids one day and she will be glad we have all the space.

She’s changed so much in 37 years that I don’t even recognize her, and I’m afraid one day I will wake up to a “for sale” sign in my front yard.

How do I convince her she is just going through “the change” and in a few years she will be back to normal again?

 — Mystified Mike

Dear Mike: Your wife is definitely going through “a change,” but it might not be “the change.”

Your job is not to blame your wife’s choices on menopause. In fact, that notion is quite condescending and offensive. Please, don’t go there.

It seems that you two had a very “traditional” relationship, and she has switched the rules of the game.

There are a number of things you could and should do differently, but your situation basically boils down to this: When your wife grows and changes, you have choices — you could either cry into your cups and complain that she no longer asks you for your menu choices before cooking and cleaning for you after working all day, or you could step up like a good partner and show your wife that you, too, are capable of growth and change.

You obviously feel neglected. The power has shifted in your household because you and the kids are no longer in charge of her. This transition is bound to be rocky, but you should take it as an opportunity to make some changes too.

A marriage counselor could help you negotiate workable compromises.

Nudity in dorm prompts naked jealousy

By Amy Dickinson

September 12, 2014

Dear Amy: I attend a small college in Wisconsin. I live in a dorm. My girlfriend lives in the same dorm on a different floor.

I stopped in to see her this morning. My girlfriend and her roommate have bunk beds. My girlfriend sleeps on the top bunk, and her roommate sleeps on the bottom.

As I entered my girlfriend’s dorm room I noticed that her roommate was still sleeping. She had a companion with her in bed. It was a guy I did not recognize. They were both covered with a blanket.

I could tell that they were topless and probably naked. As I was talking to my girlfriend, the guy woke up. He casually got out of bed. He was indeed naked. He quickly got dressed and left. I am a little concerned that a naked guy is sleeping in the same small room as my girlfriend.

I am upset that she has apparently seen him naked more than just this one time. I know she is not doing anything with him, but he parades around in what is essentially my girlfriend’s bedroom nude. When I asked my girlfriend if he had ever seen her totally naked, she did not answer me at first.

Then she admitted that he had seen her with nothing on! What should I do? 

— Worried Boyfriend

Dear Boyfriend: What should you do? You are not called upon to do anything. This situation does not seem to bother your girlfriend. (It would bother me to be forced to cohabit in a small room with someone having sex with her boyfriend on the bunk below — and it obviously bothers you, for different reasons).

If you were invited to enter the room and your girlfriend’s female roommate were walking around nude, would it bother you? Would it bother your girlfriend?

I’m trying to step back and describe a scenario in which the three people involved are deliberately exposing themselves or at the very least not bothering to cover themselves. (And how hard is it to throw on a towel?)

If your girlfriend does not like this situation, she should contact her resident adviser and also the dean of housing to complain.

This obviously makes you uncomfortable, and you are feeling jealous. You and your girlfriend need to talk about this.

You two may have different nudity comfort levels (which might be something you can work through). However, you might also have different values, and values are non-negotiable.

I was Annie Hall before Diane Keaton rocked her first set of suspenders. Employee photo: NBC News in Washington, 1983 #tbt

I was Annie Hall before Diane Keaton rocked her first set of suspenders. Employee photo: NBC News in Washington, 1983 #tbt

Is binge watching TV that much different from binge reading Harry Potter?

By Amy Dickinson

September 11, 2014

Dear Amy: My wife and I have three great kids, ages 9 to 15. We live in an affluent community where most kids have “smart” devices and all manner of video game optionsat home. I am not against technology, but when my kids had free time this summer, their first choice was to either watch movies or entire television series online — or play video games. If left unattended, they can remain glued to their screens for hours.

To break the pattern, we’d go swimming, play ball in our yard, ride bikes or go to the library. When the alternative activity ended they would inevitably gravitate back to their favorite shows or games for another mini-marathon.

To be fair, when I was a kid I used to watch game shows on TV with my sister and cousins all morning during the summer. But we did a lot of other things, too. I think my kids are missing out on some of the simple pleasures of childhood, but maybe the simple pleasures are different now.

My wife and I have tried several times to regulate this, but despite our intentions, these rules tend to get quietly broken.

I don’t want my kids to resent me for trying to control a habit, but I am not comfortable letting things go. Your insight? 

— Uncertain Dad

Dear Dad: In your youth, the media offerings were slim, and yet you report watching game shows during your summertime mornings. I assume that if there were daylong game show marathons, you would have spent longer periods in front of the set.

I do think there is an (imperfect) equivalency between binge watching TV series and binge reading all seven Harry Potter books — both activities have to do with getting lost in an entertainment during the endless days of summer.

But being in charge of your kids — and teaching them to control themselves — is your job. You need to become media literate. Talk to them about what they watch and occasionally watch (and play) along with them.

You also need to be a human remote control. Whether you decide to switch off the wireless during certain hours or have them turn in their devices during “blackout” times, this is a parenting no-brainer.

Initially, your kids may flop around, act bored and whine about their imperfect lives. But boredom has an important function, because pushing through it can unleash creativity, outside play or (God forbid) helping out at home.

Man ruminates on long-ago insult — and wonders how to recover

By Amy Dickinson

September 8, 2014

DEAR AMY: A year ago, I attended a sports event with three men, one of whom I had never met. As we chatted, this stranger commented on my appearance in a degrading and humiliating way.

I was stunned by his unprovoked, out-of-the-blue verbal attack. My response was to high-five this jerk as though his comment was clever, rather than offensive.

To this day, I am haunted by the memory of this interaction — not so much by his words, but by my submissive reaction.

Our paths will never cross again, and I don’t seek revenge. I just want to stop thinking about it.

Haunted in Carolina

DEAR HAUNTED: You are in the throes of a cycle of rumination, where you replay this unsettling event in your mind, always coming to the same conclusion: “I am humiliated.”

Your goals should be to face the reality of what happened, acknowledge and address its effect on you, and change the pattern.

Write down a detailed account of what happened that day, how it made you feel and why you think it made you feel that way. Writing about this could lead to unexpected insight.

Next, you must forgive yourself. In some contexts your behavior might be a wise survival instinct, but for you the submissive reaction is more humiliating than the original put down. You shouldn’t place your behavior on the same level as the person who offended you.

Moving forward, when you find yourself ruminating, change your mental tape from one of feeling shame and rehearsing different outcomes to feeling compassion and forgiveness toward yourself.

Finally, take the insight you have gained and turn it outward to express empathy and compassion for all of the boys and men who have to tolerate tormentors as a way to simply get by.

Toasting Joan Rivers at the Chanticleer.

Toasting Joan Rivers at the Chanticleer.

Don’t mess.

Don’t mess.