Dear Amy: My mother was a single mom for most of my childhood. I was an only child. When I was 18, my mama got remarried. My stepdad and I get along really well, so no problems there. I don’t call my stepfather “Dad.” I call him by his name, “Jack.”
This has never been an issue, but my little sister, “Anna,” seems to have a problem with it. My little sister was born two years after our mom and Jack got married. I am 28 and she is 8 years old. She has commented several times on the fact that I call my stepdad by his name instead of calling him “Daddy,” and it’s clear that this really bothers her. We don’t want to just ignore the issue, but at the same time, we’re not really sure how to deal with it without accidentally making it worse. She’s a smart kid, but she’s also a bit developmentally behind, and so explaining to her the idea of stepparents and half-siblings is a little bit daunting. How do you tell a kid, “Well, your dad is not related to me the same way he is to you” without making her think there’s something wrong, when she still has trouble identifying that our cousins (who are very close in age to her) are our cousins, and not her aunts?
We tried telling her that I call him by his first name because I’m a grown-up, but it wasn’t very effective in putting her mind to rest. Do you have any suggestions for how I can handle this? — Big Sister Brenda
Dear Big Sister: Telling your sister that you call your stepfather by his first name because you are a “grown-up” is just not true, and this might continue to be an issue for the girl because she wonders why her family members aren’t being truthful about something so important to her.
Eight-year-olds are naturally curious about family relationships. This is completely appropriate. You and your family members need to stop acting like this is some strange, scandalous, or unfathomable mystery, and simply explain the family tree to someone who deserves to understand it.
Get out two pieces of paper. Cut out headshots of all of the pertinent parties (including your sister), and tape them to the papers. Label one “Brenda’s family tree” and the other “Anna’s family tree.” Include both your father and stepfather in your family tree, and also include her. Your mother needs to be transparent about her previous marriage and explain that she was divorced for many years before Anna was born.
Tell Anna about meeting her for the first time when she was a baby, and how tiny and cute she was, and how happy you were to finally have a sister.
While you’re at it, you could build this family tree outward so that your sister understands the distinction between aunts and cousins. This is the essence of the “teachable moment.”
Dear Amy: What, if any, is a good response to a person who calls attention to his or her obvious physical defect or condition?
For example, an overweight person recently referred to himself as a “fat slob,” and a somewhat homely person made a self-deprecating remark about his unattractive face.
It made me feel uncomfortable, and of course, I did not make any comment, but just passed over what had been said and went on to talk about something else.
Is there a better way to respond?
Dear Flummoxed: Self-deprecation can be a habit. It’s a way of trying to beat someone else to the punch. And yes, parading your own self-loathing makes others uncomfortable.
Your response was polite and natural. You could also say, truthfully, “Well, I don’t know how to respond to that.”
If you know someone fairly well, you can respond by saying, “I wish you wouldn’t talk about yourself that way.”
Dear Amy: I was very disappointed by your answer to “Unsure,” whose elderly mother was neglecting her hygiene and becoming forgetful. Instead of offering little suggestions about how to “respect” the older woman’s so-called rights, you should have insisted that she get screened for Alzheimer’s disease.
Dear Disappointed: “Unsure” was a dutiful and responsible daughter; she reported that she went to doctor’s appointments with her mother. I took it as a given that the mother was receiving regular checkups and made an assumption that her physician would be screening her for dementia. Because yes, this is a definite possibility, and Unsure should make sure her mother is tested.