how to set boundaries with a child who isn't mine
August 3, 2020 1:37 PM   Subscribe

My step brother's niece is... kind of a jerk. I feel awful feeling this way, but I also need to learn how to set boundaries when I interact with her so as not to internally rage and then feel bummed out. Can anyone help?

The long and short of it is, I had two step brothers. One of them passed away a few years ago very suddenly in an accident. His daughter (now 12) has taken it pretty well. That said, she's kind of a jerk, and has been for years - even before her father passed away. Interactions with her make me feel drained and angry, but I obviously don't want to express that anger in front of a child (my father was quick to anger).

Yes, I know pre-teens can be jerks sometimes (my partner has two kids, both in high school now, and we lived through their jerky period and survived). But this girl - my living step-brother's niece (does that make her my niece? Blended family terms can be complicated), has been a jerk for years. Starting when she turned about 6 or 7 she became very physically and verbally aggressive - to everyone - and her parents didn't do a great job at drawing boundaries and explaining when she was behaving inappropriately. She has always had trouble making friends in school because other kids think she's mean - not in the "popular girl" Mean Girls movie way, in the "damn, she's rude and says things that make me feel bad about myself and sometimes smacks me around way". In recent years, she has become very bitter and jealous of her younger cousin (who just turned 2) because she felt it was unfair that she was getting less attention than a baby. She says things like "I don't understand why anyone cares about [toddler cousin], you people are all sheep under her spell" and is generally rough when she interacts with the toddler which makes me really angry because SHE IS A TODDLER and can't defend herself. My living step-brother (toddler's dad) is good at keeping things safe, but the overall behavior I witness from Jerky Niece towards Toddler still bothers me.

Jerky Niece also likes to point out, loudly and snottily at family gatherings, that she thinks it's weird I've been in a relationship for so long (nearly a decade) and I am not married, and also loudly asks me when I'm going to have a baby myself. These things are 1) none of her business and 2) I can't have biological kids due to broken ovaries so it all just makes me feel awful. I've gently told her that I'm happy with my life choices, many people choose to life lives like mine, and when she says things like that it hurts my feelings, but she doesn't give a shit and keeps doing it.

She's also rude to wait staff in restaurants, mean to her older brother (who is the nicest chilliest kid ever), and regularly throws tantrums when she doesn't get her way (losing a board game, not getting cast in a lead role during the yearly ballet class performance of the Nutcracker, not having the entire family stop talking when she has something to say). Like full on screaming thrashing on the floor tantrums.

I just don't want to be around her anymore. Her mother is doing her best, but being a single parent is hard, and Jerky Niece has been behaving this way for years, long before her father passed. My living step-brother agrees that her behavior is a problem but doesn't think it's his place to intervene unless she's about to cause Toddler harm. Jerky Niece's grandmother (my step mom - with whom I'm close) just lets her behave poorly because she finds it endearing or something? (Or maybe she's given up.)

I know Jerky Niece has suffered a terrible loss recently, and I empathize (I lost my mother at a similar age). I also suspect that Jerky Niece perhaps needs some intervention from a therapist or other professional at least for the aggressive behavior and tantrumming. But she's not my daughter and I can't demand that of her mother.

This might bother me way less somehow if I hadn't help raise my partner's kids when they were her age - sure, they could be jerks sometimes but never to the extent that Jerky Niece is. Perhaps it's not fair to compare her to my partner's kids, but they are the only other kid point of reference I have that I am close to.

Bottom line is, I have reached a point where I don't want to attend family gatherings if Jerky Niece will be present. Is there any way to convey this discreetly to my family (minus Jerky Niece's mom, who has enough on her plate) without causing a family feud? Or should I just do a slow fade from all family events and instead consciously make time to spend time with my living step-brother and his wife and Toddler, and Jerky Niece's older brother, and my step mom individually and hope no one notices that I'm obviously avoiding Jerky Niece?

Or am I just an asshole for disliking a kid? If that's the case, feel free to tell me (kindly, preferably). I don't hate kids - I love Toddler Niece, I love Non Jerky Nephew, I love my cousins' children, and I love my partner's kids. It's just Jerky Niece who makes me want to tear my hair out. No one seems to even be trying to help her not be a jerk, so I think some of this is that my anger is misdirected, but at the same time... God, she's just... awful to be around. I just can't anymore.

Thoughts welcome. I can clarify in the comments if anyone needs more info. Thanks.
posted by nayantara to Human Relations (39 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You're definitely not the asshole here. I'm sure lots of people will jump in to explain how none of this can possibly be the kid's fault - and "fault" is indeed a weird concept for a kid - but you know what you're seeing.

Still, there's not a ton you can do about it. If she were older you could maybe give as good as you get with her, but (a) she isn't and (b) you sound like a nice gentle person who does not enjoy trading barbs.

I think your best bet is likely to be to sort of "grey rock" the kid. Definitely don't tell her she's succeeded in hurting your feelings (why do you think she's doing it?). It's ok to roll your eyes and look away when she makes a nasty remark to you. It is your duty to interfere if she's hitting the baby. Otherwise, I know she's unpleasant, but I doubt it's worth cutting yourself off from your family. When she does her thing, tell yourself "there she goes again, poor kid is going to have a tough time in life, glad she's not my problem" and try to ignore.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:53 PM on August 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Forgot to mention: we have not been doing family gatherings over the past few months due to COVID-19 (obviously) but I'm trying to plan ahead for a hopefully unquarantined future, whenever that may be.
posted by nayantara at 1:53 PM on August 3, 2020

Best answer: I'm not going to armchair diagnose your niece, but I will say that these behaviors sound severe enough that I have no doubt someone WOULD diagnose her if she were sent to a therapist. This is not just regular "kid stuff," especially for a tween. It is, as you say, not her fault—if she has a behavior disorder nobody is giving her the tools to help regulate herself, and if she's suffering and acting out it sounds like nobody is helping her with that either. She is being done a disservice! But she's also awful to be around and you can certainly minimize your exposure, you are not an asshole for not wanting to be mistreated and you're not blowing up normal 12-year-old stuff into a problem when it isn't.

Rather than keeping your distance, though, or maybe in addition to keeping your distance, is there a way you and maybe your stepbrother can approach Jerky Niece's mother about helping her get support for JN? It is hard to be a single mom, but surely having an oppositional kid is making it harder. Especially if you're able to offer some financial support for therapy, I think you can find a way to make it clear that you're not criticizing her parenting but trying to make sure she has the resources to give JN the help she needs. I think you can pair this with saying that you'll need to be scarcer at family gatherings that involve JN for now, but that your ideal outcome is that you don't avoid her because you don't have to avoid her in order to protect yourself.
posted by babelfish at 2:21 PM on August 3, 2020 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Now that I actually look at your username—you've already said you're COVID-unemployed so scratch that about financial support! But there are other ways to offer help with accessing therapy, like doing research or offering to watch Non-Jerky Nephew when Jerky Niece has an appointment (in the dim future when we can hang out with our nieces and nephews).
posted by babelfish at 2:24 PM on August 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

I believe one of the greatest lies is that you have to be friends with or socialize with your family. If there is someone in your family that you would not be friends with or socialize with if they were not a family member, do not be friends or socialize with them.
posted by hworth at 3:20 PM on August 3, 2020 [9 favorites]

also suspect that Jerky Niece perhaps needs some intervention from a therapist or other professional at least for the aggressive behavior and tantrumming.

yeah or also for, I don't know, her dead dad, who continues to be dead.

you are not her parent, you have the right to avoid her with no guilt. you don't have to pretend not to mind her behavior, you don't have to tolerate it.

but justifying your attitude and emotions towards her now by your recollection and opinion of what she was like before her dad died is pretty unacceptable. the time to think of her and treat her as a brat with two negligent parents was back when she was a brat with two negligent parents. but this is now, and she is much worse off now, in real and concrete ways that are not her fault. and to list out all her acting-out and nastiness and literal shouts for attention AND at the same time say she's "taken it [her father's sudden death] well"

she has not taken it well.

but again, if you don't like her, you can't help her directly even if you wanted to. and you aren't obligated to anyway. You are not an asshole for disliking her; you might be close to that for blaming her what is manifestly a parenting problem. no one could blame her mother for collapsing a little bit under this strain, but that doesn't change the effects. this kid doesn't need too much analysis, she is screaming out her issues in actual words.

so I don't see why you couldn't simply say to her mother, without "demanding" anything, that you think this kid clearly needs a therapist both for grief counseling and for behavioral assessment. and also because she needs someone's undivided attention, and that's a thing you can purchase for money. Is it your place to suggest this? I think it's any family member's place who's had shocking things said or done to them by this child. It's certainly her uncle's place -- his obligation, I would say. At a certain point, 'not my place to intervene' means I don't care what this child goes through as long as it's not in front of me.

I also don't see why you'd reprimand the kid "gently" for saying something shockingly rude. kids learn from everything adults say to them. A gentle answer teaches her that what she said wasn't all that bad, and to try harder for whatever reaction she's after. you can simply say, sharply and loudly, That's not acceptable to a kid, and walk away from them. you don't have the power a parent has, but you have a lot of freedoms they don't.
posted by queenofbithynia at 3:22 PM on August 3, 2020 [22 favorites]

You can kindly but firmly tell her that her behavior is inappropriate. Do not continue to let her rule the roost - tell her when something isn’t okay. A trauma and a comorbid mental health diagnosis of some kind (which it sounds like she needs) don’t excuse jerky behavior and you will he saving her from more severe consequences later on.

With that said, the kids need help. I know it’s probably not your place to say something to her direct family, but can you gently nudge anyone else to speak up for whom it WOULD be more appropriate?

Full blown tantrums on the floor at this age are less “tantrums” and more “manifestation of an underlying mental health diagnosis”. She is still so young and her brain is changing so much. This is the time to get her help, when there is still so much potential for chance. Wait too long and it will be too late.
posted by Amy93 at 3:29 PM on August 3, 2020 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Oh dear what a terrible problem.
It made me think of two different relations. First, Jerky Niece reminds me of a "friend" I had in school, I feared and hated her and still invited her for sleepovers and holidays because that was the only way to keep her at bay. Much, much later I was told that she was suffering from a really bad family situation, unknown to all but the very closest. I can't guess what is wrong in your niece's situation, given that you say she was already a jerk before she lost her dad, but my first instinct was that she might be like my "friend".

The second relation I thought of is the one I have with my sister. I'm actually on the verge of crying as I write this because my sister has again caused a huge problem in my life today. Like my "friend" above, my sister is a jerk, and she relishes being jerkish. Also like my "friend", there are reasons she arrived there. The thing is, my knowledge of her history and vulnerability does nothing for me when it comes to the damage she does. And it does nothing for her. She often gets into conflicts she doesn't understand because she feels it is OK to scream at people on a whim. Today, I decided to put out some of my feelings about what happened. She instantly made it about her, by talking about her feelings of guilt about the situation. But how does that help me? I don't care if she feels guilty, I care that she never, ever does anything like it again, and nothing in her words or actions pointed in that direction, mainly because it didn't seem like she understood how serious it was.

That was a long preamble to what I would suggest for you.
IMO, you should not stop going to family gatherings. You can't let a child drive you out of your own family. You should start setting boundaries very loudly and clearly (though not shouty) when your niece behaves unacceptably. Make it clear that you are helping her learn what is polite behaviour across society. You may be seen as the evil aunt for a while. But remember, in human relations the words "always" and "never" seldom make sense. If you have strong values and care for your family, your boundaries will eventually be accepted. And though it may seem like a long struggle while it is on, it will probably just take one or two years till your values prevail, and you will all hopefully live on for decades.
posted by mumimor at 3:39 PM on August 3, 2020 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: So the thing is, her behavior has been consistently like this, pre-and-post her father's death. When I said she's taken it well, I meant that her bad behavior hasn't increased or exacerbated because of it. This is the way she's always been. That's what I find exhausting about it. She was bullying classmates starting in first grade. She was saying rude things to my step-brother's now-wife since she was in fourth grade when they started seeing each other (calling her fat, making fun of her clothes, etc). Stepbro and I have been taken aback by her behavior for a long time. If this behavior had only come about since her father's death, or increased after his death, I would completely understand why. I do know that her mother put both her and her brother in grief counselling after it happened. I do not know if that counselling has continued. I totally get that this is the culmination of not-great parenting when her father was alive and her mother being overwhelmed now. I don't lay blame on her for this. But, this is becoming intolerable as time goes on and she gets older, and I have my own mental health issues to deal with, and I dread family gatherings because of this. This is why I framed the question more as "how to draw boundaries" as opposed to "help me tell this poor girl how awful she is to her face, but nicely".
posted by nayantara at 3:51 PM on August 3, 2020

Again, just firmly but kindly tell her when something is unacceptable.

“That’s not an appropriate question to ask/comment to make/etc”

“It is not acceptable to _____________”

Then walk away.

But I would still strongly consider telling someone that the girl needs a behavioral assessment.
posted by Amy93 at 3:57 PM on August 3, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I’d either ignore her or ask “Was that necessary to say/ask/do/etc?” It might get her to actually think about what she’s doing but more importantly it invalidates her and takes her power away without scolding.*

* Keep in mind I do this with adults who are acting shitty too.
posted by Young Kullervo at 4:03 PM on August 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah, this is tough. I am generally a big fan of kids, but one of my oldest friends has a daughter who is so challenging to be around. She's so challenging that they've homeschooled her, which means she hasn't really seen consequences for this behavior with peers and other adults. I think her parents have unintentionally rewarded this behavior because it's so damn challenging.

In recent years, she has become very bitter and jealous of her younger cousin (who just turned 2) because she felt it was unfair that she was getting less attention than a baby. She says things like "I don't understand why anyone cares about [toddler cousin], you people are all sheep under her spell" and is generally rough when she interacts with the toddler which makes me really angry because SHE IS A TODDLER and can't defend herself.
So, it's not good that she's rough with the toddler. But this to me sounds hilarious (I mean, we adults do tend to be entranced by babies and also because I don't have to hear it) and also sounds to me like a kid SO DESPERATE for attention and the only way she knows how to get it is by being a jerk. Like, maybe she didn't feel like she got enough attention until she started acting out, and this behavior was rewarded, because negative attention is still attention.

Jerky Niece also likes to point out, loudly and snottily at family gatherings, that she thinks it's weird I've been in a relationship for so long (nearly a decade) and I am not married, and also loudly asks me when I'm going to have a baby myself.
She was saying rude things to my step-brother's now-wife since she was in fourth grade when they started seeing each other (calling her fat, making fun of her clothes, etc).
Other folks can correct me if I'm wrong, but this doesn't sound like the kind of thing a kid says when they haven't heard someone else saying it--especially the first one, about you not being married. I don't want to cast suspicion on your other family members, but is it possible that there's a secret jerk who she is exposed to and is mimicking? Is it possible that she's hearing garbage like this from your stepmom, which is why your stepmom finds it endearing? There could be another source, of course, and it's not your job to be detective, but it seems like this kid has seen some pretty terrible behavior modeled for her.

I agree with folks who say to do the grey rock thing. I might try being direct with her first (and you might have to practice saying this a few times first): "Hey niece, that's mean/uncool/unkind. Don't behave that way towards me." And then just ignore her if she escalates or tantrums. It really seems like she wants attention and engagement, and the only way her behavior is going to change is if there are consequences she doesn't want -- no attention -- to her behaving that way. "That's not okay" is your mantra. Could it be that no one has ever really told her to knock it off?

The thing is -- then you do need to pay her attention if she stops being jerky. Would that be manageable? When she does behave in a normal or kind way, you want to shower her with attention. Have you ever read this old thing in the New York Times about animal training and marriage? The idea is to ignore behavior you don't like and reward what you do.

This sounds really stressful, and I really think you should give a few things a try before you stop hanging out with your family. Good luck.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:20 PM on August 3, 2020 [9 favorites]

To directly answer your question about boundaries, I would be really surprised if you could get away with directly telling your family that you’ll be avoiding family gatherings to avoid jerky niece.

However, could you interact with your family at these gatherings in such a way that you don’t spend much time directly in jerky niece’s presence? This really depends on what these events look like, but for example: everyone is in the living room, jerky niece starts her thing, you go into kitchen on some pretext and maybe another family members follows you (or you join the conversation in another room). Sit down dinner? Oops, you’ll be late for and miss dinner but looking forward to seeing everyone after for a while! And just avoid the area around jerky niece. She walks up and joins a group you’re in? Detach yourself ASAP and go somewhere else. You’ll still be around her somewhat, but hopefully this will lessen your exposure without totally dropping out of family events. You may still have to plan to miss out on some events or parts of events.

This, combined with expanding your one on one socializing with your family, may get you to an acceptable level of niece exposure while maintaining your family connections.

posted by MadamM at 4:31 PM on August 3, 2020

I’d either ignore her or ask “Was that necessary to say/ask/do/etc?” It might get her to actually think about what she’s doing but more importantly it invalidates her and takes her power away without scolding.*

I'd be wary of framing it as a yes or no question. If she answers yes then she not only has invalidated the question, she'll likely be on alert for another pointed approach that she'll likely perceive as an attack. It might be better to stick with simple statements such as those offered above.
posted by fuse theorem at 4:32 PM on August 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

bluedaisy wrote: Other folks can correct me if I'm wrong, but this doesn't sound like the kind of thing a kid says when they haven't heard someone else saying it--especially the first one, about you not being married.
This very strongly applies to my sister, and I suspect to your niece as well, but not necessarily directly because of your sister-in-law or stepmother saying mean stuff. They may be making harmless jokes, but the child is taking them literally.
What my sister did today was take something the rest of us understood as a silly joke that absolutely doesn't make any sense in our real lives, and insanely applied it in real life. Let's say we all pretend we are pirates for fun, and suddenly she actually pirated one of my neighbors. (That wasn't it, but Metafilter is not a private forum, and this was equally illegal).
Probably because I am out of myself today, I forgot the point in my above comment: people who struggle with stuff like my sister and perhaps your niece find it difficult to understand messages that are subtle or indirect or jokey. There are reasons for this, but that is outside my field of expertise and interest. What I do know from experience is that being direct is helpful for them. Saying out loud that this is unacceptable is good for you and for them.
posted by mumimor at 4:43 PM on August 3, 2020

Twelve is old enough for a direct conversation. I would do three and out, with stronger language each time.

1. That's not an appropriate thing to say. Please stop.

2. Asking me about being married is intrusive and rude. Cut it out.

3. You're being an asshole. Stop it now.

After #3, no i more nteraction with her at that event or leave the gathering
posted by medusa at 4:44 PM on August 3, 2020 [11 favorites]

Best answer: The best advice I’ve gotten in a similar situation is, a she’s not your kid and you’re not ultimately responsible. You can care for her, and want to keep her as safe and healthy and grow up to be the best person she can be, but at some point you really need to step back and free yourself. Because you can’t send this kid to therapy or fix her. It’s so frustrating and it hurts to see, but in terms of boundaries, just work on making it NOT YOUR PROBLEM. I agree with others that she might be trying to get a rise out of you, so don’t let it happen. When she’s hurting others, absolutely step in and stop that to the best of your ability. If she’s directly a jerk to you, I think it’s entirely appropriate to say, “what you just said is really uncool, and I’m not going to talk to you further.” Sometimes I’ve even said “when you talk to me like that, it hurts my feelings.” I try to say all of this in the calmest way possible, because conflict will just feed on itself.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 4:50 PM on August 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

were the teachers/staff at her school doing anything when she bullied other kids?

I would tell step SIL point blank that I don't want to be around her and jerky niece if she continues to refuse to set boundaries and get her help....and discuss this 1st with the family members you think will have your back.

you absolutely do not have to be subjected to this.
posted by brujita at 5:25 PM on August 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

So... just to throw in a slightly different (potentially unpopular) read:

Saying things like "this hurts my feelings" to a younger child can be helpful in advancing theory of mind and/or empathy, modeling social expectations and and teaching the child that words have meanings. At 12 though, I wonder if you're just telling her that her actions are working. It sounds like she's had plenty of feedback that these actions are harmful - her goal is very likely to cause harm. (Similar to most others in this thread, I'm not "blaming" her for what's causing that goal, or saying that makes her a bad kid, particularly given the extreme circumstances you've described!) If she's lashing out intentionally, telling her she's hurting you is basically telling her that she has discovered a very effective strategy for landing a direct hit. (From your description, she may have already also learned that even when you say you're hurt, no one stops her, so you're a very useful target.) Assuming you don't have a more in-depth relationship, her perspective of you may be more instrumental than personal - she might see you as a way for her to effectively do the acting-out thing she wants to do.

So in the interest of protecting yourself, and with the assumption you can't create other more meaningful consequences, I agree with the advice (1) to make it publicly very clear that this is unacceptable (cf medusa's comment), or (2) use grey rock or (3) leave so that you are no longer a way to get the kind of outcome she wants. Whatever the underlying causes are, you do not have to accept abuse.
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 5:42 PM on August 3, 2020 [9 favorites]

This is past out of hand.

No, I don’t think you should avoid family gatherings because of your niece’s behaviour. You should talk to her grandmother, uncle, and mom about your concerns.

In the girl’s presence, enforce boundaries.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:01 PM on August 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: there have been several captain Awkward posts about dealing with awful family members and the consensus is that the LWs don't have to be subjected to them; one solution is making time to see simpatico members on their own.
posted by brujita at 6:24 PM on August 3, 2020

If niece is 12, she is way past "needs help". This is concerning behavior in a 3-year-old; in a 12-year-old, it's getting awfully close to "can be charged as an adult".

And I'm sorry, but that's where this sort of behavior is headed.

Depending on location, she may be at or very near the age where her parent cannot require her to get help. Protect yourself, protect those around you, and VERY strongly encourage her parent to seek it. There is an awful lot of misery in the future, otherwise... and unfortunately, it might be too late to prevent it.
posted by stormyteal at 7:11 PM on August 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Lots of good food for thought here guys, thank you.

With regards to brujita's question about how her teachers and school staff have responded to her bullying - my understanding is she gets time outs, for particularly egregious behavior she's not allowed outside for recess and is instead given a task in the classroom to perform, and the worst of it was about four years ago, when her father was still alive, and they got three phone calls in the span of two months from the school principal asking for her to be picked up because she had literally punched other kids. She also once punched a teacher. Her report cards reflect that she is a bright girl with an active imagination who loves writing and theater/music class, but has a difficult time socially because she is so mean to other kids. I have no context for whether this is an appropriate way to handle such issues - I barely remember elementary and middle school, and my partner's kids went to school in a different school district (and also didn't behave like this, so I don't know how their school would have handled it).

I wanted to add this as well, with apologies if it seems like I buried the lede, but... Jerky Niece goes to school in a district that is roughly 55% white, 40% black, and 5% Latino. Jerky Niece is white. A lot of her bullying has been directed specifically towards black classmates. When she was younger she used to tell black kids in school they had ugly skin. When that got her in a pile of trouble at school and at home, she dialed things back to be more subtle, but the targets of her bullying have not changed. I am a woman of color - my parents are of South Asian ancestry. When I hear that she is a white girl being awful to students of color, and when I think about some of the horrible ways she has behaved towards me... I don't know. It just depresses me even more. Because my father married her grandmother, she has a multi-racial extended family, and so it really, really disheartens me to hear that she bullies kids of color at her school. I think this is why I've been at such a loss as to how to handle being around her at family gatherings that tend to mostly consist of my white family members. Or something, I don't know. If anyone has further input I'd be open to hearing it. I do plan to get on the horn with my living step bro sometime this week to see if I can team up with him to talk to Jerky Niece's mom about this. But the race-related bullying thing just really, really unsettles me.
posted by nayantara at 7:14 PM on August 3, 2020

Your niece being a jerk isn't necessarily your problem to solve and I would never advocate that someone should spend time around someone who makes them feel bad, but I want to offer an alternative perspective: offer her mom some support. I don't know where you are from or what your family's culture is, but there is an attitude in a lot of cultures that if there were a serious underlying problem -- for example, some kind of disability or abuse -- some authority figure would have identified it and set the family/child on a path toward help. That is so very much not the case worldwide, especially when it comes to female children and their development, even in privileged Western families who, in theory, have access to quality mental-health care.

I have a niece-in-law who has had problems with tantrums, is kind of blunt and mean, and can't deal with group family situations. She's 12 now, but the issues have been around for years and years. If her mom and dad breathed their concerns to other members of the family, they were totally shut down by the relatives. "It's a phase" "It's a phase" "All kids do that" "It's a phase". They would not let the parents entertain the possibility that maybe things with niece are not so normal. She does ok in school so there's no help there. But it's a real problem that they need help with. It wasn't until my daughter was diagnosed with autism and I spoke about it with our family that my niece's parents started to feel like maybe it would be appropriate and not over-reactive for them to reach out to professionals to explore help for my niece. I really understood, seeing the other relatives' reaction to my daughter's diagnosis, how much my niece's mother's concerns were invalidated by those other relatives. (Relatives that are psychology professionals, I might add.)

That said -- look, I don't know your niece or your family. But I bet her mom could use some emotional support and I don't think you'd be remiss in saying that it seems like certain things are hard for niece, maybe they could use some professional support. (Upon seeing your latest reply: school supports are not really the end-all and be-all of support for kids. There's probably a school psychologist who has their suspicions as to diagnosis, but they are not allowed to diagnose. And there is so much social-emotional need in the schools that the teachers, school psychologists, counselors don't necessarily have the time to address root issues.)

(Also - if your niece is anything like my autistic daughter, actually being clear and direct -- but not adding shaming language -- can be very effective at stopping bad social behavior. A lot of other chatty talk about feelings and intention can backfire.)
posted by stowaway at 7:38 PM on August 3, 2020 [7 favorites]

Dear God, do not do what Abacus Bean is suggesting and tell this poor girl you don’t want to have a child in case it turns out like her! What could you possibly hope to achieve by such a cruel comment? It’s the exact opposite of what you want to do to reach a kid like this.

She’s crying out for love and attention, even if it’s negative. She’s probably dealing with the loss of not just one but two parents as I bet her mum is just lost and unable to give her much of anything right now.

What I’ve noticed with kids is that they become whatever it is you tell them that they are. So if she’s cruel or violent or hurtful and you tell her she’s never going to amount to anything but a bad person, guess what, she’ll hear that and think that’s what she is, there’s no incentive to be or try better. But if you give her positive feedback and praise for one thing...anything, even if it’s just that she was with her sister for ten minutes without punching her, tell her that you’re proud of her, guess what, eventually she’ll live up to that too. Tell her that you know she’s a good kind person and you can’t wait to see it.

Keep looking for the good things that she’s done. And you may have to look hard with a child like this. But be the one person that believes in her and that isn’t disappointed in her and eventually she won’t be looking to tear you down or push you away, she’ll be looking to you to make you proud. Sometimes all it takes is one person. And you know, I get that you don’t want to be that person because she’s been so horrible to you and you don’t have to do this. But sometimes it the most unloveable people that need love the most. This child is too young to be thrown on the trash heap.
posted by Jubey at 7:41 PM on August 3, 2020 [9 favorites]

I totally get that this is the culmination of not-great parenting when her father was alive and her mother being overwhelmed now.

Her behavior might not be her parents' fault. It might not be anybody's fault. She sounds mentally ill.
posted by wondermouse at 7:41 PM on August 3, 2020 [7 favorites]

Sometimes I’ve even said “when you talk to me like that, it hurts my feelings.”

OH MY GOD DO NOT DO THIS. She wants to hurt your feelings. She feeds off of weakness. I mean, this is beyond obvious.

She needs help badly, but you say you're not in a position to get help for her or influence someone who could get help for her, so your best bet for your own mental health is to ignore her. Completely. Do not respond. Do not pay attention to her when she demands it. Say "hello" if you must, and that's all. You don't have to talk to everybody at a family gathering. Avoid avoid avoid.
posted by tzikeh at 8:09 PM on August 3, 2020 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I get that she needs help. I am limited in what I can do, short of speaking with my step brother about my concerns and then hopefully the two of us approaching her mother jointly with concerns, which she may or may not act on. The kids were in grief counseling after their father died, as I mentioned before. I don't know if they are still in counseling. I cannot force her mother to get her daughter help no matter how much it is needed, though I can voice my concerns. I'm also not sure how to broach the topic of her targeted bullying of students of color in school, though I do think that is a big problem. In the meantime, I have my own, very real, and not insignificant mental health issues to deal with, which is why I asked a question about how to handle an uncomfortable family situation with a niece who is difficult to be around in a way that is compassionate to all parties involved, including myself. I appreciate the answerers who have given me advice that specifically answer that question. I'm getting a bit frustrated at being berated for not doing more to get this girl (and her brother) help - she is not my child, I can't force her into therapy, I can't force her mother to put her in therapy. All I can do is take care of my own mental well being, try to redirect her when she is actively shitty to me, and try to talk to her mom with no guarantees that anything will come of such a conversation. I am not in a position to help financially as I am a member of the great COVID unemployed. My question is about setting boundaries for a reason.
posted by nayantara at 8:17 PM on August 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry if you're feeling piled-on. I tried to focus on setting mental boundaries in my answer, not on how it's your job to get her help-- not sure if I spelled that out enough. Like, you can decide to never enter the same space as her again, or to continue to go to family events, but either way thinking "she's a hurting kid and I'm choosing to ignore this" might help your distress? It's a coping technique that works for me. My answer would be to focus on how bad her situation is to the extent that it helps you, but it doesn't have to be your role to get her help and I question if it's even possible for you to do that within your family dynamic. I don't think you are an asshole at all, and it wasn't my intent to insinuate that. I never suggested you should have your SIL get a psych eval.

And you mentioned the racial bullying... I don't see how you could even address that? If it comes up in conversation you could voice your disapproval, but imagine if the situation was reversed. If you had a close friend with a step-niece who was bullying others at school and it appeared to be racial-- would you put it on their shoulders to fix that situation? It also sounds like mentally her bullying can become symbolic of all the racism that exists, and how it will be perpetuated. I can relate to this, I sometimes get upset by kid's behavior for the same reason. But in general making a single issue stand for a bigger issue makes you more upset, so attempting to separate that behavior from racism as a whole might help? Like, even if you had a magic wand and could end this behavior, the social problem would exist.

Maybe my way of talking about these issues just isn't helpful to you, feel free to ignore and sorry if it made you feel worse.
posted by sometamegazelle at 8:32 PM on August 3, 2020

Best answer: In addition to ignoring the comments, you can try engaging her about herself. Kid conversations are inherently not adult conversations but you can attempt to spend a few minutes talking about her.


Kid walks up to you says mean thing.
"That's not appropriate ." Pause of awkwardness, but interrupt before she responds "I heard that you are in theater. What are you working on right now? "
Or "I heard you like writing, are you writing anything right now?"

She may disengage, but she may start talking. Then all you have to do is listen and ask a couple relevant questions, and excuse yourself once you are to tired to continue. At the end comment on how the conversation about herself was nice to have and you how you would have more like it in the future.

Ideally you would get her talking about herself prior to a negative interaction. So if she's headed to your seat, try engaging with her first.

Obviously you are under no obligation to try this. But if she's just reporting her life to you, and you are offering interest and praise, it may curb some of the unpleasantness, just because she's busy doing something else.

I'd keep going to family gatherings. It's perfectly okay to ignore her. There's alot of advice like that above. I just thought that adding a bit on having a healthy conversation with her might be worth it.
posted by AlexiaSky at 9:17 PM on August 3, 2020 [7 favorites]

Best answer: My social skills aren't the best so heads up if I'm way off base. Maybe try being blunt and ask her why she says things that make people feel bad. Tell her it makes people want to limit being around her. Her reply could give you a better idea of what might help. If she's angry about something, at least you'd know. If she has bad people skills, there are books and videos that might help. See if there are any ideas you might have that could be helpful. If she keeps being a jerk, I think it's okay to avoid her. It's not your job to be her punching bag. Don't be mean back but it's okay to protect your own mental health.
posted by stray thoughts at 9:46 PM on August 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Maybe try being blunt and ask her why she says things that make people feel bad.

Just speaking as a parent whose children might possibly feature as the niece in this story, I like this. It will obviously depend on what's going on, but in the case of their particular minds, going full meta has been an effective conversational reset, in situations where they have enough self-awareness to carry the ball.

But when you're done with this, that's fine, it's not your job.
posted by away for regrooving at 1:34 AM on August 4, 2020

Best answer: Honestly, given how stressed you yourself are, I think you should do what you want to do, what stresses you least.

I am seriously giving your family the side eye for letting people be abused by a 12 year old.

If you feel you could handle the confrontation, tell her she's being inacceptable to you (as in the excellent advice above). If that feels too hard, I'm not judging you, start not going to these events and tell them why.

I hope that will lead to some changes (hopefully to some help for Niece and not to you suddenly being branded as a troublemaker).

You're all right, something is wrong with your niece and if you refusing to play along changes the dynamic, that is an okay result.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:55 AM on August 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

Mod note: A couple deleted. Answerers, do not try to shame the OP, do try to answer the actual question compassionately ("how to set boundaries"). OP, this is becoming a bit more of a back and forth than it needs to be; please don't feel like you need to explain yourself / respond to every hurtful or unhelpful comment, just flag them and moderators will handle it. Thank you.
posted by taz (staff) at 3:36 AM on August 4, 2020

Best answer: After your updates, my perception of the situation has changed. I feel the right thing for you to do is to avoid social gatherings where the niece is present, and to talk with your stepbrother and the grandmother about the situation and how you feel. If they aren't responsive, you should take a break from your family altogether, it seems that you and your partner have a healthy relationship, and you can rely on them for support in the future. If you have access to therapy, talk with your therapist about gently distancing yourself from that side of your family.

It seems to me, with the reservation that I am a foreign person reading this on the internet, that this is not about a mean child, but about toxic family dynamics that are perhaps embodied in the child. It is a terrible situation for the child, but you cannot help her, for several reasons, and you have to accept that as well as keeping your distance.

I'm so sorry you are in this situation, and wish you all the best. Feel free to memail me if you need to vent to a stranger, it can be helpful sometimes.
posted by mumimor at 5:08 AM on August 4, 2020 [5 favorites]

Can you *host* family gatherings? That might make it feel more natural to set very firm boundaries--e.g. "That's not okay. We don't say things like that in our house. You can wait outside until you're ready to apologize." This obviously only works if the mom is at least partly on board, but you can communicate ahead of time what you're thinking in terms of separating her if her behavior is a problem. (E.g. "I was thinking that since it won't be too cold, Jerky Niece could go outside if she's not able to behave. Let me know if you'd prefer we set aside a room indoors!")

If you can manage it, the concession I'd make to her being a child is to greet her warmly at each new interaction, assuming until proven otherwise that she's going to be delightful this time.
posted by cogitron at 6:11 AM on August 4, 2020

Best answer: AlexiaSky's comment is very smart.

It's usually (not always) true that kids behave badly because they are looking for attention, feeling like they've had an effect on somebody, etc.

It's possible that proactively asking her about herself may burn off some of that energy - might even lead to a harmless or even positive interaction. And if she doesn't want to converse with you that way, on your terms, you having started the conversation may put her off of you for a bit.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:23 AM on August 4, 2020

How about the next time you she says something rude to you at a family gathering, say to her directly and loudly in front of everyone present that you refuse to be spoken to like that and that you're leaving and then leave? This might finally put a shock into either her to cut it out (around you, at least) or whoever is in charge of her, to actually discipline her. I know if I was ever so rude as a kid to cause a relative to leave a family gathering, I would have gotten a raft of shit that I wouldn't soon forget.
posted by Brain Sturgeon at 1:59 PM on August 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

How about the next time you she says something rude to you at a family gathering, say to her directly and loudly in front of everyone present that you refuse to be spoken to like that and that you're leaving and then leave?

Yeah, this would be super exciting and possibly rewarding her with drama and a big thrill. Don’t give her that much power. Any solution that involves you being punished (not being with your family) because of her behavior is not good.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:35 AM on August 5, 2020 [3 favorites]

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