Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,
I’m having a really hard time with something. My sister Elaine and her man split up when their daughter, Carmella, was four; she is now 12. His mom (Carmella’s grandmother) has stepped in a lot to help with Carmella; I just wish she wouldn’t let Carmella buy whatever she wants. Meanwhile, Elaine — who had some stints traveling, got married and then divorced from a different man, a guy no one liked — has kind of backed off in interacting with Carmella.
Now the family has an agreement of sorts that Elaine gets Carmella one afternoon a week, from when school gets out to until after dinner, so for about four or five hours a week. Carmella’s dad, who is a kind and supportive man who just wants Carmella to be happy, works a lot; he basically just lets her sit on her phone/in front of the TV most of the time.
So, eight years of this has turned Carmella from a sweet, cunning little jokester to a rude, saucy, unpleasant, angry, often bratty, young lady. And I say this with love. I don’t see her too often, about the same as her mom does, maybe a bit less. As the cool auntie, she loves me and looks up to me. She sometimes sleeps over and can be really sweet and cuddly. But of late she’s been upsetting me.
For example, recently I took her and her friend to a local festival, and her true colors really came out. She was mean and unsupportive of her friend throughout the day. She immediately spent all of the money her dad and grandma had given her on dumb plastic doo-dads that won’t matter in two days, and then begged me to help her purchase an $80 toy doll.
When I refused and suggested she don’t buy it, she spent the rest of the day on her phone and in a bad mood, with lots of huffing and puffing, one-word answers, and irritated complaints. I was sad for Carmella — it seems she is trapped in this unfortunate prison of placing more value on material things rather than on genuine love, gratitude, and kindness. My sister agrees with me; in fact, it’s driving the two of them further apart, which is tearing up my sister, too. What can I do? I’m afraid if I say anything to Carmella’s dad and grandma, they’ll be offended or defensive, or stop letting me hang out with her. Meanwhile, I worry that Carmella will morph from an unpleasant child to an unpleasant adult.
Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response
Because it sounds like you and Carmella have enjoyed a loving and solid aunt-niece relationship for all of her life, I am going to suggest that you have earned the right to be a coach to her. Even though it may not feel this way to you with some of Carmella’s negative behavior, you are in a position to advise and counsel her.
A few years ago a dad shared with me and with my readers what he and his wife had learned in dealing with their 15-year-old son who was behaving in ways they also found trying. I strongly urge you to read his advice and to watch the video that helped them to understand what their son (and your niece) go through in their adolescent and teen years. (The video, featuring Dr. Dan Seigel, is almost an hour and a half long, but you may find it well worth the investment of your time.)
Even if you don’t watch the video, an important takeaway is this: For the adult in these types of interactions [where the adolescent or teen is being rude and snotty], there is a tendency to focus on the lack of respect being shown by the adolescent, e.g., “Don’t roll your eyes at me, young lady.” Dr. Seigel and other experts point out that the emotion behind whatever is causing the adolescent’s frustration, insecurity or fear, abates in about 90 seconds, so the best thing offended parents (and aunts!) can do is to cut the kid some slack and let it go, at least right then.
“What can I do to help?”
Rather, you may want to try using this quintessential of all coaching phrases: “What can I do to help?” This phrase can be both disarming and supportive. If you are together and things are not going the way Carmella wants them to go, you can say, “I seems that you are not having a good time. What can I do to help?” If the unacceptable behavior continues, you always get to make an “executive decision”: “It seems that you aren’t having a good time, so I am thinking the most helpful thing I can do is to end this activity. Do you agree?” (If you are open to discussing it, discuss it. If not, state your reasons for ending the activity, and end it.)
Whenever possible, in situations where Carmella is struggling, use the phrase, “What can I do to help?” If appropriate, an arm around her shoulder or taking her hand while saying it can be reassuring to her. Do not give up if you are rebuffed!
Knowing that spending money and wanting stuff can be a problem for Carmella, you can head off these instances by discussing boundaries beforehand. For example, you can say to Carmella, “Let’s talk about how much money you have to spend today and what are acceptable purchases and what are ones that we will be avoiding.” As the adult in charge in your time together, you get to approve or disapprove expenditures, e.g., no fast food, no soda, no R-rated movies. You may want to share your “not happening on my watch” list with Carmella’s dad, grandmother, and mom.
In closing, I hope the three key points of my advice are helpful:
1. View yourself as a potential coach. You cannot dictate, but you can advise and offer counsel.
2. Show your concern and support by using the phrase, “What can I do to help?”
3. Plan ahead when you can anticipate certain issues arising in your time together.
As Dr. Seigel and other experts remind us, Carmella is still that sweet and nice girl: she’s just often struggling as she tries to find her way through her adolescent and teen years. Your love and coaching will go a long way in helping her along the way!
Note: Here are some other columns I have written through the years when uncles and aunts have sought my advice:
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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