Guardianship, discipline, and growth
November 28, 2006 8:29 PM   Subscribe

How do my wife and I give our 17 year-old ward (and, god, I hate that term) a happy environment while teaching her how to interact with people in acceptable ways?

A little more background - my wife and I, who are 30 and with no children of our own, became guardians of her 16 (now 17) year-old sister, Melanie, in August. Melanie lived with us through the summer to escape a neglectful situation and painful, ugly divorce, and we filed to become her permanent legal guardians after she was told she was no longer welcome at either parent's house.

She's a fantastic young woman - bright and caring and responsible - but in a situation in which she was being actively discouraged from academic, physical, social, and mental health. Before making the change permanent, we spoke to her many, many times about what it would mean - including things that were obvious (an urban high school with 2500 students is very different than a 40-student rural school) and some that may have been less so (we'll be acting less like fun-time-sister-and-brother-in-law and more like parents). She was genuinely excited for the chance at a new start - even telling us that she was "excited for someone to make me do my homework".

Our relationship has turned increasingly stressful over the last couple months, however. My wife and I feel like we're struggling with not only the regular teenage-girl stuff, but with the added stress of addressing behaviors that were a normal part of life while living with emotionally-abusive parents. At the same time, we have to continually remind her that we're not going to abandon her or stop loving her just because we don't approve of her behavior. Most of the books I've read on raising teenagers refer to relying on rules and expectations set up since early childhood - we not only didn't get that opportunity, we're working against people that instilled nearly the opposite.

To get to a more direct question, when Melanie tells me that I'm an "idiot" (complete with shaking head and squinty, rolling eyes) for suggesting that she practice a speech, how do I respond? My immediate response (based on the way I was raised), is to explain why that's an unacceptable way to treat anyone and talk to her about why she feels like it's OK to express herself that way. My wife says that makes me seem like a pushover, and that I need to get angry and stay angry until Melanie is ready to apologize. There has to be a middle ground, right? Something that incorporates adult reasoning and asserting authority in the way Melanie is used to seeing it?
posted by brozek to Human Relations (41 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm 17. The similarities end there though as I am male, USian, and a college student from a stable family.

That said, I don't think I ever respected an adult who got angry. If you manage to aggravate an authority figure to the point of anger, you've beat them - you're under their skin. An authority figure who kept their cool made me realize how childish my manipulation was, and I curbed it as a result.

Your objectives will not be furthered through emotional displays (anger or otherwise). Kids that age aren't stupid, they'll recognize the truth, but emotional interchange can interfere with that.
posted by phrontist at 9:07 PM on November 28, 2006

My immediate response (based on the way I was raised), is to explain why that's an unacceptable way to treat anyone and talk to her about why she feels like it's OK to express herself that way.

Your approach is sound. Stick with it.
posted by phrontist at 9:08 PM on November 28, 2006

Uh, I have a 16 year old son and a 14 year old daughter and a not unlimited supply of patience. However, there are TWO really useful things (maybe three) that I apply to my parenting that might help you here.

1. Sometimes they really really can't help it. For some adolescents, their brain development at this stages throws them back to having the reasoning skills of a 7 year old. Their hormones swing them right round so they can't help but hate their caregivers and they are an absolute pain to live with. At times like this, it is wise to pick your battles, and make sure it's for absolutely vital safety issues. (However, sometimes they can help it, and learning to tell the difference between the two is vital).

2. Raising a teenager requires management skills. Would a successful manager use anger as a tool to direct staff? Would staff respond well, and work towards greater productivity and innovation? I think not. Which is why I think you're absolutely right to do what you're talking about in the last paragraph. However, it must not be toothless. There are consequences to actions, and if she continues to be rude, then as a result she will lose privileges, or have more chores to do. Maybe you can relate it to the real world (just try that attitude with the judge, missy) or not. Discussion will only be entered into if she approaches it (and you) with courtesy and an attitude to resolve the problem, not just get her own way.

3. She's 17, she knows she has rights and freedoms. Pick your moment, when she's not hving a fight with you guys, sit her down and say something like, Melanie, we need to talk. I want to know what you expect from us, and I need to tell you what I expect from you. I remember you were looking forward to having someone remind you to do your homework, but lately, when I do, you respond in a way that makes me not want to do that. What are your goals and how can I help you attain them? How do you plan to work towards these? How do you feel right now? And listen and listen and listen. If you don't think she's answered a question with her true feelings, just stay shut up and looking at her kindly for another 3-5 seconds, and she might continue.

Finally, normally when I come across these type of threads, I usually think to myself, oh, boy, this isn't going to work out, you guys don't have a clue and I don't say so, because that's not helpful. However, I think you have more than a clue and I think because you think about it and the way you think about it, at the very least you'll muddle through. Parenthood is humbling. So often you realise what mistakes you make through inattention or bad temper or whatever and these words can't be called back. Whoops, back on track. From your post, I think you will be able to do a good job.

Uh no, this bit is the finally. My daughter gave me the cold shoulder after I inadvertantly offended her last night. Typically that means she wouldn't respond to me except in grunts for three days after which she would apologise. I'm a little tired of this, so I politely but firmly said if she had something to say to me, to please say it in the next hour or the sleepover with her friend on the weekend was cancelled. At which threat, 56 minutes in, she came to me and we negotiated what family stories were okay to tell, and what stories humiliated her, and apologised for her behaviour but not for her anger. And I of course apologised for offending her, and promised to take greater care in choosing stories to tell. So, I guess going all cold and formal has it's place.

Good luck. It's a tough job but really rewarding.
posted by b33j at 9:12 PM on November 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I highly suggest that you read Glenn Latham's book, The Power of Positive Parenting. Seriously. Parts of it might seem a little cheesy but the overall lesson is simple and powerful.

Look for any example of her behaving well and reward the hell out of it. Recognize any little thing: picking up her shoes, cleaning her room, good grades in school, coming home on time, anything. Your goal should be to try and find excuses to praise and reward her. If her negative behavior is inconsequential (as some would argue calling you an idiot would be), simply ignore it. It might feel clumsy and fake at first but it won't take long before compliments and thank-yous roll off of your tongue.
posted by mezzanayne at 9:17 PM on November 28, 2006

I'm with phrontist. Getting mad at a teenager is only going to exacerbate the problem. I'm 18, and I find that I lose respect for anybody that gets angry.
Maintain a strong idea of what you think is acceptable and what is not, and continue to talk through these elements of her behaviour with her, calmly and rationally. Sure, she'll get angry at you through the first few attempts. Just give her some space to cool down. It'll be tough, but after a while I'm sure she'll come around. Just don't get angry.
posted by cholly at 9:17 PM on November 28, 2006

Best answer: Well, to summarize every advice book every written on any topic: you want to reward desirable behaviour, not reward undesirable behaviour (that's actually the tricky one), and set consequences.

In your example, I have problems both with your approach and your wife's. Merely explaining why it's wrong is important but not sufficient. If there's not going to be a consequence for doing something, you shouldn't even bother asking her not to do it.

On the other hand, I have several problems with your wife's idea about getting angry. You should try to apply the consequence (e.g. being sent to her room? I won't have teenagers for almost a decade yet so I don't know what) in a consistent and even-handed manner. Getting angry makes it appear that the punishment is a result of your anger rather than a consequence of her actions. Getting angry also makes it difficult for you to be fair and consistent. A good consequence is one that difuses the situation before you get angry (in addition to being a penalty), e.g. by having the parties who might get angry at one another end up in different rooms.

Also, to get angry and stay angry until she responds is to give up control of the situation. Never bluff. How long do you want for her to respond? What if she doesn't? Apply the consequence (whether it's something that happens right away or a statement of something that will happen later like being grounded) and then be done with it. Don't make it a continuation of the struggle.

What she needs most is to know where the boundaries are and to know that they are consistent.
posted by winston at 9:23 PM on November 28, 2006

I'm a foster parent to two teenagers who have had incredibly dysfunctional lives for years and have been with me for about one year. I have no wisdom, other than to stress that change is incremental, and that your expectations and strategies will evolve based on the reality of where she's at and what she's dealing with. Based on my little experience with "my" kids and their friends (virtually all foster kids), these kids have amazing abilities, personalities, senses of humor, stories, endurance, strength. They also have have sometimes breathtaking gaps and limitations.

Also, I have found (hope this is not too controversial) that the experiences of my friends raising bio-teenagers from birth are not particularly relevant to my reality.

Oh, yeah -- unless you're other-worldly, you're going to get mad and yell sometimes. As long as you're generally steady and "there" over time, a few moments of screaming here and there will not change the path of anyone's life.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:25 PM on November 28, 2006

oops "How long do you want for her" should be "How long do you wait for her"
posted by winston at 9:26 PM on November 28, 2006

Just to clarify: I didn't mean "you must never get angry." Just disagreeing that it's an absolute requirement.
posted by winston at 9:28 PM on November 28, 2006

Best answer: What you're doing in talking about emotions is excellent, but I want to echo what b33j said about consequences. When she does something out of line let her know that the next time she does it there will be specific consequences. Follow up on those religiously.

With regards to anger, I was involved for (too) many years with a woman who was raised by the "get angry and stay angry" school of parenting. She had severe trouble having relationships because she truly didn't believe someone cared about her unless they were visibly angry with her.

If this girl is to have a chance of having healthy adult relationships, the very last thing you should be doing is reinforcing "anger == parenting" connection for her. By all means keep your cool, hold your ground, and let her know that yelling is not the same thing as caring.
posted by tkolar at 9:31 PM on November 28, 2006

One more triggered by winston's comment. There is no one way to parent teenagers, in my opinion. Some teenagers need positive and negative consequences, including sort of behavior modification systems and "consequences" set by the parents. (I personally hate this stuff, but it's true that some kids need it, and I have had to adapt somewhat.) Some teenagers do well with "natural" consequences (lose your bus pass, gotta walk, turn in your homework late, get a lower grade). Some teenagers respond to reasoning and explaining, plus an occasional fit of anger, and start to follow the rules without actually getting a particular consequences. It also depends upon what the parent is comfortable with.

In my household, I have one kid who needs a lot of structure, and another kid who responds to reasoning. Consider all of the different ways to proceed, but don't get hung up on a particular philosophy or system because it will or depend on the kid and on you and the dynamic.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:34 PM on November 28, 2006

For some adolescents, their brain development at this stages throws them back to having the reasoning skills of a 7 year old. Their hormones swing them right round so they can't help but hate their caregivers and they are an absolute pain to live with.

posted by phrontist at 9:41 PM on November 28, 2006

Sound advice above. I just want to add that after 17 years, you're pushing shit uphill to erase ingrained behaviours and create new ones. Consistent application of incentives and consequences is undoubtedly the best way, but cut yourself enormous slack as far as your expectations go - progress will be slow, and punctuated by regression.

As far as undesirable behaviour goes, recognise that some responses that are ostensibly punishment are nonetheless rewarding, because attention, even negative attention, can be a reward. This is the thinking behind mezzanyne's advice, and why bad behaviour is best ignored where it is possible and safe to do so.

And now for the crazy advice: everything I ever learned about training dogs has turned out to be true, if only by analogy, with children. And if you read about modern animal training, in the context of working with adult animals which have been badly trained, you'll see that a programme of steady incentives for incrementally good behaviour, coupled with strict indifference to bad behaviour, is what gets results. So I hope biscotti answers in this thread :-)

Finally, returning to the matter in hand, I would ignore it. Did your parents' explanations of why bad behaviour was bad really do the trick? I think ignoring childishness as though it had never happened is more likely to work. A patient explanation has a good chance of resulting in "you're boring me and this lecture sucks."
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:58 PM on November 28, 2006

I'm not a parent, but I remember at 17 thinking that my parents' grounding me or giving other "consequences" was kind of silly. I'd endure whatever, but I wish they could've respected me enough to actually just reason with me. If she's already 17, you may not have time to really establish a "parental" relationship, and treating her like a 13-year-old might in fact be a little insulting to you both -- depending on the situation, of course.

It's a subtle thing, explaining why it is, in fact, important that she practice her speech. Understanding that importance relies on a whole bunch of connected assumptions and information, and a view of life which makes practice, in fact, worth the time, effort, and giving up short-term enjoyment (disregarding the fact that practice can be enjoyable for the moment -- that comes later).

If you can try, really (and it sounds like you already do), to understand the differences between her reality and yours, maybe you can help her see her way into your probably-nicer reality. You know, the one where her life is actually pretty great when she's 25, 35, 45, and so forth, instead of like the lives she's already seen close up.
posted by amtho at 10:07 PM on November 28, 2006

For some adolescents, their brain development at this stages
Sorry, no citation, just personal discussions with Dr Nan Bahr. I'll have a bit of a look around and see if I can find something, but no guarantees.
posted by b33j at 10:09 PM on November 28, 2006

Also: if you don't mind a book suggestion, and if she's a serious reader (sounds like she isn't), "The Diamond Age" may help her see how unfair and arbitrary it is that her life has prepared her for not very much so far. You're trying to remedy that unfairness; you and she are on the same side of the struggle. Make her see what the enemy really is.

OK, I have no idea if that will just come across as cheesy, but I hope it's helpful somehow.
posted by amtho at 10:12 PM on November 28, 2006


Re citation and the adolescent brain, while this paper doesn't talk about 7 year olds, it does explain how teens active their amygdala more than adults, and how they use their prefontal cortex less often than adults, that is, adults are more likely to use reasoning, while teens are more likely to use their "gut". P12.
posted by b33j at 10:14 PM on November 28, 2006

Best answer: Like ClaudiaCenter said, every kid responds to different things -- the challenge is finding out what works for your particular kid. For example, I was a "good kid," but if b33j had tried his example on me when I was 17 (three years ago), I would've let him cancel the sleepover and I wouldn't've spoken to him for a week. "He can't force me to speak!"

In this case, I think staying calm should work better. I also suggest something like "People don't call each other idiots over a disagreement. You can say my idea is wrong, even bad -- although I can disagree, of course -- but anyway, having one idiotic idea doesn't make me an idiot. Nobody appreciates being called an idiot. Now what's the matter with my idea?"

I think in particular the "people don't..." and the "nobody..." will be key, even if the effect isn't immediate. She obviously wants to know the social standards -- when she's not mad with you, she tells you outright, which is a huge concession. I think phrasing it very subtly in terms of general standards will work on her.

Also, don't be too soon to blame something on her upbringing. Almost all teens -- even "good kids" -- go through phases of varying jerkiness, and not all of it can be prevented.
posted by booksandlibretti at 10:20 PM on November 28, 2006

Yah, booksandlibretti, she mentioned that later and I did/do agree with her that I have no right to force her to speak, but that I am entitled to courtesy. (I'm her mother, btw). It was a risky manouevre (cancelling the sleepover) that I normally wouldn't take, but for the sake of honesty here, I wanted to admit that sometimes the wrong things work, like threats and cold and formal angriness.
posted by b33j at 10:28 PM on November 28, 2006

I didn't even mean that what you did was wrong -- you've got to be pretty pragmatic dealing with teenagers, I think -- just that it wouldn't've worked on me when I was 17. My point was that you have to try to figure out what works for each individual teenager, because it won't be the same for everyone. And sorry for my gender mixup.
posted by booksandlibretti at 10:35 PM on November 28, 2006

phrontist - if you google "adolescent brain development" you will find various studies regarding how the prefrontal cortex develops slower than other areas of the adolescent brain. Frontline even did a show on adolescent brain development and they have a pretty interesting site to complement the show, including a short article on how teens react differently from adults to emotion.
posted by miss meg at 10:44 PM on November 28, 2006

I'll give you the one sound piece of advice my parents gave me. Do you like who we've raised you to be? Take what you like from that and use it with your own kids. For everything else, fake it till you make it.

I love my parents.
posted by Derek at 11:00 PM on November 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I really give you props for being to talk calmly when your 'ward' frustrates you. nothing made me more upset as a teen than when i felt like i was being denied respect from my parents and when i was expected to give it in return.

i know, i know, respect your elders, but after a point some mutual respect is needed both to encourage healthy development on the teens part and maintain sanity on everybody's end.

that said, good luck. you're obviously motivated and caring and that can go a long way with a child who has a long experience of abuse.
posted by gilsonal at 11:13 PM on November 28, 2006

Best answer: As a teen I spent some time as a "ward" I can tell you all that it's awful. You don't mention if you have any biological children, but if you do that mixes things up even more.

I'm hoping that you and your wife and the girl are all getting heavy heavy family counseling. Please email me for the details of my situation and some suggestions on things you might need to keep in mind. renee.phillips at

I'll be brief with them here
1. Budget - does she understand it? It's likely that it seems you have loads more disposable income than her parents, but in reality things might be tight. (The very real skew in my aunts budget was very painful, and she still doesn't acknowledge that there was one, and I don't bring it up.)
2. Her feeling rejected by her parents and possibly trying to get you to reject her faster.
3. Any indications of any thought of/desire to hurt herself, other people, or animals
4. Ask her to tell you every day what she wants you to do to help her. There's a lot of emphasis on what you need from her, and a lot of consequences for her not doing the "right things" but she may not feel like you care what she needs. There's that brain development stuff.
5. Academic. Does she need a tutor?
6. Give her choices instead of making demands- should we work on the homework first, or the grocery planning for the week?
posted by bilabial at 12:17 AM on November 29, 2006

I mean it's awful even when the family member you're staying with loves you to pieces and really really wants you around. It doesn't always feel that way. It was extra awful when I could tell I had done something that hurt someone but didn't know how to fix it. Also because my parents were angry throwers of sharp objects, and screamed a lot, I didn't quite know what to do with silent anger, or slow instructions to please go to my room and give my aunt some time to think, or whatever.

I did not get much of the counseling I needed, and was pulled out of my once weekly sessions down to every other week, when it was suggested that I needed to be in at least twice a week. And I still resent that, because I feel like I could have gotten over some of this shit if I had an impartial third party to tell this stuff to, instead of trying to tell my guardian to lay off trying to get me to cook meals for myself when I came home and everyone else had already eaten and nothing had been saved for me. The things that don't seem like a big deal are often enormous to a teenager. And vice versa.
posted by bilabial at 12:21 AM on November 29, 2006

Your anger is not relevant in childrearing. Expressing disapproval is an important guide for behaviors; this should be done clearly so there is no misunderstanding about what is acceptable and what is not.

However, making your own emotional state conditional on behavior does not provide a useful incentive; instead, it makes you a target for manipulation. Further, if anger impedes your own ability to behave rationally and appropriately, you will set a poor example for the child, and you can expect that they will live up (down?) to that example. Finally, anger is not healthy or productive for you.

You need carrots, sticks, and unconditional love. Employ them all fairly and consistently.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:46 AM on November 29, 2006

Let me preface this by saying that I'm not a parent and I have no idea what I'm talking about. Like, I'd probably be a terrible parent. Maybe I don't even understand your question. But some thoughts:

My reaction to your "direct question" example is, what do you want to accomplish in that scenario? Are you trying to get her to

1. Be more polite because you think this behavior is representative of the way she treats people in general
2. Respect your authority so that you can maintain leverage over her for when she's doing more dangerous things
3. Take her homework more seriously because she's saying it's not important to do homework
4. Understand how to prepare for and do homework because she actually doesn't think that practicing will improve the quality of her speech

You probably want to say "all of them" but it seems like in your situation you may need to prioritize. And even besides prioritizing, I would think it's easier to recognize that these are separate goals and maybe just work on them one at a time. I would also think that focusing on one thing at a time might make it seem to her less like you're trying to control everything.

In the case of #1, it seems like you can't do much more than model behaving politely. If she has a desire to be nice to other people, she's going to learn to be polite on her own when people react negatively to being rude. If she doesn't have an inclination to be nice to other people, due to her personality or unresolved stuff, I don't think you'll be able to change her in the time you've got (except maybe helping to resolve the other stuff.)

#2 and #4, I have absolutely no idea.

#3, Is school and academic achievement and all an issue for her? I personally think that grades mess school up. To each his or her own, but I did much better just saying to myself "shoot for passing grades and just try to learn stuff." And look at me now, I'm postin' on MeFi!

If college etc. is a concern, any college will take you once you've taken a few classes part time and gotten passing grades (what are they going to say, "No, we don't want your tuition money"? Like any college would refuse money.) And I've been successful in my career.

I found school to be (a bit) less obnoxious once I figured out that grades and learning are two separate objectives (you're probably catching the gist of how I think). Learning well doesn't get you good grades and vice versa. For grades, much better than assuming that being a fastidious student will get you good grades is to just ask the teacher what they want.

A specific example - I found in math (maths if you're in the UK) that simply writing "I know this answer is wrong" gets you a heck of alot of partial credit with most teachers and professors. It's not so important that you can do the same thing a calculator can, what they want is for you to demonstrate that you have some remote clue about what's going on. My answers to math problems would often get very wordy - "I know this first part is wrong... and oops, I must have done this second part wrong... well, if I had gotten those right, here's what I would have done with them..."

A last thing is, maybe it's actually a dumb assignment or a dumb class or a dumb teacher. Find out and develop a Machiavellian strategy with her if it's dumb. Learning to be evil is learning too. (The "evil" part isn't advocacy of cheating on my part, it's learning to work the system. I wasn't into cheating myself, another reason why I didn't get very good grades. Don't beat up on the teachers either, it's a hard job.)
posted by XMLicious at 2:14 AM on November 29, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you for all the advice - frankly, I had a hard time not marking most of these as the best answer. To answer MXLicious' question, I think my main goal is to help her realize that she needs to express her disapproval or disagreement with others' opinions & ideas in a more constructive way - that name-calling, sneering, and snottiness aren't socially acceptable (for my wife and I, for her teachers, for her friends, despite how she may have been conditioned to react by her parents).

My wife's impression is that I undermine my own authority and give Melanie the impression that my disapproval doesn't mean anything when I try to get her to talk to me about her behavior. I see her point - that our disapproval needs to be perceived as serious to be effective - but I also know I'm going to (and, as the grown-up, probably should) back down first in a stand-off of wills. I'd rather not reinforce the idea waiting it out until the other person apologizes is a healthy, mature way to handle disagreements.

My wife agrees in theory, but thinks we need to get Melanie's attention before we can affect her behavior. When I explain myself and my actions and talk to Melanie at length, she says, I give the impression that I'm being defensive and insecure in my disapproval. I can certainly see that, and given that my wife was raised by the same parents, she has a better understanding of how Melanie sees the world.

All that said, though, it was 4 a.m. when I started reading this - because I can't sleep when I'm worried about how I'm handling this situation.
posted by brozek at 2:55 AM on November 29, 2006

Anger works, but only if it's genuine, and only if it's unsuppressable, and only if it's rare.

If she's driving you completely up the wall, just leave. Go for a walk until you calm down.

But as much as you possibly can, just keep doing what you think is right, monitor how well it works for you and for her, and stay adaptable. You'll figure each other out in time.
posted by flabdablet at 3:48 AM on November 29, 2006

Best answer: You're up at 4 am worrying about her. You wrote this question. That's more love than her parents have shown her for some time and I hope in these moments of self-doubt you take pains to remember that.

You've got a lot of damage to mitigate, and at a late age. If all she's ever seen is poor parental behavior, it's going to take a good long while for what you're showing her to sink in. It may be many years. Just know that every kindness, every act of love, is being banked in her heart. She may not be able to draw from them until much later, but they are there, accumulating.

I grew up in a chaotic household. Most of what she's learning from you has nothing to do with what you're telling her. She's watching the way you interact with her sister and learning about healthy love and marriage. She's watching you pay your bills and learning about financial stability. She's watching you interact kindly and considerately with others and learning about being a sociable person. Again, she may not be able to act on that for a while. But don't overdo the big long soul-searching talks and come to jesus moments -- spend as much time as you can around her just living like a normal person and it will have more power than any lecture ever could. (Because yes, she already knows what anger and recrimination looks like. There's nothing you can teach her there, so don't bother with it. Refusing to cut and run: that you can teach her.)

Another thing no one's mentioned: some of the negative stuff she's doing probably worked in her previous environment. Those sneers kept her malfunctioning parents at a safe distance. They helped her feel superior to a shitty situation, like a warped form of self-esteem. She's got to learn healthy alternatives. Academic achievement would obviously be ideal, but if that's a struggle for her right now, try to help her find something she's good at and that she loves. She needs to feel like she's kicking ass at something. If she excels at anything at all, do whatever in your power to support it. That can tie into physical fitness, too: how about if you take bike rides with her? Have a steady racquetball date? Take a yoga class together? Perhaps that can be something she and your wife do. Just make a rule that no matter what else is going on, no matter how mad you all are at each other, that activity is neutral ground, free from lectures or argument.

I'm a huge fan of humor and honesty as a balm for bad situations. So let's say she's sneering at you -- better yet, in public. So you break into the godawfullest spazzy dance ever, like fake breakdancing lip-biting pure dorkitude until she begs you in a hell of embarrassment to stop. You tell her that's the idiot dance and anytime she calls you that she's gonna reap the whirlwind. Anything you can laugh your way through, jump at it. When things get really dire, be honest with her, using the emotion you are feeling -- not manufactured or dramatic anger. Tell her you love her, you want to help her, she is worrying you so much you are up at 4 am thinking about it, because you want things to be better for her so badly you can't stand it. She can't hear your love and concern enough.

Her parents have abandoned her and that's such a painful blow for a young girl, a pain almost impossible to understand standing outside it. You don't have much time with her, most likely. Do every last thing you can, but realize that ultimately she will have to make her own way in the world after a very bad start. It might take her a while, and it might drive you mad with worry and frustration while you wait for her to become a happier and healthier person, knowing there's that chance she never will. But every good thing you do for her will help her on her way, more than she may ever be able to tell you.
posted by melissa may at 5:06 AM on November 29, 2006 [2 favorites]

Something no-one's mentioned but I think may be relevant to why your wife thinks anger is needed: Melanie is your wife's sister. You don't say half-sister or step-sister, so I'm assuming your wife also shares and was raised by Melanie's emotionally-abusive parents. Her view of how to parent is probably highly coloured by their approach.

I may be making a noise in the wrong forest entirely, but I thought it was worth mentioning.
posted by corvine at 5:16 AM on November 29, 2006

given that my wife was raised by the same parents, she has a better understanding of how Melanie sees the world.

What corvine said. She understands Melanie better, but by the same token she grew up with the same skewed approach to the world. You should obviously take your wife's opinion seriously, but you should remember that your take on things may be more objective and less likely to perpetuate a screwed-up cycle of reactions.

And melissa may, as usual, gives excellent advice. Listen to her.
posted by languagehat at 5:43 AM on November 29, 2006

Something that's been touched on briefly upthread, but not emphasized enough, to my mind: Reward good behavior. I think that you might want to go so far as set up a reward system for good grades, completed household tasks, etc. This will get her into better habits. Find out about something she really wants and set her on the path to earning it.
Beyond a reward system, be sure to let her know for certain when she's doing wel, even for the little thingsl: for example "The living room looks really nice. Thanks or picking it up." "Good job on getting your homework done so quickly." "I know you didn't want to do the dishes. Thanks for doing them anyways, it was very helpful."
Oh, and tell her, from my experience, she'll feel better about giving that speech if she's practiced a bit. I've taken both approaches to speech giving in class, and practice calmed me and made me less likely to stutter and slur and was overall just a whole lot less embarrassing.
posted by Sara Anne at 8:19 AM on November 29, 2006

Best answer: So much good advice has been given in this thread that I hesitate to chime in, but I think one point needs reinforcement.

First of all, disclaimer: I am not a parent.

I want to emphasize the modeling point. Your ward's behaviors have been effective mechanisms in the past and she has developed them for a reason - they have helped keep her sane and in fact, helped her recognize her parents crazy behaviors and disassociate herself from them. This has been highly functional and I think you want to encourage the positive aspects of these behaviors which are critical thinking, inner strength and the ability to disassociate herself from other people's problems.

However, as you say, she has a lot of stuff to learn and unlearn. I want to emphasize the modeling aspect of what you are teaching her and that there is probably no more important moment then when she tries to get under your skin and you model how you deal with conflict back to her. Its not what you tell her to do that matters, its what you do. Let me elaborate, when you model back reasonable, rational behavior and thoughtful soul seeking in response to anger and sarcasm and hositility, you are actively showing her what is appropriate. I would not ignore the behavior - not, as folks here have said because you are not getting the right response from her - but because it is so critically important she get the right response from you.

With all respect due to your wife, I would agree that she perhaps is using the models that her parents taught her and this is a great opportunity for her to learn better parenting behaviors than theirs and that you are serving as a model for your wife as well. Additionally if you and your wife are contemplating having children in the future, this is an excellent chance for you to both learn to parent together - no small adjustment in any marriage.
posted by zia at 8:30 AM on November 29, 2006

One more thing in regards to that speech. One thing you may find is an effective teaching tool is giving her advice and the ability to ignore it.

So - suggest she practice her speech. Offer to schedule time with her to practice it in front of you. And then let her say "no". She will either discover she is great giving speeches off the cuff or that its not a bad thing to take you up on the offer to practice and be more polished.
posted by zia at 8:33 AM on November 29, 2006

Best answer: explain why that's an unacceptable way to treat anyone and talk to her about why she feels like it's OK to express herself that way

She knows that it's unacceptable. That's why she does it. That's what teenagers do, abused or not. You need to stop making everything about how she treats you and be the adult, shrug it off, and tell her she still needs to do her homework.
posted by dagnyscott at 8:38 AM on November 29, 2006

Yeah, I'd second what dagnyscott says. I was a pretty well-behaved teenager overall, and, while I can't remember ever specifically calling my parents idiots, I certainly implied it with eye rolling and door slamming. So that part at least is totally normal.
posted by MsMolly at 9:42 AM on November 29, 2006

To get to a more direct question, when Melanie tells me that I'm an "idiot" (complete with shaking head and squinty, rolling eyes) for suggesting that she practice a speech, how do I respond? My immediate response (based on the way I was raised), is to explain why that's an unacceptable way to treat anyone and talk to her about why she feels like it's OK to express herself that way. My wife says that makes me seem like a pushover, and that I need to get angry and stay angry until Melanie is ready to apologize. There has to be a middle ground, right? Something that incorporates adult reasoning and asserting authority in the way Melanie is used to seeing it?

Consequences. Our kids were younger when we started it, and as they've grown we've stopped doing it because they use course language in a more responsible, adult manner, but when they were younger made a rule around the house: Any swearing or name-calling language results in an immediate $1 fine paid from the offender to the person that called them out. To make it fair and encourage participation, we made this universal: If my kid swore in my presence, he owed me a buck. If he caught me swearing, I owed him a buck. Period.

If the kid doesn't have a dollar handy, in came out of his allowance. My sons stopped swearing immediately. It had nothing to do with respecting each other or embracing our rules, it was a simple matter of money and pride.

A way to get your ward to buy into it is to "slip" once or twice yourself. Once she has profitted from this system, she will want to participate in it.

I'm not 100% this will work starting when she is 17, but it worked great when our sons were pre/early teens.
posted by Doohickie at 9:47 AM on November 29, 2006

Disclaimer: I am not a parent but I've been parented; my input is based on my memory of the other side of the coin. I think this qualifies since I was a miserable pain in the ass of a teen.

Well, to summarize every advice book every written on any topic: you want to reward desirable behaviour, not reward undesirable behaviour (that's actually the tricky one)

And don't forget that to some people in some circumstances what we might consider punishment could qualify as reward. Getting any attention, for younger children, or getting what we'd perceive as negative attention but a neglected/abused child might associate with love.

As far as your calm explanation and your wife's statement that such behavior seems weak, you could both be right. I don't think you do anyone any favors getting mad - that, to me, represents weak behavior, at least so far as if I can make you lose your cool then I have the upper hand.

Perhaps you're spending too much time explaining. There were times when my dad sat me down and took me through his reasoning on an issue and there were times when he said something was not acceptable and I was going to do X or not get Y, period. Knowing the difference seems to be largely identifying the kid's receptiveness, in general or at that given moment, and identifying your leverage at any given moment.
posted by phearlez at 12:03 PM on November 29, 2006

Response by poster: Just an update - Melanie and I had an hour+ conversation after school today (initiated by her, and very welcomed by me) about last night. She wanted to know why I seem to be the only one who "flips out" when she acts that way. We talked about my reaction, as well as her reaction, and even segued into discussing college, boys, and careers. I tried to be firm, rational, and supportive, and although she was very defensive and dismissive at first, she gave me a hug by the end.
posted by brozek at 2:58 PM on November 29, 2006

You don't need any more of our advice. Well played, that man!
posted by flabdablet at 5:38 PM on November 29, 2006

« Older Please Point Me at Some Nice Icons   |   WIndows Vista nor or later? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.