Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: My Niece Has Behavioral Problems

Both of my kids are a few months younger than my niece, Joan, who is now four, and my nephew, Teddy, who is now two. I’m fortunate to work from home part-time, so when my sister, Lisa, went back to work after the birth of Joan, I enjoyed taking care of Joan for 35 hours a week, along with my own baby.

When my sister took her second maternity leave, she decided to stay home for a while, so I no longer cared for Joan. At that time I noticed that Lisa seemed to be carrying a lot of anxiety; her reactions to new baby Teddy seemed frantic. She would scoop him up at the slightest whine and leave family gatherings because “he’s overwhelmed by the noise.” I believe she was overwhelmed, but wouldn’t admit it. This type of frantic behavior began to extend to Joan, who was two at the time.

I can give you many recent instances of Joan being downright mean and violent to other children and adults – for example, snatching things, growling, throwing tantrums when she didn’t get her way, hitting, kicking, yelling, “I hate you.” Lisa typically gently corrects her, and then it is like there was no correction at all.

One time, after Joan had kicked my husband in the stomach, Lisa told her she could have an ice cream cone if she stopped. My husband looked at Lisa and said, “I can’t believe you are going to reward her after this behavior.” Lisa stormed off and didn’t talk to us for almost a month.

I babysit for Joan and Teddy on occasion (Teddy is really sweet). I try and give Joan the same expectations I have for my kids, but it’s become so many time outs and discipline issues that I’m worried she and I won’t have a good relationship with her in the future.

Does Joan need more hugs or a serious dose of discipline? Should I be blunt with my sister, or is she too fragile?

Based on your description, it appears you are justified in worrying about your niece’s behavior. You suggest that a main reason Joan is not getting the discipline she needs is because your sister is feeling overwhelmed. In fact, many women find that the arrival of a second child brings with it more responsibility and challenges than they feel capable of handling, at least initially. This consistent feeling of being overwhelmed can cause anxiety – these feelings of anxiety, in turn, can cause uncertainty, accompanied by a lack of confidence and energy to persist in setting and enforcing behavioral standards.

Consequently, and perhaps this applies to your sister, many parents resort to a permissive parenting style in which the child calls the shots – with the parent doing anything to avoid their child becoming upset. Pacifying the child, instead of disciplining, becomes paramount.

However, these parenting practices are ultimately ineffective and come with a price. As author and clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Markham points out, “Most parents hate the idea of causing their child to get upset. They don’t want to incite a tantrum, and they certainly don’t want their child to be angry at them . . . [however] kids do need appropriate limits. When parents don’t set limits, here’s what happens . . . ” She then describes nine outcomes that interfere with a child developing appropriate emotional health, including; the child’s desires are met at the expense of someone else; the child never learns to lovingly impose limits on herself.

How Best to Share Your Concerns

I don’t think talking directly with your sister to share your concerns is the optimal way to proceed. Rather, anticipating her defensiveness and rationalizing, I am going to suggest you write Lisa and her husband an e-mail letting them know your main concern: That is, in taking care of Joan you have noticed that more and more often she is behaving in aggressive ways. The result you see is that her combative behavior is interfering with pleasant interactions between the children.

Then you can specify your ground rules for going forward (described below). By using this approach you are focusing on Joan’s behavior when she is in your care. This is a legitimate concern.

It is possible your sister will be angry with you. You are, after all, calling into question her parenting practices by informing her that you think Joan has some behavioral issues that need to be addressed. However, with her husband in the loop, and by having a written document in hand instead of dealing face-to-face with you, I think you stand a better chance of her thinking about what you are trying to communicate.

If you decide to proceed, you must be willing to accept the possible consequences that Lisa may not respond at all, or she may respond in anger.

Ground Rules for Going Forward

I suggest you explain to your sister and her husband that you want to have a family meeting attended by Lisa and her husband and their two kids, as well as your own husband and your two kids. The purpose of the family meeting is to talk about the rules in your home when some, or all, of the children are playing together.

Keep the rules simple: (1) the children are expected to use their words when they are feeling sad or angry toward anyone; (2) no one is allowed to hit or kick or in any way hurt anyone; (3) if any child is being unkind or hurtful toward anyone, they should get an adult to help them sort things out. Emphasize that your goal is to have these rules so the children can enjoy their time together.

It needs to be clear that if following your rules becomes too difficult for Joan, she will not be invited back until she is able to follow the rules. This may involve several visits during which you have to call for Joan to be picked up before everyone fully understands your expectations.

I realize that my suggestions may stress the relationship between you and your sister, and that would be unfortunate. But the reality is that Joan’s unacceptable behavior is her parents’ problem, not yours. It becomes your problem only when you accept and tolerate Joan’s unacceptable behavior in your own home.

Also, it should be pointed out that your children and Teddy are observing how all this plays out, so a related question is: What do you want them to learn from all this?

A final suggestion for you: In this same e-mail or at another time, you may want to suggest to Lisa that she read the article I referenced above. You can mention that it has helped you figure out how best to help all four kids play happily and safely together when they are in your home.

To summarize: When you are in charge of someone else’s children in your own home, you, and not a child or the child’s parents, get to determine and require acceptable behavior. You always have the option of asking a child’s parents to come immediately and pick up their child who is not abiding by your rules. This is how you can best help yourself, a child with behavioral problems, and others impacted by a misbehaving child.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
E-mail queries to [email protected].

Karen L. Rancourt’s most recent book is,
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts.

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