Being a good aunt to kids whose parents are divorcing
April 1, 2014 1:18 AM   Subscribe

How can I be a good aunt to my 13-y-o niece and 14-y-o nephew as their parents split? I want to be someone they can use during this transition.

The kids like me - we spent a lot of time together when they were little, and in recent years I've become the cool aunt who lets them swear, etc. - but we haven't spent much time together in the past two years as they've become immersed in their own social circle (and as their father - my brother - and I became estranged, which I don't think they know anything about).

We live in the same city. I intend to invite each of them, individually, to activities they like, and to text them goofy stuff so that they know I'm around. But I really have no idea how best to be available to them other than that. My parents split when I was six; it was no big thing to me, but there's a big difference between six and thirteen/ fourteen.
posted by goofyfoot to Human Relations (7 answers total)
I suspect at that age, any overt gestures you make regarding "being there for them" will be obviously connected to the "family drama" and they won't see you as a resource, but rather an imposed distraction.

The best way to be a resource is just to keep communication open. Take them out, like you've planned, but don't ask how they are feeling about the divorce, or their thoughts about who they would live with, etc. Just keep being the fun aunt who is way cooler than the parents and can talk about their interests. They will naturally open up if they feel comfortable and it doesn't feel staged, and that will be your chance to talk specifically about the divorce and associated stuff.
posted by trivia genius at 3:34 AM on April 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

You mention you're estranged from their father. While not knowing the specifics, I could imagine a situation where the kids tell him all about their "cool aunt" who "lets them swear" (challenging his parental protocol/wishes?) and that not going down well. And him thus limiting their contact with you.

So bearing that in mind, maybe be mindful of not appearing to be too much of what could be labelled a bad influence. I'm quite surprised you're in such a close position with his kids as it is, considering your estrangement... You don't want to give any fuel to a fire which might lead to you being denied contact, considering your admirable aim of being there for them during this disturbance in their lives.
posted by mymbleth at 5:05 AM on April 1, 2014

trivia genius has it: just keep bein' cool. they'll come to you if they need/want to.
posted by Sebmojo at 5:29 AM on April 1, 2014

Everybody's different, really. I think there's a fair chance that they're better prepared for this than a six-year-old would be because they've probably had a long time to pick up on Things Not Right Here vibes, but as to how they feel, who knows. I think the thing that helped me most when my parents were splitting up--which was less a shock than a relief, by the point they finally did it--was having my grandparents' house to go to just to hang around sometimes when all the long acrimonious phone calls were happening. If you can offer that, without necessarily an expectation they'll take you up on it, it could be a useful release valve for the inevitable tensions of things getting sorted out. My parents splitting was not at all traumatic from a relationship point of view, but all the property-sorting was unpleasant.

If they're reasonably comfortable it might not be a big deal financially, but if they're struggling at all and the kids are involved in music lessons or sports teams anything like that, that's something that goes by the wayside pretty quick, so there's another area you could possibly help pick up slack to keep continuity for them. I wasn't really distraught to give up the piano lessons, but some people are more attached to such things. In a way, your not being close to their dad might be a good thing, to allow such gestures to be taken as for the kids and not trying to take sides.

Mostly, though, I agree with the just being around thing.
posted by Sequence at 5:53 AM on April 1, 2014

The best way to be a resource is just to keep communication open.

Totally agree with this. Don't do anything special or ask them directly about the split - I suspect they will see it as forced and possibly fake, even though it isn't. My parents split up when I was around that age and it wasn't a big deal but I would've loved a (semi)neutral adult to hang out with who didn't have any divorce-related tension/anger I had to tiptoe around. Your plan of increasing contact a bit in a casual way sounds good.

The only other thing I'd say is really, really, important is to avoid talking about either parent, as much as you possibly can. Even all positive stuff like praising one parent will come off as taking sides, and I guarantee the kids are feeling that pressure from their parents already even if they're trying to avoid it. Even if the kids directly bring it up I'd keep it vague, neutral and positive, and focus on empathizing with the kids feelings rather than joining them in attacking or defending a parent they may be legitimately frustrated with.

You probably already know this, but it bears repeating because pretty much every adult in my life at the time claimed to stay neutral while still clearly taking sides, and it was really hard to be in the middle of that, particularly as a conflict-hating kid who didn't want to hear bad things about either parent and but also very much didn't want to argue about it with an adult I otherwise respected.
posted by randomnity at 8:12 AM on April 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I wish I could double favorite the comments that specify not talking about the divorce a lot, not "taking sides" (even in an indirect way), and being there for them to talk about their own interests and lives as individuals.

One thing that was really impossible when my parents split up was that it completely sucked out the energy of us kids just having normal lives where we got to have interests and accomplish things and pass milestones. My parents split up my senior year of high school. Pretty much everything about my own life at that time -- SAT scores, college applications, prom, all the silly graduation traditions -- was swept down the drain by the sheer force of DIVORCING PARENTS. I felt like I didn't have room to just be a kid graduating from high school. My parents absolutely were not there to provide any guidance or participate in any of those milestones.

It would have been nice to have an adult to take me prom dress shopping, make sure the FAFSA got sent in, do the thing where your parents are supposed to send you flowers on graduation day*, etc. I spent graduation day running interference between my parents at the ceremony and again at the post-graduation dinner with my entire extended family, all of whom hated each other. Just having someone there who was on my side would have taken a huge load off, for me.

I don't know if this corresponds to any stuff your niece and nephew are going through. But I'm sure there's some kind of way you can provide this support. Go to their sports matches or school musicals or whatever. Take photos of their school awards ceremonies and their band's gigs. If there's some family holiday tradition or inside joke, keep it going even if that means stepping into a slightly different role. If there's something they really want to do, but their parents don't have the energy to facilitate it, take that on.

*This stuff seems really dumb in hindsight but was really important back then, and it was pretty humiliating to be the only kid whose parents didn't participate in any of that stuff.
posted by Sara C. at 10:50 AM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all. This helps.
posted by goofyfoot at 12:02 AM on April 3, 2014

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