If being abused, how do I get them to open up?
December 29, 2009 2:54 PM   Subscribe

Are my nieces and nephews being abused and if so, how do I go about getting them to open up?

I'm concerned for the well-being of my nephew and niece through marriage. The mother had them from a previous relationship and has a kid with my brother. I noticed the two older siblings are soooo quiet every time they visit my house. The little girl is about 11 and the other boy is 6. Their behavior, I find is a bit weird. They seem to feel very uncomfortable, it's only after an hour or two they start to talk but their speech sounds like they are 3 years old. I can't explain it well but the little girl likes to cling to me a little bit and the boy seems pretty normal after I get him talking. But they don't like to hug and they don't really say hi. Especially the little boy. When they open up gifts they don't look enthusiastic AT ALL. They don't say thank you. None of that. They are not rude children. They behave well but seems like they don't understand social norms. I want to prod them to open up a bit because I feel someone might be abusing them. I don't believe it's my brother or his wife but various people who babysits them. They seemingly respond well to my brother and their mom, they don't look uncomfortable with them but I feel something is off with those children. The one child that my brother and his wife share, definitely doesn't showcase the same behaviors of his older siblings. I need to know how to get the kids talking if something is up. How do I go about doing that? Please any questions asked, please email me so I can respond, cause this is important to me. iamnothere87@gmail.com.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I really, really advise against trying to get these kids to "open up". There may be nothing there but learning disabilities and poor socialization, or even just shyness or incomplete adjustment to a step-family. Spend more time with them more regularly and let them really get to know you. Research educational games to play with them that will help them develop in the areas that they need. If they are delayed in their speech you might try to delicately suggest to their parents that they get some kind of speech therapy/extra tutoring in that area. But I see no reason to jump to conclusions about abuse here.
posted by orange swan at 3:13 PM on December 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

I don't know that I would assume they're abused. Can you ask your brother if they have been diagnosed with any kind of autism spectrum or developmental disorders?
posted by availablelight at 3:26 PM on December 29, 2009

I've read this question a bunch of times and it's just odd to me.

Nothing you've written here would be a red flag for abuse. I don't know if you're talking about sexual or physical abuse, but it isn't relevant here; there's still no evidence (that you've shared, anyway).

They don't look enthusiastic when opening gifts? What does that have to do with abuse? They don't say thank you? Again, what?

You are the aunt or uncle - have you talked to their mother? Why would she not be the person you broach this with, especially if you don't suspect her of anything? If you have some specific reason to suspect the children's babysitters, why would you not present those reasons/evidence here or to the mother?

I can't put my finger on it, but this question is actually weirdly creepy to me. (also, 11 years old is a "little girl"?) You seem too interested in this, and if you approach these children about this, you are overstepping some serious boundaries. Sorry to be harsh.
posted by peep at 3:34 PM on December 29, 2009 [10 favorites]

My daughter is odd, too. She's seven, she has very strange speaking patterns, and she will not look you in the eye. You can move right in front of her; you can hold her head still, she will strain to look away from you. Around strangers, she will become like a climbing vine and hide the entire time. But she hasn't been abused, she has an autism spectrum disorder. Just because the kids are weird doesn't mean they're ominously weird. I'd leave it alone.
posted by headspace at 3:45 PM on December 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

I was actually like this through to my early 20's. It was mostly due to a very controlling family situation plus poor socialization. I'm not exactly sure what you consider an abusive situation for a child, but in my situation there was very little guidance but very large punishments for many many things; however, it wasn't like I was locked in a closet to starve or anything horrendous like that.
posted by wiretap at 3:46 PM on December 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

@headspace huh, I was like that too (the eye contact, keeping very still and speaking strangeness). It creeped the hell out of my aunts and uncles.
posted by wiretap at 3:49 PM on December 29, 2009

if you think the parents are safe and not abusing the kids - why wouldn't you take this to them?

talking to kids about abuse or prodding them to open up about it is a very delicate matter - one fraught with kids trying to please and kids trying to find the right answer. this is not something that should be attempted by someone who barely knows them without specialized training.
posted by nadawi at 3:52 PM on December 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

Wiretap: Do you like to spin around, and enjoy rubbing different textures on your skin? If so, you could have a flavor of sensory integration. My Wee is weird, but she's also a ton of fun. She does, however, creep people out by laughing in her sleep.
posted by headspace at 4:05 PM on December 29, 2009

You don't say how long their mother has been married to your brother, nor how often you are in their presence, but I would guess these have something to do with their interactions with you. Assuming that the marriage is somewhat recent, and/or that you don't visit with them frequently, look at it from their point of view -- a new step-father, with all his family members who are also new to them. That's a lot to take in when you are 6, or 11 (or 20, or 30). Some people are shy, or uncomfortable in new situations, or both.

Nothing you mention sounds like abuse to me. But I also wonder: If you suspect abuse from a non-parent, why haven't you mentioned it to your brother or their mother? And, if you suspect abuse from a non-parent, why do you believe it has gone unnoticed by the people who would be most vigilant (and for whom behavioral changes would be most obvious) --- that is, the children's mother and father, and their stepfather?
posted by Houstonian at 4:06 PM on December 29, 2009

My siblings and I are older than 25, and we're still like this at family gatherings.
posted by gjc at 4:23 PM on December 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

@headspace I actually did partake in both of those activities frequently. Well this explains a lot.
posted by wiretap at 4:48 PM on December 29, 2009

Is this really your place to intervene? Don't get involved unless you see abuse with your own eyes. Nothing but hurt will come of it. If you think there's an issue with a babysitter, babysit for them any time your brother and his wife want to go out.
posted by TheBones at 5:01 PM on December 29, 2009

Talk with your brother if you don't feel comfortable talking with his wife. I don't understand your concerns, but maybe you'll be able to explain them better in person than you did here.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:14 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have to wonder if anonymous was abused him/herself.
posted by rhizome at 5:21 PM on December 29, 2009

While I tend to agree that I don't see anything that definitively signifies abuse in your description, I'll play devil's advocate and say their lack of affect and severely withdrawn behavior could hint at something more sinister at work. I would start with talking to your brother in as neutral terms as possible. "Boy and Girl are awesome kids, but do they ever seem withdrawn to you? Do you think that's shyness or something in their past?" It's tricky because you want to ask open but focused questions that get to the heart of the matter without putting your brother (or his wife) on the defensive.

Another tactic would be simply to get to know them better, minus the prodding. Since they seem to warm with you after about an hour or so, I would imagine increased time together would make them more comfortable and more likely to confide in you if something is amiss. Truth is, these kids could just be shy, or the household they used to be in was not nearly as safe and an enjoyable place as their current home is. Tread carefully, pay attention, and foster a relationship with your niece and nephew. They may just need to know that adults can be friendly, safe people to be around and that could make all the difference in the world. Good luck!
posted by katemcd at 5:25 PM on December 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

It would be hard to tell if the kids are being abused just by the behavior that you describe. There could be all sorts of behavioral, emotional or mild developmental things going on that have been diagnosed (and not revealed to you) or undiagnosed. Sometimes parents don't like to share everything about their kids (even with family) because they are afraid of being judged or they want to protect their child's privacy. The kids could just be really, really shy and uncomfortable around you because they don't know you very well. They might be on ADHD meds that make them act sleepy and bored. They also could be picking up on the fact that you are really watching/analyzing their behaviors and it makes them self-conscious.

It could be that their parents and caretakers have different parenting philosophies than you have been exposed to. A lot of parents are big enforcers of traditional manners (say please and thank-you), speech (talk like a big girl) and the mandatory hugging of adults (give auntie anonymous a big goodbye hug!). Some parents don't follow this structure for a variety of different reasons.

It these kids have been through a parental separation, that is a lot for them to deal with so young. I know one divorced family that splits custody and the pre-teen kids have been infantilized big-time by the parents and grandparents. Nobody wants to be the disciplinarian because they feel like they hardly get to see the kids and they don't want to be the "mean/ strict parent." So as a result, the kids are allowed to behave immaturely or with poor manners. I think as an adult in their lives, you can help by spending time with them and treating them in age appropriate ways. You could also talk candidly to your brother about them and ask if everything is okay with them.
posted by pluckysparrow at 5:50 PM on December 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have to wonder if anonymous was abused him/herself.

I was abused as a kid (by someone in authority at my school), and I certainly didn't want to open up to my uncles or aunts about it. Though if they'd shared concerns with my parents, that might have been helpful.

Of course, that was me and that was almost 40 years ago, but that's the only personal datapoint I have to offer.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:17 PM on December 29, 2009

"talking to kids about abuse or prodding them to open up about it is a very delicate matter - one fraught with kids trying to please and kids trying to find the right answer." (Emphasis mine.)

Please understand that children are very, very impressionable, and have malleable, magic thinking. You may very well prod them to telling you they have been abused, when they have not, just to give you the answer you are looking for.

I have to agree with other posters here that your description doesn't necessarily point to abuse, and has just as likely a cause in stress or developmental disabilities.

The very best thing you can do for these two is talk with their parents.

(Read this thread for some examples about kids and their interpretations of events.)
posted by moira at 7:29 PM on December 29, 2009

I guess I'm having a hard time understanding what is to be gained by talking to the parents. Please help me to understand how butting into a very personal family matter is going to help anyone. The focus here should be on the two children and not putting your mind at ease, whether there's something to these allegations or not.

If there is something going on, I would think that an aunt/uncle would be that last person that should be so involved, though one of the first to be concerned, especially because you seem to genuinely care about your nephew and niece.
posted by TheBones at 7:47 PM on December 29, 2009

I guess I'm having a hard time understanding what is to be gained by talking to the parents.

The parents might not notice that the kids don't have all the social skills their aunt/uncle expects them to, which might or might not be helpful information. My parents didn't notice I needed glasses until a teacher told them.

Also, the parent might explain to the poster the reasons for the children not having the social skills the aunt/uncle expects.

I think the two good options here are:

A) Butt out of the whole thing and just accept that these children have a different style of interaction than the one one expects;

B) Talk to the parents about how one finds the childrens' style of interaction to be unfamiliar/unusual/not what one expects.

Any option that involves telling the parents one thinks the children are being abused is, based on the information presented so far, not appropriate. Any option that involves "trying to get the children to open up" is just a gigantic trainwreck waiting to happen.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:17 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

We don't have much information to go on, but sometimes kids are just quiet around adults and would just rather be home watching TV or playing video games. Or maybe it is some complicated feelings about being part of a new family?

However, on the other hand, do you have reason to suspect that some of the various people who babysit them are kind of shady and not to be trusted? Should you ask the kids about those people, once they feel comfortable enough with you to talk to you?
posted by citron at 8:18 PM on December 29, 2009

again - no, the OP should NOT approach the kids about "shady" people who might take care of them. if the OP is really that concerned, she should talk to her brother. Moira has already reinforced my points here - but kids, especially the 6 year old, aren't well equipped enough to be pried open about potentially scary situations by someone who isn't a caretaker, isn't trained, and has no idea how to relate to kids.

IF the OP thought the parents were the abusers, the advice would be different, but the advice still wouldn't include having a relative outsider with zero training try to get the kids to open up.
posted by nadawi at 8:49 PM on December 29, 2009

This is the worst advice I've ever read on askmefi, and that's saying something.

Child abuse happens because concerned adults on the periphery say things like:
"It's not my business."
"It's probably nothing."
"It's not my place."
Etc. Etc. Etc.

Look, you KNOW there is something wrong. Maybe it's abuse, maybe just poor socialization. Whatever it is, you have everything to gain by establishing a rapport with these kids.

I'd start with low-key activities. If an adult tries to have a big, formal heart-to-heart talk, most kids will clam up. However, if the focus is on something else (like shooting baskets or riding in the car) the kid may let down their guard enough and talk frankly.

If you've established a rapport, you can make some general, factual statements. For example: "If an adult hits a kid, screams insults at them, or touches them sexually, that's abuse. Some kids who have this happen to them think it's their fault, or that they brought it on themselves. It's never the child's fault. If anything like that ever happens to you, I want you to know you can tell me." That's all you have to say. If they're not being abused, no problem. Every kid should get to hear an adult say that, whether or not they're being abused.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:13 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

What these children need is support from the poster and from their parents, who by the poster's account, are not suspect. They need the adults to discuss together and look into possible problems, if it's something the parent's haven't looked into or addressed yet. They may need be taken to professionals, who know how to identify and address any of the issues that may be at hand.

They don't need to be more confused, scared, or uncertain than they already may be.

The advice here isn't to ignore it, but to approach it in the kindest, gentlest, most efficacious way.
posted by moira at 9:57 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

This sounds like me when I was a child and up until I was about 16 or so. I was never abused, physically or mentally, and I was properly socialized but I was just wasn't comfortable around anyone that wasn't in my immediate family or circle of friends. It was never diagnosed, but looking back, I definitely had some sort of social anxiety disorder. I know my extended family thought I was "weird," because they would always ask me why I was so quiet or what was wrong. Nothing was wrong, I just wanted to be left alone. And I would clam up more when people would pry me to talk. The only thing that seems weird to me about your situation is that the kids don't say thank you. And the hugging thing, nothing was worse to me as a child than someone I didn't want touching me forcing a hug on me. Don't do that to them.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 10:44 PM on December 29, 2009

How well do they know you and how long have they known you? Maybe that is the cause of their shyness and awkwardness in your home. They don't like hugs? Well maybe they don't get a lot of hugs, or maybe they don't like hugging people they don't know very well. There is nothing odd about that. My kids don't say hi half the time either. It makes me uncomfortable sometimes but I have to remember that I am the model. (I wonder if they see me and my husband saying hello to people enough. I do not force them to "say hello to auntie" That is embarrassing to a child. They can say hello if they feel like it. Maybe this is the approach their parents take and why they are not saying hi when you feel they should.)

Nothing you described points to abuse. It sounds like they are shy and don't know you very well. I was abused and I was the nicest, people-pleasing, please and thank-you girl you've ever met. I think you should let these kids be and talk to the parents.
posted by Fairchild at 10:54 PM on December 29, 2009

Maybe it's been drilled into them to be "on their best behavior" when they're over at your house, and they're confused about what that is.
posted by hermitosis at 11:45 PM on December 29, 2009

Well, I know the OP asked for people to email him/her if we have any questions so I'm emailing you mine!
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 1:39 PM on December 30, 2009

I don't know your relationship with your brother, but if possible, just say to him "Hey, I noticed the kids act a lot different than a lot of other kids their ages I know." It's kind of easy sometimes as a parent to have blinders on to behaviour and development.

I think my son's pretty cool, but the way he acts around some of the other kids at his day care has raised some red flags with the caretakers there. My gut reaction when one of them said "we'd like to bring in some experts to get some advice about how to handle the behaviour issues some of the kids have, and your son is one of them" was defensive but it didn't take long at all to think "hey, if she's worried then it's worth looking into and getting expert advice about child-rearing can't hurt anything."

Being the person I am, I'm attributing my son's behaviour to being bored all the time because he's a super awesome super genius, but the point I'm trying to get to is that while it's a hard conversation to have I'm glad the caretaker brought it up. A large part of the reason he's in day care is for socialization and if there's something we can do to make that easier for him (I am pretty bad at it myself) then he'll have a better life as a result. If you broach the subject with your brother, even if he shoots you down or says "naw, not my kids" or anything like that at least the seed will be planted and he'll possibly be more vigilant and attempt to be a bit more objective.
posted by cCranium at 1:54 PM on December 30, 2009

Sounds like, say, PDD, which includes speech issues, but you really need to ask Mom and Dad.

Inappropriate to talk to them without talking to their caring, capable parents.
posted by kathrineg at 7:41 PM on December 30, 2009

Don't take this the wrong way, but they may just really not like you. Or rather not you in particular but their new step family. I despised my stepmother and her family (for pretty valid reasons). I wasn't abused, but I was dragged to these family gatherings and was absolutely miserable. I was already naturally shy, so being with my "new family" who I didn't like and had nothing in common with pushed me deep into my shell. I probably acted more socially appropriately than what you describe, but same kinds of behavior. I learned to fake it better as I got older.

I really have no idea if this is the case here, but something to consider. Especially if they appear to act normally in other situations with other people and are doing fine in school.
posted by whoaali at 11:59 PM on December 30, 2009

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