DEAR HARRIETTE: I recently started suspecting that my sister is involved in an abusive relationship. This wouldn't be her first time dealing with a toxic partner, but I thought she would have used her past experiences to never return to the same situation. I am not 100% sure, but there are a few signs that I am picking up on that let me know that things aren't going well for her. For instance, I noticed she had two broken nails wrapped up in a bandage. When I gently asked her about the situation, she told me it was her boyfriend who was the cause. She explained how they were just playing, and he's too rough at times. This doesn't sit well with me. I don't want to overstep my boundaries because she always protects his image and would get defensive if I accused her boyfriend of such a serious thing. However, I want to find out for sure if she really is in an abusive situation. How can I help find out and help my sister, without it being too obvious? -- In Danger
DEAR IN DANGER: Unless you physically witness your sister's boyfriend hurting her, it will be difficult for you to prove anything. What you can do is talk to your sister and remind her how much you love and appreciate her. Tell her that you are worried about her well-being and that you hope that she will tell you if she ever feels unsafe or is in trouble. Tell her that you will do whatever she needs to help keep her safe. Encourage her to do things with you and with friends outside of the relationship. Resist the temptation to judge her. Be a good listener.
You can also suggest she learn more about getting support by calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). You can read more at thehotline.org/help/help-for-friends-and-family.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I have a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old. My 5-year-old has been in preschool and is picking up bad habits from other kids. One of her teachers explained to me that there is a kid in her class bullying and hitting my child whenever the kid is upset. When my daughter comes home from school, she in turn hits my youngest daughter out of anger whenever she gets in trouble.
I hate how she learned this bad behavior and practices it at home with her sister. I also hate that she is going through this at her school. The teacher said this has been going on for a while, but I'm confused as to why she hasn't taken the appropriate steps to stop it. What can I do as a mother to change this situation? -- No More Bullying
DEAR NO MORE BULLYING: Talk to the school administrator immediately to find out why this bullying has not been handled and reported to you earlier. You should have been told at once. It is negligent of the teacher to have allowed this to continue.
You should look for another preschool in which to place your child. It is not worth it for her to have to endure this behavior. At the same time, you need to talk to her about managing her anger so that she unlearns that bad behavior.
DEAR HARRIETTE: During his first year of college, my son joined a fraternity. I am concerned that what he went through during his pledging process did not adhere to his and our religious ideals. I don't want to control his religious identity, but he tells me he is still Muslim, and I expect him to live in accordance with our faith.
How do I ask if my child still believes in our religion, and what should I do if he doesn't anymore? I would disagree with him but want to respect his choice. -- Religion in College
DEAR RELIGION IN COLLEGE: When your child gets to the point of college, your prayer should be that you have laid the groundwork for him to make smart decisions based on the values you have taught him and the decision-making tools you have given him. Will he make mistakes? Without question. Should you still have some measure of influence over him? Yes, but now it is limited. Your son needs to have space to make choices and live with them. I do not recommend that you query him about every single thing he does. Instead, I suggest that you continue to talk to him about values and ask him to consider how he can become part of his college community without losing those beliefs.
The pledging process for fraternities and sororities has many "secret" components. You may never learn all that he experienced, and honestly, that's probably for the best. Beyond what has already occurred, focus on the future. Encourage your son to navigate his life keeping his religious beliefs in mind. Be aware that he will not be perfect in his efforts to grow into adulthood. If you think back on your own life, chances are, you made your share of mistakes, too.
DEAR HARRIETTE: My husband has been experiencing a midlife resurgence of regular exercise, and while that is beneficial to his physical health, I'm concerned it is affecting his relationship with our son. He has been forcing our son to partake in various sports, and although my son is doing these activities, he's constantly complaining that he's being overworked, having to balance this regular intensive exercise with his work. How can I go about mediating this situation? -- Overworked
DEAR OVERWORKED: Remind your husband that this surge in exercise is his passion, not your son's. Suggest that he give your son some time off from the rigors of exercising so that he can have time for the other things that are important to him. Negotiate a more reasonable amount of time per week that your son works out with him. Then make sure that your son shows up for the agreed-upon schedule.
The way you can make this less agonizing for your son is to give him some say in what he chooses to do with his dad. What does he enjoy that his father is now doing? He can choose that. Also, encourage your son and your husband to use this time together to talk about life and other topics that will help the two of them bond.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I am the youngest of four children. My older sister has had the same boyfriend for four years. I like the guy, but I can see how he can be shady at times. My sister thinks he is perfect and hopes to marry him one day. When I ask my sister if they have ever spoken about marriage before, she says they have not because he doesn't like talking about the future, which I think is a little odd. I know my sister very well, and I know she is itching to get engaged soon. Do you think it is inappropriate if I ask my sister's boyfriend what his intentions are with my sister, or if he plans to marry her? -- Protective Sister, Las Vegas
DEAR PROTECTIVE SISTER: Do not ask your sister's boyfriend about his intentions! Instead, coach your sister on how to talk to her beau. She has to put her stake in the ground and tell him what she wants. The only way they have a chance of building a life together that works for the two of them is if she speaks up and lets him know what she wants and needs.
I remember my mother telling me that she and my father dated for several years. At a certain point, she told him that he had to make a decision or she was going to walk (my language). Her ultimatum prompted a proposal. They were married for 42 years before he died. It can work!
DEAR HARRIETTE: I commute to work every day, and have done so for the past year. I usually keep to myself and read or listen to music. The other day, a young man sat down next to me and was extremely distracting and loud. He was FaceTiming his friends and screaming into his phone the entire train ride.
I know it is a public train, and people are free to do what they want, but at the same time, there is an unspoken rule that you don't act too obnoxious or loud on the morning train rides. I got off the train very annoyed, and it kind of ruined my morning. Do you think it would have been OK to say something to this young man, or is it not my place? -- Train Rider, Westchester, New York
DEAR TRAIN RIDER: You could have kindly asked your seatmate to lower his volume, but I totally understand how unnerved you were. When extreme behavior shows itself before you, it can render you dumb. That is not me being disrespectful. This has happened to me on several occasions.
There is a good chance that this young man does not ride a commuter train often and was, therefore, unaware of how rude he was being. With the right approach, that of educating rather than scolding, you could have gotten him to consider being quieter. Try that next time.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I am applying for graduate schools and programs, and my parents are helping me pay for it. I have a few choices of schools, but my mother has been very enthusiastic about her alma mater. I like her alma mater, but I don't want her to be disappointed if I don't choose it. I'm afraid she will use her financial assistance to convince me to go there and will make me feel bad if don't. How should I choose the school that's right for me? -- Choosing Grad School, Atlanta
DEAR CHOOSING GRAD SCHOOL: Talk to your mother about your career goals and which schools have good programs that support them. Be specific with the information you share. The more you figure out exactly what you want to do and which institutions can help you reach your goals, the easier it will be for you to show your mother your options. Include her alma mater in the mix of schools. List the pros and cons of each school, and compare them. Your research will help you to determine which schools are best suited to you. Include your mother in this process so that she can see how you come to your top choices. This will make it easier for both of you to decide which is the best grad school for you to attend.
DEAR HARRIETTE: My mother and I have a very close relationship. I call her almost every day and update her with any big things going on in my life. Recently, she has started dating a new guy, and we aren't speaking as often as we used to. I am very glad that she is in a new relationship and is happy, but I miss talking to her. I'm not sure if it's selfish of me to want to speak to my mom all the time, being that I am 22 years old, or just that I'm not used to her having a boyfriend. I don't want to bring it up to my mom, because I'm scared she will take it personally or that I will seem very needy. What is your take on how much communication is healthy and normal between a mother and a daughter? Do you think I am overreacting when it comes to speaking with my mom? -- Daughter Misses Mom, Cleveland
DEAR DAUGHTER MISSES MOM: What you are experiencing is a natural shift whenever a loved one gets a boyfriend or girlfriend. Suddenly, there is less time for friends and adult children because the lovebirds are so devoted to each other. The good news is that the intensity that excludes others usually doesn't last too long. Give your mom some space to explore her new relationship. You can suggest that you spend some time together. Invite her to coffee or to go shopping, something that will get her attention. But try not to push too hard at first. She will come around.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I am recovering from a breakup, and my family and friends are supportive. My boss is encouraging and always wants me to be happy. However, she might be trying to set me up too early when I'm not fully recovered from the breakup. She has men in mind whom she would like me to meet, but I'm not ready. How can I tell her to back off for now, but that I will be ready later? -- Not Ready to Date Yet, Towson, Maryland
DEAR NOT READY TO DATE YET: It's great that your boss is supportive and that you feel comfortable talking to her. The other side of that is her being too involved. Ask your boss if you can talk to her for a moment. Thank her for her support during this difficult time for you, and tell her that you appreciate her interest in introducing you to potential new partners. Ask her to wait before she does anything. Explain that you are still hurting from the breakup and that you are too emotionally fragile to meet anybody new right now. Assure her that you will let her know when you are up for a date.
DEAR HARRIETTE: My in-laws have been coming around, and it has become an inconvenience for me and my family. We don't mind if they come over, but the problem is they come over unannounced. I work all day and sometimes come home stressed. My husband and I have told them to call before they come, but they don't. When they come in, they immediately want to jump into whatever conversation we are having. They interrupt the children to try to get them to hang out when they need to do their homework. They can be disruptive -- even though we know it is not intentional. How do I tell them they need to call before they come so they will listen? -- Need Advance Notice, Raleigh, North Carolina
DEAR NEED ADVANCE NOTICE: This is a hard situation that may require tough love. If you and your husband have the stomach for it, you may need to tell them that they cannot come in on days when you are stressed out. You can choose not to open the door, even acting like you aren't at home.
Your in-laws have a lot more time on their hands than you and your husband, which is making them not accept your schedules. You might have to hurt their feelings to give them the reality check that they need to respect your privacy. This will be an awkward period, but it should work if you stick to your plan to say no when you don't have the energy to entertain them.
Be sure to talk to them, too, and point out that when they come unannounced, they often unintentionally interrupt the children's homework and the overall family pattern. Suggest that you have a regular time when they visit for part of the day on the weekend or for dinner once a week -- something that is inclusive and manageable.
Harriette Cole is a lifestylist and founder of DREAMLEAPERS, an initiative to help people access and activate their dreams. You can send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106