Examples of being considerate/caring?
August 2, 2016 5:08 AM   Subscribe

Our niece (16yo) didn't acknowledge one of our birthdays yesterday, and this seems to be a pattern of being completely inconsiderate. I need to discuss this with her, but thought it might make more sense to explain to her how people are considerate/caring of others, and give her examples. I can give her examples of what I do, but what are ways people are considerate of others/show that they care?

I know that teenagers are self absorbed. I know that our niece has a history and messed up upbringing, and as such, may not understand how to be caring and considerate in what I would term a semi-normal family.

However, the pattern of inconsiderateness and thoughtlessness has to stop.

The most recent incident is not even sending a "happy birthday" text, although she was capable of texting us to try to make plans with her girlfriend for Friday night. (She was not in the house with us, being with her grandmother, but that doesn't absolve her.)

Other examples are things like not even speaking to us in the mornings when she gets up, including leaving the house for school without saying a word (but only to my husband, she'll talk to me. She claims this is anxiety related.), not acknowledging us when we get home, not interacting with us at all, etc. (Again, primarily with my husband.)

I have explained to her that it is not polite and hurtful for her not to say anything at all when she is up and around us in the morning.

She is in therapy, and on medication for depression/anxiety. We are supporting her in every way possible (that we know of). But it has been over a year that she has been with us, and I am really tired of her acting this way. We have made allowance after allowance, and they are not working for us any longer.

**So, there's obviously not a way to turn back time, and remind her to acknowledge the birthday. However, it's not only about that - she needs to be more aware, considerate, and caring of others. I know that she cares about us, I just don't think she understands how to show it.

Here are the ways that I have come up with for how to be considerate of others/show them you care -
-greet them, and ask them about their day/event/project
-be interested in their life and aware of special events (birthdays, holidays)
-try to be aware of when they have a lot going on (i.e., tax time for accountants, conference season, e tc - we are very clear with her about when these things are) and act accordingly (don't send text messages about non-essential things while they are at work, etc)
-keep shared areas clean, and put things away after you use them (don't leave your messes for other people to clean up)

What are other ways to be considerate of others and show that you care? I know that it would be different from person to person, but I feel like this is an ongoing issue with her, rather than just a problem with us.

Any other ways to approach this with her would also be appreciated. I'm still incredibly upset with her, but should be calm (just hurt) when I speak with her.
posted by needlegrrl to Human Relations (69 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Is it possible she forgot about the birthday? Were birthdays treated as a big deal in her family of origin? There's a lot of variance in the level of importance attached to birthdays in different families.

I'm a grown woman and my friends think of me as a very caring person. I often forget birthdays. But when I know someone is having a crappy time, I show them I'm there for them.

When she doesn't greet your husband, does he greet her? Does she respond then? Men make me anxious, and as a teenager I often would talk to a woman I knew but not her husband.

You could ask her what things people have done for her that showed her they cared that resonated with her.
posted by bunderful at 5:27 AM on August 2, 2016 [45 favorites]


OK, based on your old asks it seems like you are the sole guardians of this niece, yeah? And that she bounced to you after living with her (fixed-income) grandmother? That's rough. Neither of you asked for this. That sucks.

But. This sounds like pretty normal teenage behavior. I forgot my mom's birthday this year and I am 30. I called a few days later and we laughed about it. She forgot my birthday two years ago and while it was a bummer (mom! how could you!) I would still put that in the "semi-normal family shit" camp.

I'm not a parent, but it seems like a huge part of parenting is showing compassion and support to the children in your care, even if they aren't showing it to you. Even if they are screaming "MOMMY I HATE YOU" or "GO AWAY" or "I WISH YOU WERE DEAD." She hurts your feelings by not being a suzy-sunshine, but the mental health diagnoses are a big tip that she, too, is hurting like crazy. For what sounds like good reason.

To answer your question. This doesn't sound like the kind of person who needs a "here are some ways to be nice" list-- in fact, for my money, this list would be VERY LIKELY to backfire. The great rule of writing applies here, too: show, don't tell. Do what you need to in your own world to be able to be present, compassionate, and supportive with this young person even when it's the very last thing you want to do.
posted by athirstforsalt at 5:28 AM on August 2, 2016 [144 favorites]


Oboy, this is so hard and will be difficult to enact depending on the family.

I went through bouts of depression and anxiety while living at home, and I really didn't want to have anything to do with my family or my parents... they took up valuable energy that I was mobilizing just to make it through the world.

Don't get me wrong: I dropped the ball. I'd forgotten my mom's birthday one year and felt disgusted with myself: but that just made me feel more worthless and depressed.

My parents are pretty good with seeing and knowing depression when they see it (family history). They did not let me off the hook for not wanting to be "a part of the family" as they said, but they were very gentle and compassionate about folding me back into the family, despite all of my awful or selfish depressed/anxious behaviours.

Here's one thing my dad intuitively knew that I had to do: sit at the table with the family, daily. Usually at dinner, but also in the evening. I'd cry and moan, and say, "You don't WANT me at the table, blubbering, being negative and not-eating!" (and I believed that).

"Yes we do. You come here and sit with us"

And I would.

And when they'd be sitting around watching some dumb show (I had no interest in anything in life at all at this point of my depression - I was mostly oozing liquids from my eyes all day), he would call me from my room and say, "You come here and sit with us."

And I would.

And if they went to my Nonnas for Sunday Dinner, and I had NO INTEREST in seeing my extended family. I was given permission to sit and blubber quietly, as long as I came with them.

And I would.

And he lovingly enforced this family dynamic every day. Every day with love and compassion despite my crying and blubbering and stupidity. His resilience and willingness to put aside my selfishness made me feel loved unconditionally, and gave me the strength to not just get help (because my parents most certainly did that) but to stay with the ups and downs, and to try new treatments.

Because I knew no matter how bad things were, my father and my family would welcome me unconditionally.

So: to address your question about how to get your daughter to care. If she struggles from anxiety and depression, she may not have it IN HER to care. But you can help her go through the motions. Go to HER and greet her.

If there's a lot going on, go to HER and help her. Behave in the way you want her to behave, and do it with her, demonstratively.

I'm sorry, I don't have a better answer.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:29 AM on August 2, 2016 [78 favorites]


She claims this is anxiety related


The best thing you can do for her is help her learn self soothing skills. Expressing the kind of disappointment you are feeling right now (and expect to feel) is not going to be helpful to your niece. I say this as someone with pretty marked anxiety and lots of experience with family telling me how my mental health hurts and inconveniences them.

Those "teaching" conversations about how I was a rude and inconsiderate person (when really, I was an anxious teenage with serious trauma history) did more to set my progress back than nearly anything else.
posted by bilabial at 5:30 AM on August 2, 2016 [80 favorites]


"Hey, it was X's birthday yesterday. I think he'd appreciate if you said Happy Birthday or texted him." Or you could have a card that she could sign and leave for him, which is what my mom used to do when I was a teenager.
posted by areaperson at 5:32 AM on August 2, 2016 [12 favorites]


Honestly? I think you're setting up this kid to fail by expecting her to consistently act in a manner that many adults can't attain. My bright and self-contained 15-year-old (who lives in our semi-normal family) still often needs to be reminded to shower, thank Grandma for the check, empty the dishwasher, take your key with you. When I travel for work, I make a point to have at least two very pointed conversations (e.g. headphones out, eyes on me) with him about it, mainly focusing on how it affects him ("I won't be there in the morning so you have to make sure you don't miss the bus; can you get a ride home from basketball with Connor"). I would probably remind him a couple of times about an upcoming birthday of anyone in our family, even those of us who live in the same house and even if he'd been present for conversations about that birthday. If I expected a certain action from him (such as a birthday text), I'd go ahead and ask him for it and say, "This is important to me." When he's moody and doesn't want to make eye contact with me when he comes into the room, I make a point of smiling and greeting him anyway. Because I'm the adult and he's a kid, and I have faith that this too shall pass.

The best way to get a kid to adapt behavior is by modeling it. I promise you that eventually it does stick - although it's often after they've left us. I realize you probably post AskMe questions when you're particularly frustrated, but I'm afraid what your niece is absorbing is your passive aggression and thinly veiled hostility.

Is there anyone else who can care for her? Or maybe it's time to explore boarding school? Based on your past questions, it doesn't sound like this is a good arrangement for either of you.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 5:33 AM on August 2, 2016 [99 favorites]


A good family therapist could help all of you navigate these issues more smoothly.
posted by lazuli at 5:36 AM on August 2, 2016 [15 favorites]


but only to my husband, she'll talk to me. She claims this is anxiety related

Please, please believe her when she tells you this. If she's talking to you and not your husband, there's obviously a reason. Especially with this: has a history and messed up upbringing, treat this is issue with patience and kindness.


I urge you to reconsider you niece's motives. It is understandable that you are upset that she didn't wish you a happy birthday.
I am your niece. Grew up in a extremely dysfunctional environment, had anxiety (still do, my stomach churns when I walk into the office and greet my coworkers). The times my mom would ask about my day, I'd give one word answers- "fine." "nothing." "sure." It's not that I didn't want a nice relationship with my mother, it was because of my extremely low self esteem. I didn't care about my day, because I didn't care about school, because I didn't see my life going anywhere.

I still think you should work with her on this, you're the adults in her life and that's what you do. I had to learn, and it'll benefit her in the long run. But I think your expectations are off-expecting a teen to know your tax time, meeting schedule, etc is weird and not really a requirement of a caring child.
posted by FirstMateKate at 5:38 AM on August 2, 2016 [51 favorites]


This sounds like a normal teenager to me.
posted by kbanas at 5:39 AM on August 2, 2016 [37 favorites]


I agree that this sounds like typical teenage behavior to me and your expectations are too high. Teenagers are frequently narcissistic balls of anxiety, even ones who grew up in healthy environments. I'd check with her therapist before putting any pressure on her to act differently. You could easily make this much, much worse.
posted by Mavri at 5:42 AM on August 2, 2016 [16 favorites]


As a parent of teens I can tell you that giving a lecture about "how to be considerate in general" will be most likely taken as a criticism not of her specific behaviors but of who she actually IS.
Well, not even because she's a teen. I would feel that way too. Try to think of her as a person, not as a teenager, when you plan how to address her behavior. Meaning: you guysbe polite and respectful.
So if she's not talking in the morning, it might mean that you guys can model how to be considerate by giving her space and boundaries when she needs to be introverted. When my teenager needs to not talk to me (which really, really is normal teen behavior sometimes, especially for sensitive, anxious or distressed kids who just don't always have the inner resources to be social in the family) I try to make it be a pleasant silence, not a glowering feeling of my being ignored. I do this by saying things like "I see you need some space, but hello. Love you."
She begins talking again a whole lot faster when the mood is accepting and safe.
posted by flourpot at 5:45 AM on August 2, 2016 [34 favorites]


Taking note of their condition when they come home and possibly commenting or asking how they are. Do they look stressed? Happy?

Engaging in the family rituals - dinner time is the best daily one for this age, but you may have weekly and seasonal things. One family I knew (with a much younger kid) told each other what they hoped for each other to dream about each night.

Offering extra support in times of need - helping with dinner, making tea

The best way to teach this is modeling. Are you doing these things with your husband and her? Give her time to absorb these. It sounds like she's had some huge adjustments in her life and may not know how to do these things.

I don't have anxiety, but at this age I would have been extremely uncomfortable making any changes to my behavior. There's safety in doing what you've always done, especially for a teen with anxiety.

I think you should talk to her therapist. Get a better idea of how her anxiety affects her, what you can do for her, their thoughts on her development, which of the specific things she does are age or anxiety related...
posted by meemzi at 5:46 AM on August 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


One way to be considerate and show you care is to not mistake a traumatized child for an unfriendly roommate. It doesn't sound like you're personally in a good place. Raising a teenager is hard, raising one with issues is hard, raising one in the middle is hard. I think a therapist for you would be a good idea to explore why it seems like you need her to support you emotionally in exchange for supporting her physically. It's not fair to ask her to do this and it's not fair to put the burden of figuring it out on her either.
posted by bleep at 5:57 AM on August 2, 2016 [130 favorites]


Ok, preface this: I am considerate to a fault. It is my default nature. I don't do everything you list. Especially when it comes to being aware of stressful times for other people. That's expecting way too much, in my opinion. I've got my own life to live and issues to deal with to remember that you're dealing with conference season.

The underlying issue of being considerate is that you have to care about other people. This is not the default mode for a lot of people and you can't force it to be. Especially if adults in her life have failed to show care and love towards her.

Also, the fact that she's 16 and not 13 is going to hamper any efforts you make. 13 is still in the "eager-to-please" stage. 16 is the "fuck you I'm almost an adult" stage. If she's not actively sabotaging familial relationships by saying or doing cruel things, you might just want to let this go.

Things I do to be considerate of others:

- Hold doors open for people
- Offer to carry stuff for them
- Sometimes just a simple "is there anything you need?" or "can I help in anyway?"
- Randomly do something nice for them (bake them something, cook them something, send them a card, write them a thoughtful note, etc)
posted by INFJ at 6:00 AM on August 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


Obviously I don't know the full story from one post, but to me it sounds like you're complaining that a depressed, possibly orphaned teenager forgot your birthday. Forgetting a birthday, being grouchy in the morning, and being messy are like, very typical teenager stuff, much less for one who a) is in treatment for a mental illness, b) possibly has an abusive past, and c) has lost her parents either due to death or some other situation (not sure if they are incarcerated or what else explains why she is living with you).

I would suggest seeing what resources you can access FOR YOU, whether it be family therapy, a social worker, a religious community, or whatever else. I am sure this is not an easy situation to have a difficult teen in your home. However, I don't think the right solution would be to lecture her on how she's not stacking up. Most likely what she needs from you right now is unconditional love and an assurance that you'll be there for her even if she's grouchy or forgets a birthday. If you want to show her what's it's like to be considerate and caring...be considerate and caring to her. She may not be in a place to appreciate it and reciprocate right now because, you know, see above for all of her pretty shitty life circumstances, but at least she will have that example going forward.

Finally, on refusal to talk to your husband and a reference to anxiety. Given all you've written here, is it possible your niece has been sexually assaulted in the past or had some other sort of negative experience with men/male caregivers (like being abandoned by her father)? Obviously
your husband is NOT responsible for these past negative experiences, but especially if there is some tragic history there I would think you should be extra compassionate and not expect your niece to act as if all is normal. She may very well be having a real anxiety response. Indeed, she told you that's what's happening and so it seems like the easiest solution would be to believe her rather than making up this story that she's being intentionally rude as opposed to going through some very real mental health issues. Family therapy is something that might help here, but don't expect instant solutions. Especially if she does have any traumatic experiences related to this in her past, it's going to take a long time for her to heal.
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:03 AM on August 2, 2016 [31 favorites]


I am incredibly frustrated with her at this point, this is true. And part of what I am hoping for is "yes, typical teenage behavior" or "nope, not". Having jumped into this without ever planning to have a child/teenager live with me, I was completely unprepared, and have no way of knowing what is usual/typical.

I feel that we give her an incredible amount of leeway - let her choose her own hours, sleep when she wants to, eat what she wants to (do you want x? no, okay, well, there are y and z options in the fridge and cabinet), go and do things that she wants to - unless she has school, in which case that comes first.

We do our best to not intrude - if she wants to hang out on the couch and not talk, that's fine. She wants to stay in her room? Also okay. We try to let her interact with us on her own terms, as much as we can, and give her the space she needs.

We try to model a healthy relationship - she's actually commented that if she has a relationship, she wants one like ours. We try to teach her how important it is to communicate with people.

I hadn't really thought of general interactions as being "supporting me emotionally" - I really thought of them as just how you interact with people. This is another good example of "this is the way I think things are" being just the way they are for me, and not for everything. Which is a great reason for Asks - to get other people's insight.

I will reconsider how I approach this, and perhaps just tell her that it hurt our feelings not to have her acknowledge the birthday(ETA - after being reminded a couple of days before), and then I will do a better job of reminding her for all other things in the future. It seems that this is an oversight on my part (thinking that she would remember these things on her own and not reminding her) rather than something that should be expected of a teen.

Thanks, everyone!
posted by needlegrrl at 6:05 AM on August 2, 2016 [12 favorites]


I really feel for your niece! It sounds like she's having a hard time. I don't really know her, or you, of course, but I'm trying to imagine her feelings. Is it possible she's feeling/thinking something like this:
These people don't need anything from me. I am not in a position to validate them; they are living their lives and I am only an inconvenience. My words or gestures will mean nothing to them, except perhaps as a show of submission. I will show submission when required, but the random displays of sentiment they occasionally request are unpredictable to me and somewhat intimidating.
She may not be able to really trust you for _years_. That's totally not your fault. You could be Oprah crossed with Jennifer Lawrence crossed with Connie Britton crossed with your own mother and grandmother and it wouldn't make any difference.

She might not believe that she is capable of ever hurting your feelings. She might not believe what you say about your own feelings. She might not believe you'd actually care what she thinks about you, or that she thinks about you. She might believe that you'd just as soon she wasn't taking up space in your house.

The fact that you aren't crediting her anxiety as a real cause for her behavior makes me think that you yourself might not trust others' accounts of their feelings. Maybe this is a pattern in your family? Or maybe not -- it's truly hard, and I personally am less than an expert -- I've realized years later that different people wanted to be my friends, but I didn't take their unassuming words of friendship seriously (due to my own parents' and my preferred media's dismissal of personal feelings).

When you feel anxious around people, you want to be as invisible as possible. Volunteering a greeting is not on the agenda. Wishing someone a happy birthday is just not something you can do. Responding meekly or defensively is all you can manage when your brain is mostly frozen and constantly wanting to take up as little of others' time as you can.

If you can convince her that she has the ability to make you happy, in small ways, that would probably be helpful. She sounds sensitive; she probably would love to be able to be nurturing and protective toward you, a kitten, a child, someone she sees as vulnerable.

However, you should definitely be 100% genuine in your emotional expression with her. If you feel resentful, don't talk to her. Don't "act" happy or loving. Work your own way through the resentment toward compassion, or toward happiness in her youth, her energy, her beauty if you wish, and in the joy that you're able to give her a chance. If you start off a conversation being positive and open, and find yourself hurt, remind yourself that she's a child in pain and that you can give security to her even though it's a long road.

It's not her job to take care of your feelings (which is good, since it sounds like she can't do that). She's a child, and really, you're an adult, which means you have a lot more power and ability to help others.

She will probably be scared -- and not "acting" scared, because showing no emotion is how you protect yourself -- for a long time.

We are supporting her in every way possible (that we know of).

Some of the ways you're supporting her might not be necessary; there might be less-burdensome ways of supporting her that you can easily do. It might make sense for you to ask to go to a few counseling sessions with her in hopes of finding the best ways of supporting her, and for you to learn what she really means when she says X or does Y.

The counselor might also eventually help you figure out what being considerate means to you, and help her see that she does affect you and that her social behavior around you can make your life happier. There's also a chance you two could connect on a meaningful way and learn to respect and bond with each other. These are delicate, challenging things, though, which is why a really good counselor is a real help for this.

It's wonderful that you care about her and aren't just ignoring her and letting her disappear. Thank you. I know it's frustrating. If I'd had someone like you in my life, maybe I'd be a more open person now.
posted by amtho at 6:06 AM on August 2, 2016 [30 favorites]


I hadn't really thought of general interactions as being "supporting me emotionally" - I really thought of them as just how you interact with people.
Between equals - roommates, friends, coworkers, life partners, acquaintances- there's a give and take and that's good. Sometimes I hold you up and sometimes you hold me up and sometimes we don't want to do that anymore. But you're not peers and she doesn't have anything extra to give. You have to be a little stronger than you would be with someone else.
posted by bleep at 6:10 AM on August 2, 2016 [45 favorites]


I feel that we give her an incredible amount of leeway - let her choose her own hours, sleep when she wants to, eat what she wants to (do you want x? no, okay, well, there are y and z options in the fridge and cabinet), go and do things that she wants to - unless she has school, in which case that comes first.

We do our best to not intrude - if she wants to hang out on the couch and not talk, that's fine. She wants to stay in her room? Also okay. We try to let her interact with us on her own terms, as much as we can, and give her the space she needs.
I can't know for sure, but is there a chance that the freedom you're trying to give her might make her feel lonely and unparented? It sounds like you're trying to give her a lot of space, and maybe she thinks that lots of space is what you want from her. However, from my own relationship, I know that the line between "a lot of space" and "too much space" is difficult for some people to understand.

I like what the earlier commenter said about maintaining the form of family interactions (but keeping it friendly and low-stress).
posted by amtho at 6:15 AM on August 2, 2016 [13 favorites]


Two more clarifications, and I will then butt out!

- we do have a family therapy session scheduled with her therapist
- I wasn't using the examples of caring/consideration above as things I expected her to do, i.e., be aware of my busy season, but rather, of ways that I try to be considerate of others. I will generally ask her to defer to contacting one of us rather than the other in a busy time, but I will actually *ask* her for that, I do not expect her to know. So I'll say "hey, I have meetings/am really busy this week, so please reach out to your uncle first with you text", or "hey, your uncle is really busy this week, so please text me first", or even "hey, I know you're home all day, but we are busy with work, so please don't text us with questions for things that can wait until we get home." (which now I am questioning!) I certainly do not expect her to be aware of our schedule and adjust her behavior accordingly! I think I phrased that really poorly above.
posted by needlegrrl at 6:20 AM on August 2, 2016


I feel that we give her an incredible amount of leeway - let her choose her own hours, sleep when she wants to, eat what she wants to (do you want x? no, okay, well, there are y and z options in the fridge and cabinet), go and do things that she wants to - unless she has school, in which case that comes first.

Except for sleeping when she wants, this, to me, is just normal parent behavior. You don't like what I made? Ohkay go ahead and make your own thing. Freedom to have a social life when it doesn't interfere with school, etc. These are all normal and expected from you, as the caretaker of a teenager.

The thing about being a parent/guardian is that you have to give a whole hell of a lot, and not expect much back. This is new for you, and it's obvious you're trying very hard. But you can't expect to model this dynamic after your other relationships. The point of adult relationships is, like bleep said, mutually beneficial with a lot of give and take. The point of this relationship is to support her in every way you can so that she grows up to be a good person.
posted by FirstMateKate at 6:23 AM on August 2, 2016 [43 favorites]


We try to model a healthy relationship - she's actually commented that if she has a relationship, she wants one like ours. We try to teach her how important it is to communicate with people.


Add "be a living example of how considerate and emphatic people normally act around each other - without expecting a reward quite yet" to the list.
Unless she's unduly traumatized or anythig, she will likely come out of it one day (at 16 likely sooner than later), and then it's paramount that she's seen some ordinary nice people's behavior that she can relate to. Teenagers suck, most of all for themselves, which is the bigger part of the trouble. It takes time to get over it, might be well worth your patience.

The birthday?--I'd let it slide.
posted by Namlit at 6:45 AM on August 2, 2016 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure if there's a good way to start this conversation, but you might give some thought to the ways that she might be thinking that she is helping the family (and this might be a thing to bring up in therapy). She's not bugging you in the morning when you're all rushing out the door, or she's doing her homework, or she's letting you know that she got home safe while you're at work, remembering to pick up half the time (if default uncaring mode for her is 0% of the time). If she came from a rough background there might be some things that she puts effort into that are completely contrary to your defaults, and if she came from a neglectful background she might be underdeveloped/overdeveloped on different axes than you're expecting. Or she might just not be as grateful for your home as you would hope for. That being said, none of the things you describe sound like things I was good at at 16, and I was generally considered to be a good kid.

Basically, this sounds a lot like the way some relatives of mine have interacted under similar circumstances. The kids were doing their absolute best with what tools they had available, and that was never good enough for the adults. A lot of relationships were ruined in the fallout.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:51 AM on August 2, 2016 [12 favorites]


I want to acknowledge the hard work you're all doing. Keep asking AskMes, and if you can, see if you can hook up with other parents of teens to get a sense of what normal is.

For those of us with traumatic childhood experiences, adolescence can be almost a...swamp. When I look back at my teen years, I'm both sad for myself as a child but also ashamed and angry. For me, I was absolutely engaged all the time in, in order: getting freaked out by changes in my body, hungry but not wanting to gain weight, trying to succeed academically with all the crazy demands of various classes and teachers and homework and requirements - which teachers didn't allow purple ink and so on, doing the teen social hierarchy which even in my nerdy school was soooo time and energy consuming, who to speak to, who wasn't speaking to whom, who was going to the mall on the weekend, etc. (I hear Kids Today judge friendships in some areas by _how fast you comment on Instagram or snapchat_ which must be exhausting to monitor; there's a podcast about this somewhere I think), figuring out who I was and trying to preserve a bit of me, earning money on part-time jobs, planning the future.

All of this happened in a haze of fear and adrenaline that, no word of a lie, I think would literally kill 40 year old me.

It sounds like you are measuring parenting success in months rather than decades, and that you are taking a bit of an approach where you are calculating success by how well your niece is adhering to external rules and niceties. For me, the main job of a parent of a struggling adolescent is to help the child discover and preserve all his or her capacities as they come into themselves. So I would say, kindly but genuinely let her know you know she has a lot on her emotional plate, but that it hurt some that she missed this day. The success might come right away if she makes amends...it might be next year...it might be at 27 when she is finally in a stable life that she sends along something amazing for a birthday. Parenting is a looonnng game.

I recommend (I'm on the subway so sorry for lack of links) The Secret of Parenting and there is also a book that I think is called The Film Club about a Canadian dad who makes some surprising choices about his son's education. I don't suggest these as bibles but they have given me a sense of how some people do that long game.

Good luck to you!
posted by warriorqueen at 6:51 AM on August 2, 2016 [10 favorites]


So the parental thing to do is for the non-birthday party/personage to say to your niece SOME DAYS BEFORE, "hey, it's X's birthday in a couple of days, what should we do for them?" and include them in making plans and remind them the day before.
posted by listen, lady at 6:54 AM on August 2, 2016 [23 favorites]


As a person who was raised by wolves, I really needed (and at 33, still need!) people to model consideration and care for me, not tell me how to behave or assume I know their expectations. I learned a lot through kindness. And at the same time, I just don't get offended when people don't meet my unspoken social expectations or know "how to behave," because you never know whether anyone ever even taught them. I think it would help all of you if you saw an unmet expectation not as something to be offended about—she Should Have Known, but she didn't, and she didn't because she couldn't—but as a place to think about modeling in the future. And when she DOES considerate things, MAKE HER FEEL GOOD ABOUT THEM. Praise her, tell her it meant something to you.

She's half feral and scared and exhausted and she needs, foremost, unconditional love, and not anxiety about tripping on an expectation she just didn't know you even had. She doesn't have the same foundation of safety when she wakes up every day and faces the world. She has enough to navigate. She'll get manners stuff as she needs to.
posted by listen, lady at 6:58 AM on August 2, 2016 [29 favorites]


However, the pattern of inconsiderateness and thoughtlessness has to stop.


Also: It's not going to.
posted by listen, lady at 7:03 AM on August 2, 2016 [13 favorites]


I haven't read everything, so apologies if this has already been mentioned, but I just wanted to note: I have an adult cousin who regards this kind of thing—being pointedly reminded ahead of time about a birthday or holiday, then chided when he doesn't exhibit an expected behavior—as a form of manipulation that he refuses to comply with under any circumstances. So, however you choose to respond to your niece, it may be informative to determine whether she really simply forgot, or on the other hand intentionally did not comply with being prodded to behave a certain way.

Also, in the lauded emotional labor thread (very large thread that may lock up a slow device) there was discussion of gender differences in the ways men and women are expected to behave around holidays and birthdays.
posted by XMLicious at 7:08 AM on August 2, 2016 [8 favorites]


If staying housed and loved were contingent on not being a moody, petulant, self-absorbed jerk, 100% of teens would be on the streets, there would be an international problem. (Also, you know that people's brains, notably the frontal lobes, which are involved in forward planning, self-control, etc, aren't fully cooked until age 25, right?)

If she's anxious and depressed, and has a history of abuse or neglect, or inconsistent caregiving, there is no way she's got the tools to do what you're expecting.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:13 AM on August 2, 2016 [27 favorites]


but only to my husband, she'll talk to me. She claims this is anxiety related

This is almost definitely true. When I was 16, I started dating a boy and spending a lot of time at his house. I was so terrified of having dinner with his family that I would hide in the bedroom while they ate. It wasn't particularly mature or considerate, but I had awful anxiety. That's what I was capable of at the time. Now I'm 27, and perfectly capable of saying "hello" in the morning and eating dinner with folks.

Birthdays... I am still terrible with. People remind me the day of because they're more conscientious, and I say "Happy birthday" or call or do what I have to do. It's not that I want to be an asshole, it just feels like a huge undertaking to me. Add to that anxiety and the fact that a 16-year-old's brain is still developing, and yeah.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:21 AM on August 2, 2016 [7 favorites]


I would say in regard to modeling the behavior you value, instead of expecting her to acknowledge you in the morning or when she gets home, you need to acknowledge her. Very kind, loving, low level interaction consistently, even when you are feeling crabby or harried yourself.

You cannot expect behaviors reflected back to you that you are not consistently modeling.
posted by Squeak Attack at 7:23 AM on August 2, 2016 [8 favorites]


First of all, I want to acknowledge that it's a difficult, generous thing you're doing. Your nice is extremely lucky to have someone who's willing to step up for her the way you have. And you're not just doing the bare minimum here; you're trying hard and it's obviously that you care deeply about your niece.

With that being said, I think you need to ease off a bit. The things you're talking about would be hard to hear from a parent in a healthy relationship, much less from an aunt and uncle. Her brain isn't to the point where she's got full impulse control and empathy. What she needs in unconditional love and reasonable boundaries. I wouldn't let her set her own schedule, for instance, but I would discuss your minimum requirements (not being late to school, not being overtired, etc.) and work with her to set appropriate curfews, etc. together.

Try to trust her. Model graciousness and kindness. Treat her the way you'd like to be treated in this situation.

I'm not saying you should be a doormat (remember those boundaries?) But a little compassion ("I see that you don't want to talk. I'm going to make some coffee and read the paper. Will you please join me?") will go a long way.

Have you considered therapy for yourself? I'm sure the circumstances that led to your niece being placed in your care couldn't have been easy for you either. Perhaps having emotional support will help you level set expectations and have more emotional reserves when the inevitable teenagering happens.
posted by snickerdoodle at 7:24 AM on August 2, 2016 [10 favorites]


I know teenagers can look and sound like adults but they are not. I agree that you can model considerate behaviors, but that a lecture will backfire. I would also urge you not to evaluate her behavior by adult standards-- it would be really thoughtless for your husband to forget your birthday or your employee to ignore your greeting, but a 16 y/o isn't quite there yet.

When you model considerate behaviors, start with her, and do it even when she is crappy. This made a huge difference for me-- I can still remember the times I slammed off to my room and instead of coming to lecture me, my mom would drop off a snack or a magazine or something.

I was terrified of most men for many years, after suffering abuse in silence. Being told I was "rude" because I wouldn't kiss my uncle (who never hurt me, but scared me anyway) really did a number on me and sent me the message--reinforced by the whole world, it seemed--that my feelings, my apprehension, my fear were not as important as doing what men wanted and building up their feelings at the expense of my own.

Honestly, your niece sounds nicer than I was. If she's not yelling and swearing at you and slamming doors and saying she hates you, you got yourself a pretty decent teen there! Not saying this to chide you, but encourage you. Take heart! You'll get through this. You're doing a great thing.

Lastly, I would urge you not to make a huge deal of your birthday-- I think the lesson if you tell her she was "hurtful" would not be to encourage empathy in her, but that you will hold a grudge and lob personal criticisms at her for minor stuff.
posted by kapers at 7:28 AM on August 2, 2016 [18 favorites]


It sounds like overall you're trying and willing to learn, which is huge. Just remember she's trying too, but it may not be as apparent, because she's dealing with the usual teenage stuff, adjusting to a new living situation (just like you), and baggage from stuff before.

If I'm understanding your intentions when communicating who's busy/not is so you're not interrupted and your niece knows who can get back to her the quickest or doesn't feel blown off if you're both busy and not attached to your phones. By saying "Text me instead of Uncle," you're giving her rules to follow, rules that change arbitrarily. But if you just communicate "Hey, I'm in meetings all day, see you when you get home," you've given her the same information, but you're now letting her figure out how to deal with that. If she does text the wrong person, just respond (when you can) that you're caught up in something, text uncle, or you'll take care of it when you get home. No big deal. She'll learn to be patient or text the less busy person.

If just getting a text really is disruptive to you maybe silence your text notifications and let her know that from now on, if it's urgent she should call, otherwise you'll check you texts when you can. That way she has one rule to remember consistently, and she can figure out the details day to day on her own.

Basically, you want to help your niece figure out how to navigate the world on her own. That doesn't mean giving her an owner's manual with step by step instructions to get everything done the best way possible; it means giving her general guidelines and letting her figure it out on her own, maybe nudging her a bit here and there. The previous suggestion about having her help plan birthday stuff is perfect. Take steps to set her up for success with stuff you feel is important, like acknowledging birthdays. With little things like texting where "failure" is just waiting around longer, let her "fail" while she figures it out and help if she asks. You won't always make the right call, but no one does, especially teens. So be overly forgiving of failure and overly happy with success.

Also, there are some mornings when my mother sounds like a grumpy teen: my husband thought he must have done something to mortally offend her because of how she said good morning. No, she's just not fully awake yet. So even without her potential baggage ( any chance she's been scolded for not being chipper in the morning?), I'd generally just ignore morning behavior as a lost cause. I don't think I ever talked to my parents in the morning back in the day (and my dad is polar opposite happy morning guy. Which honestly made it worse, poor man).

If you think coffee is acceptable at that age and you guys drink it, you're husband may be able to build brownie points by pouring her a mug each morning and handing it to her (either at the table or on the way out the door). She may not acknowledge it now, but giving her space while still showing some thoughtfulness could help her trust him more. If not coffee, maybe tea, or a pop tart. Just some unspoken ritual that she doesn't have to do much to participate in. Or maybe after dinner dessert if you think that'd be better.
posted by ghost phoneme at 7:29 AM on August 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


When I was her age, my thought process around talking to your husband in the morning would go like this: I haven't talked to Uncle today! If I say something now, it will seem weird. (two days later) I haven't talked to Uncle all week! If I talk to him now that will just remind him of my bad behavior from the last two days, so I won't say anything. (a week later) Uncle obviously hates me because I never talk to him. I won't bother him. I had a really hard time breaking out of that pattern until my anxiety was under better control.
posted by chaiminda at 7:33 AM on August 2, 2016 [41 favorites]


She's a teenager with a difficult history. She is in therapy, and on medication for depression/anxiety. Give her a break.
posted by frantumaglia at 7:51 AM on August 2, 2016 [12 favorites]


This is 100% normal for teenagers. Be reassured, and please don't make her think you look down on her. They are generally like that. She's fine, and you're fine.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:54 AM on August 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


What are other ways to be considerate of others and show that you care? I know that it would be different from person to person, but I feel like this is an ongoing issue with her, rather than just a problem with us.

How about:

* Trusting a teenager when she says she's experiencing anxiety.
* Not getting bent out of shape over something like a birthday acknowledgement. She's not trying to be rude; she's a teenager with a lot on her plate.
* Understanding that being a teenager is really hard and really confusing, and realizing that you voluntarily accepted some adolescent annoyances when you took her in.

Leading by example is the best way to model this behavior.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:55 AM on August 2, 2016 [13 favorites]


Hi! I'm just like your niece, but all grown up. Messed up parents, lived with grandparents for some years. Then I ended up living with a beloved Aunt in High School until I moved out on my own.

As a teenager I was pretty much exactly like your niece, displaying a lack of manners, tact, and emotional awareness that only years of semi-neglect and feeling totally unimportant to your family can bring on. My Aunt did her absolute best to model normal well-adjusted human behavior to me in the last 4-ish years of my childhood. Some of it stuck, some didn't.
Others here have already covered lots of important points, but let me stress this one:

Please PLEASE let her know it’s OK to contact you at any time, day or night. NO MATTER how busy you are. Teenagers do dumb things on a regular basis. Their friends also do dumb things. You do not want her to be in a situation where something bad happens while out and about and she feels like she can’t call or text you for help because she would be bothering you. Or she thinks she needs to cover up what happened because she thinks you’d be super-angry with her or her friends. Ask me how I know…. (No really, PM me if you’d like to vent, talk or ask about her inscrutable behavior. I remember my teen years pretty well!)

Right now she just needs to feel loved and safe, and listened to more than anything. I admire you for taking on this responsibility and she sounds like a good kid going through a rough time. I still think of my Aunt every day and wish she was still here so she could see what an awesome life I’ve managed to build with her help, and how grateful I am for everything she did for me.
posted by sharp pointy objects at 7:56 AM on August 2, 2016 [38 favorites]


Just wanted to recommend this book, which should help you navigate this and other situations with your niece.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:58 AM on August 2, 2016


I wonder if it might make sense to open up a conversation that's less about "examples of showing how to be considerate/care, because you don't do that" and more about exploring some of the different ways that there are to show caring and asking what some of her preferred ones are. Sort of the "love languages" concept in a family rather than romance setting. Only because I wonder if maybe she is super-emotionally-stunted, maybe she is being A Teenager With A Capital T, but an alternative explanation could be that maybe she is trying in her own way to show caring and you're missing it because you're looking for specific things that read as caring to you. (Not in every case. "Picking up your shit in common areas" is basic 'we live in a family and this is an expectation' thing. But "remembering special events and tax season" maybe not so much. And some of your stuff, like 'don't text about non important stuff during important times' is actively opposite to what I personally would consider caring, which would be 'send me fun or random texts to perk me up and remind me that there is life outside of tax season' or whatever.)

Maybe this can be a two-way conversation where you can learn more about what reads as caring to her and how you can make sure you're providing that, as well as expressing specifically some of the ways that you would find it meaningful for her to express her caring to you.
posted by Stacey at 7:58 AM on August 2, 2016 [6 favorites]


Stacey's comment really feels true to me. I don't think remembering birthdays is as much a show of genuine caring as remembering someone on a spontaneous day, or coming across something randomly that is perfect for them and giving it when the time just feels right. Or telling them something that's particularly true for me on a particular day.

"Remembering birthdays" is, unfortunately, something that sales people were advised to do back in the 1990s (when contact tracking databases made that easy); the fact that my insurance company does it doesn't endear me to them or to others who do it as a matter of form.

So, "Happy Birthday" always seems contrived to me. "I'll be thinking of you at 1:00 when I know you've got that job interview" would really touch me, though. So would, "I'm feeling sad. Would you talk to me a little? Just talking with you cheers me sometimes."
posted by amtho at 8:07 AM on August 2, 2016 [6 favorites]


not acknowledging us when we get home, not interacting with us at all, etc.

To be clear, I do think there's something here to be solved. I wouldn't just leave things as they are.
posted by amtho at 8:09 AM on August 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


Caveat: I am self absorbed, and I am a grown adult.

You niece may never independently acknowledge your birthday. At 15, I couldn't have told you the birthday of any adults outside of my own parents. What your family CAN do is model appropriate behavior. My dad did this by showing that our mom's birthday was something to be remembered: all the numerical combinations on things we used were the digits of her birthday. We would participate in birthday dinners and purchasing the cake or flowers with my dad and mom for the other's birthday. What we didn't face is being scolded for not acknowledging something we had never been asked to participate in acknowledging.

"How you interact with people" is more about saying "nice to meet you", "please", "thank you," and offering to help when you see someone needs a hand with something. The birthday thing sounds a lot like emotional labor you are expecting her to perform.

You CAN expect her to "participate" in being "part of the family" by being there for birthday celebrations/dinners/etc. and participating in getting gifts/flowers/etc (with her time, even if not money), but that has to come from you guys, where you invite her to participate rather than expecting it unprompted and wondering why she doesn't.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 8:22 AM on August 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


I think it's easy to misread this question as "Oh, my niece hurt my feelings by not acknowledging a birthday," but what I hear is worry: you're in charge of raising this hot teenage mess of a proto-human into a functioning adult. That's a ton of scary responsibility! you want to make sure you're doing a good job. But trust me: you are doing a GREAT job.

I read through your other questions, and I was blown away by the extraordinary amount of care and consideration you've shown not only to your niece but to everyone around you. You are doing everything you need to do to make sure she grows up into a kind, considerate, decent person, because you are acting as an excellent role model for her.

The time you helped your mom navigate the medical bureaucracy in preparation for her hearing test. The time you learned some chemistry to help your niece study for her exam. The time you researched anxiety in order to support her. The time you figured out a clothing allowance for her. The time you searched out and bought comfy pants for your grandmother. The time you bought your niece a bicycle. The time you heard your dad mention offhandedly that he needed a new belt, and so you did the research and found him one he'd love. When you researched suggestions for romance novels that your grandmother would love. The time you took your niece to Disneyland.

Each one of these examples is a seed you've planted in her. Seeds take time to grow. She is sulking, she is crabby, she is anxious, she is shy, but she is watching you. I swear, she will not grow up in your home without learning how to care for other people. You are doing everything you need to do, and now it's time to trust yourself, and the process. Keep the faith. These things take time. You are doing a good job.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:27 AM on August 2, 2016 [91 favorites]


I really thought of them as just how you interact with people.

Yeah healthy grown up people. Not a troubled 16 year old. Troubled 16 year olds are why the phrase 'unconditional love' exists. Because if there were any conditions they'd break em.

It sounds like you're doing a lot right and trying really hard. Just don't expect gratitude or an emotionally equal relationship. Accept some of this as typical.

The way forward is through.
posted by French Fry at 8:51 AM on August 2, 2016 [7 favorites]


Your comment is so right, pretentious illiterate. I was impressed by the OP's question history, too, but you really captured the essence of what's been going on here. I teared up a little reading that summary. It sounds like an amazingly sweet family movie.

needlegrrl, I hope you are taking good care of yourself, too.
posted by amtho at 9:09 AM on August 2, 2016 [14 favorites]


I'm not sure if you've tried, and if she's amenable to, you telling her what you want from her in a given situation?
Like, "honey, it's my birthday today and it would mean a lot to me if you could wish me a happy birthday right now."
Or, "good morning! Hey, can you say good morning back?"
Without rancour, but relentlessly.
She's sixteen and not six, but if she doesn't know how to express her caring for you then maybe you need to just tell her each time - but patiently and with the expectation that you'll be saying it a gajillion times and she'll still forget.

It's just a suggestion, I mean, maybe she hates this and sees it as nagging, in which case don't. But I couldn't see from your question whether you'd tried that.

Bonus: you'd be modelling how to ask for what you want.
posted by Omnomnom at 9:33 AM on August 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is so so hard because with your own kids, the thanklessness of the task is well and truly familiar by their teen years (and necessarily so, because holy crap, teenagers).

Please please please go easy on her re: interactions with your husband. In my super-anxious teen years I had a tremendously difficult time feeling okay around my less-close adult male relatives. Dad and brothers? Fine. Uncles? Tough. Uncles by marriage? OH GOD. If your niece has any problematic relationships with men in her past, or if she has real anxieties about her body, well, basically being around adult related men is just tricky AF. There's concern that they might somehow see you as sexual; there's concern that You might somehow see Them as sexual; there's a feeling of deep disconnect as far as life experiences go right at the point where your own life experiences seem overwhelming and inescapable.

If you keep consistently modeling a good and thoughtful relationship with your husband in front of niece she will totally get to there in her own time. But now may not be that time.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:41 AM on August 2, 2016 [11 favorites]


I have explained to her that it is not polite and hurtful for her not to say anything at all when she is up and around us in the morning.

She is in therapy, and on medication for depression/anxiety.


I doubt she is trying to be a jerk. Speaking as a former depressive teenager, most days were about treading water and trying to not drown -- the job of getting my suicidal ass just through the day was pretty all-consuming. In retrospect I was a self-absorbed little shit, but I was also a self-absorbed little shit who was fortunately trying hard to not just give up and kill herself. Dealing with any sort of illness, mental or physical, is completely exhausting. There isn't a lot of room left for other things at times.

(I know, I know -- she can probably make time to go out with friends, so surely... But that requires no effort. Figuring out how to deal with adults, how to behave, etc, is different. The metaphor about planting seeds is pretty spot on. She will be grateful, considerate, etc, to you -- just not right now.)
posted by kmennie at 9:50 AM on August 2, 2016 [9 favorites]


Were you waiting for her to wish you a happy birthday? Please don't set up tests like this. If it's your birthday and you want her to acknowledge it, be direct and kind. "Hey, it's my birthday today! Can you wish me a happy birthday, please?" or something like that.

Also, her comment that she wants a relationship like yours: that's fantastic! It's great because it shows you that she is paying attention and learning about how people treat each other in healthy relationships. That's very important, and it's great she shared this with you.

Also in regards to whom to text: if at all possible, try to do this in the moment. "Hey, niece! I'm in the middle of meetings. Can you ask Uncle?"

I think you'll get farther by modeling the behavior you want rather than telling her what to do. When she's leaving the house, "Are you leaving? Have a great day!" When she gets home: "Hello! How was your day?"

I think you really need to let the birthday thing go. Chalk it up to a failure to communicate to her what to do. Please don't be hurt--or, if you are, work through that on your own.

Finally, if you do talk to her, avoid framing this as her being inconsiderate or not normal. Instead, be direct, when the event is happening, "Hey, niece, please clean up your dishes after you cook. That means put away extra food, put dirty dishes in the dishwasher, and wipe down the counters. Thank you!"

The most important thing you can communicate to her is that you love her no matter what, that she can be a huge jerk and she still has a home with you. It's possible she's testing you on this, without realizing it.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:59 AM on August 2, 2016 [11 favorites]


It sounds like you're giving her A LOT of space. While I'm sure you have the best of intentions, I think she'd benefit from you guys actively trying to spend more time with her/gentle impose limits. Nothing horribly strict, just things like hey, you're home, let's all sit down and eat dinner together if you're here. Hey, sit down with us for a few minutes in the evening and tell us about your day. Or, hey, that concert you've been wanting to go to? We see you've been working hard in school, so we bought you tickets.

It's been really hard for me at certain points in my life to ask for guidance/attention/support if I needed it. My parents have always been supportive but if they thought I wanted a, they would give it to me. And I remember being frustrated because really I wanted support and I was quiet because I was struggling but it was incredibly hard for me to vocalize that.

Just... be there for her. The rest will come with time.
posted by Amy93 at 11:55 AM on August 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


I also looked through your Ask history, and I see so much evidence that you have been a really amazing person in your niece's life. The way you consistently advocate for her success and happiness is really touching.

I do want to mention that asking her to respect busy times at work and not text you sounds on the surface like a reasonable thing, and for an adult or even a well-adjusted child, it would be. However, your niece may be hearing this as "my work is more important than you, and you need to understand that and not bother me". I'm sure this absolutely not what you want her to take from this, but she is an anxiety-ridden teen whose life has likely been full of messages that she is unwanted and a burden. If she feels uncomfortable reaching out to your husband, please let her get in touch with you if she wants to or needs to. As someone who struggled with anxiety myself, it can be so hard to ask for the little reassurances of love and attention without feeling like you are bothering someone.

Raising a teenager is hard. Raising a teenager who's been through the kind of grinding trauma your niece has experienced is harder still. Be patient with her, and with yourself.
posted by ananci at 1:11 PM on August 2, 2016 [9 favorites]


>If just getting a text really is disruptive to you maybe silence your text notifications

I like this idea. My nieces are her age and they completely understand not getting a text response right away. As an adult, I often send non-time-sensitive texts so that I don't forget to ask the question or give the information. It's possible you're seeing things as needing immediate responses when she doesn't see the same. You could ask her, and see what she'd prefer.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:30 PM on August 2, 2016 [5 favorites]


I actually think something you can do to teach her about caring is to show her care, more actively. I know you're thinking that backing off is the best thing to do because teens always tell adults to leave them alone and act like they don't want you around. But secretly, they want to know that you are always there, and they want to feel close to you, even as they're pushing you away. They're testing emotional boundaries, and part of the test is them proving to themselves that you're not going to run away and abandon them no matter how hard they push. And your niece, who has had so much loss, needs that more than most people.

I love the idea of family dinner. If you can't do it every night, pick 2-3 nights a week and make them ironclad. But also, model for her the action of loving someone. If you hear a song on the radio that you think she'd like, send her the mp3. Invite her to things you're doing. Maybe even insist sometimes, tell her that you'll miss her if she doesn't come out to dinner with you and you want her to come and so you're going to let her pick the restaurant and order whatever she wants. Learning a skill together is great, especially if it's something she's maybe already a little better at than you are, so if she likes art, sign the two of you up for a drawing class together, and if she likes sports, ask her to train for a 5K with you. Join her in her interests, and invite her to join you in yours. And invite her to help you care for her uncle, and vice versa. On your birthday, your husband should go to her a few days before and say hey, I'm making your aunt a special dinner for her birthday on Tuesday. Can you come home after school that day to help me frost the cake and blow up balloons?

But most of all, I think she needs to know, solidly, unquestioningly, that you'll always be there. I don't have kids, but I work with a lot of traumatized kids. The number one thing that helps me build relationships with them is never making promises I can't keep. I promise every kid I work with four things: 1) I will never lie to you or tell you something that isn't true, and I hope you'll do the same. 2) If you have a question, you can always ask me, and if I don't know the answer, I will try my best to help you figure it out. 3) You can reach out to talk to me any time you want, by phone/text/email/twitter/smoke signal/whatever. There may be times when I am not able to answer right away, but I will always answer or get back to you as soon as I can. 4) Sometimes I'm accidentally going to break one of these rules. I will never do it on purpose, and if I do, as soon as I realize that I have (or you point it out to me), I'll apologize and do my best to make it right. I think it might be helpful for you to set up a similar set of promises to your niece. Because she needs to not just hear from you, but really know in her bones, that she can count on you.

I think the biggest thing is that she should never feel like she's being a burden on you. Even if she is. It's okay for you to have needs, to say that you need some time to yourself for a bit or that you're not going to be able to give her something she's asked for. But she should never feel like she's bothering you by asking. And I think that your well-intentioned attempts to direct her to the adult who is least likely to be busy, and your attempts to give her space, and your efforts to tell her about being more considerate, are likely to be read by a vulnerable, traumatized teenager as you saying, "stop bugging me." So I think the best strategy is to be more available, not less, and for you and your spouse to make an effort to be caring and considerate towards her and involve her in your efforts to care for each other and for her, rather than giving her unlimited freedom and then trying to talk to her about her attitude. I think it'll be more effective at getting the result you want, and also better for her mental health and her well-being.
posted by decathecting at 5:41 PM on August 2, 2016 [10 favorites]


One more thought OP. You wondering what is normal for your niece and maybe occasionally having unrealistic expectations? That is totally normal.

I just had a talk with one of my friends about her toddler who has been acting up a lot (teething), and how thankful she is that she and her husband have different temperaments that seem to compliment each other: they can talk each other down when they think the other parent has unreasonable expectations for the kid's maturity level.

Not that parenting is easy at any age, but you've jumped right into the thick of things. So take care of yourself and keep checking in with someone when you're frustrated.
posted by ghost phoneme at 6:01 PM on August 2, 2016


I want to apologize for my flippant response earlier. I'm truly sorry. I misjudged your question and didn't try to understand your perspective better, and I regret answering so casually. So you've now received much more thoughtful advice and I hope it's been somewhat helpful for you. I was thinking about you and your niece and the birthday today and I had one small thought to add: Is it possible she did not know a good way to express happy birthday? Birthdays can be a bit fraught even for adults, and I wonder if it triggered some anxiety where she didn't know what the expectations were, she got nervous and ultimately ignored it because she thought her acknowledgement of it wouldn't be enough. Your post says you expected a greeting or text, but maybe she didn't know that would be enough? Was she wondering if she should buy a gift or a card or just didn't know what to say? We know small talk makes her anxious so maybe the idea of a birthday greeting made her anxious too. I note also that she was at her grandma's house. Perhaps she considered her leaving was a gift, that the birthday person would appreciate a night alone? That strikes me as something I would have done as a young person and I certainly wouldn't have had the ability to articulate, "Hey, you two can have a fun birthday weekend without me in your hair. Happy Birthday!" Just another perspective. As a formerly awkward and probably unpleasant teen, thank you (sincerely) for the support you're giving your niece.
posted by areaperson at 6:11 PM on August 2, 2016 [6 favorites]


I have explained to her that it is not polite and hurtful for her not to say anything at all when she is up and around us in the morning.

Since you mentioned that one of the useful things about this thread is that it's giving you different perspectives on what's normal, I was a Silent Morning Teen who is now a Silent Morning Fortysomething. My dad is the world's most extroverted extrovert and would relentlessly joke and question me when I was just trying to eat my cereal while my brain came online. To me it was impolite and hurtful that he continued to disregard my expressed preference for morning quiet.
posted by MsMolly at 6:43 PM on August 2, 2016 [9 favorites]


Yeah, on the other side of the morning thing, I am CONSTANTLY EVERY DAY woken up by my family. I love them dearly, I will say good morning, but I am not nearly awake enough for the interaction they want and no matter what I say, 'good morning' leads to 'let me tell you about this thought I had this time' or 'let me tickle you' or 'let me hotbox you because lols' and it takes every single bit of my energy to not snarl at them.

I love them dearly, but my ideal morning would be total silence, maybe a hug, until I have finished at least one cup of tea.

Expecting other people to adhere to your energy level and pattern rarely ends well. See what she needs, explain what you need, and hopefully that can at least be solved. Maybe she doesn't chatter to you in the morning, or evening, or whatever. But a note or a hug or a cup of tea might work better for energy levels, communications, and anxiety.

Best of luck.
posted by geek anachronism at 7:29 PM on August 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


I read a quote once from a comedian.
I think it went like this:

"There is an age at which you should no longer expect people to be excited about your birthday.
That age is twelve."

Teenagers can care so little about other people--they got enough going on inside their heads and bodies... and if this teenage is struggling with various oh her things... yeah, LET IT GO.
posted by blueberry at 9:40 PM on August 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


When my depressed/anxious daughter was 16 she was even less able to put in words what she was dealing with in terms of anxiety than your niece is. She's getting better at understanding herself this beast called "anxiety" and I'm doing my best at being sympathetic toward what she experiences even though on a certain level it just doesn't make sense and it's so different from my own way of experiencing the world. In this process, it's been helpful to read about the experience of anxiety from other people who are better able to articulate the experience. I found the books What You Must Think of Me and Rae: My True Story of Fear, Anxiety, and Social Phobia to be useful glimpses into the mind of the socially anxious teen.

Also, in practical terms, your very question belies a certain line of thinking in which there are "ways people show they care" and ways people wish to be shown that others care. I'm sure if you stop for a minute you'll realize that different people show their caring and wish to be cared for in different ways. I think someone above mentioned "The 5 Love Languages" and that's a very important observation. So my suggestion would be to work out, through dialogue, some ways that she can show her appreciation better if you're feeling underappreciated and yet that don't trigger her anxieties/need for space.

The other thing I want to say to you is that for a teenage girl with depression/anxiety and a history of familial instability, she seems like she is doing really, amazingly well. Among all female high school students (and not just those with depression/anxiety), approximately 25% have seriously considered suicide in the past year; 20% have made a concrete plan to kill themselves, and 12% of high school girls will attempt suicide every year. Similarly shockingly high numbers of teenage girls have engaged in disordered eating behaviors such as bulimia or excessive dietary restriction, cutting, etc. etc. Let alone the signs of strife that you might more commonly expect, such as alcohol, drugs, etc. etc. Teenage girls are an especially hot mess--the takeaway being equal parts thank your lucky stars that your challenges aren't bigger, and the actually relatively manageable size of your challenges is good evidence that all your efforts to help out your niece are succeeding.
posted by drlith at 10:14 PM on August 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


Bringing up teens who are not your own children can be very difficult and unrewarding.

One of the difficulties is that they will often give very little feedback about what is really going on in their lives, or the feedback you do get will be very contrary to what is actually their reality.

This gives rise to situations I've experienced, where a teenager is rude, sullen, uncommunicative, uncooperative and gives the appearance of hating everyone and anything. Teenager goes to stay with friend for the weekend. Friends parents report that they've never met anyone so polite, cheerful and helpful.

Same teen, is taken on an overseas trip. Grouches and groans about being dragged around places he has no interest in, and generally gives the appearance of someone undergoing cruel and unusual punishment the entire time.

After returning, is overheard on the phone telling a friend about the wonderful time he had.

Your good examples will be making an impact, but you might not see the evidence for a long time.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 10:26 PM on August 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


I think you are expecting her to act like the child you raised from birth would act. You are considerate so you want her to be considerate. But the thing is, for most of her life she HASN'T been raised considerately. It takes all of childhood to learn how to adult and most of us are still fairly rubbish at it until we're 30. The things that happen to us before we are 5 have a massive impact on us, far bigger than the things that happen between say, 14 and 16, because we have no "normal" until it is given to us by those early experiences.

Really think about how she was treated as a small child, really think about the experiences you know she had and extrapolate that you probably don't know the worst bits. For example if you know she was left alone for 18 hours as a 4yo then think back to being 4, think of YOUR mommy leaving you alone (being unconscious on the floor/locking you in a cupboard, whatever) for all those hours and how that would feel and how you would feel about your mommy when she came back (nearly dead of relief, utterly furious, completely powerless to stop it happening again but beyond terrified that it will - these lessons teach us how to relate to our most significant people, ask yourself what she has learned). Expect her to behave according to THAT example. You will soon see how amazingly well she is actually doing considering.
posted by intergalacticvelvet at 3:34 AM on August 3, 2016 [5 favorites]


I'm the parent of a teenager, and one thing I remember when my kid is being "unreasonable" is that the pre-frontal cortex - the "CEO" of the brain - is still growing and fusing the rest of her brain.

Knowing that my kid biologically can't help some more of her bone-headed moves gives me extra patience.
posted by frecklefaerie at 6:16 AM on August 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


You're over reacting, and I'd have just the same reaction to someone getting so overwrought about minor things like birthdays and whether I say hello in the morning. Let her grow up, give her some space to find her feet and stop giving her a hard time about just being a teenager. If anyone's behaviour needs to stop, it's yours.
posted by Stephanie_Says at 5:19 AM on August 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


I really appreciate all the answers.

I also realized last night that I changed generic types of hormonal birth control a couple of weeks ago, and the last time the pharmacy did this, it completely wrecked me emotionally. So I am going to assume that a lot of my mood swings and the fact that I was so upset by this is because my hormones were running wild. If I were paying attention to self care, I likely would have caught this before now.

The responses all definitely gave me things to think about, books to read, and different perspectives. I did mention it to her yesterday, but not in an upset or lecture-y way, and then later (after school stuff), I also made sure that she knows that she is always our first priority - that while I may let her know I am in meetings, etc, and she would get a faster response from her uncle, if she needs me, I will drop everything for her.
posted by needlegrrl at 5:20 AM on August 4, 2016 [16 favorites]


So I am going to assume that a lot of my mood swings and the fact that I was so upset by this is because my hormones were running wild.

Good thinking. But also know this: she is already grateful. She already appreciates you. One day she will be able to say so in the ways you want to hear. Til then: she does.
posted by listen, lady at 2:09 PM on August 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


When I was training as a therapist, my first assignment was working at a high school. Every single supervisor I had made sure to let me know that working with teens was thankless in the moment, but that didn't mean I wasn't helping. My role with them was much more limited than yours with your niece, but the most helpful bit of insight I heard was, "Sometimes your role as a therapist with teens is just to demonstrate that not every adult is as screwed up as their parents, that functional ways of being exist in the world." Which helped me a lot, when I was comparing myself against therapists working with littler kids, who often do respond to corrections/interventions/requests with major behavioral changes. Teens... often don't. That doesn't mean you're not making a difference.
posted by lazuli at 7:56 PM on August 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


-greet them, and ask them about their day/event/project
-be interested in their life and aware of special events (birthdays, holidays)
-try to be aware of when they have a lot going on (i.e., tax time for accountants, conference season, e tc - we are very clear with her about when these things are) and act accordingly (don't send text messages about non-essential things while they are at work, etc)
-keep shared areas clean, and put things away after you use them (don't leave your messes for other people to clean up)


Here's some stuff from my house when I was growing up:
-don't speak unless spoken to
-don't waste other people's time
-mind your own business
-don't order people around
-don't sweat the small stuff
-if something's in your way, move it yourself

And, let me tell you, those have sunk in, to the point that your "considerate" is my "phony, nosy, meddling, boring, selfish, fragile, and domineering." I'm not saying that to be judgmental, just to point out that different people with different personalities react very differently to the same behaviour, and have wildly different -- even completely opposite -- ideals. Please consider that your neice might not be inconsiderate, but could simply have a personality that differs from yours.

Do definitely look over the emotional labor thread linked in comments above and ask yourself if a) you're stuck in that pattern, and b) you really want to pass it along.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:59 PM on August 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


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