Helping a troubled niece

Adapted from a recent online discussion

Dear Carolyn:

I set up time to hang out with my 14-year-old niece, who is very sweet and also has been getting in trouble — skipping school, lying to family, etc. She reminds me so much of myself at her age.

I figure I can relate to her in that regard and try to share what I know now that I’m decades older. Since this hangout is coming up soon, any tips on how to make it comfortable for her to open up to me, or how to start getting through to her about the path she’s on? Is talking/listening to her the way I would have wanted someone to talk/listen to me at that age a good enough approach?

— Heart-to-Heart

Worth a try, certainly. But with strong caveats: She is not you, no matter how strong the resemblance; she has her own ideas, her own problems, and her own needs for addressing them. And even if she is effectively in the same spot you were, your knowing now what you needed to hear then doesn’t mean you would have listened then.

So when you do the talking/listening math, err on the side of listening. That way she can tell you what kind of adult presence she’d welcome right now.


Re: Teen hangout:

Decide ahead of time how to handle if she says, “Don’t tell my parents,” because if she discloses anything that shows she’s in danger, you cannot keep her confidence. Breaking her trust will do far more damage if she thinks what you’re saying is private and then you cannot keep quiet about what she says.

Because she reminds you of yourself, be very careful that you’re not substituting your feelings for hers. Be careful about criticizing her parents or choosing sides. Whatever you say might be repeated as, “Aunt says you’re an idiot for not letting me juggle knives.”

— Careful


To: Heart-to-heart:

Your description of your niece as “very sweet” combined with her behaviors seems incongruous; in my experience, rebellious teenagers tend to be sullen and taciturn.

Either way, there may be something deeper going on. Just for example, skipping school would make sense if she was being badly bullied. Or something else might be the culprit. Just keep your ears open. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but be ready to back off if she puts her shields up.

— Experienced

Good points, thank you. I do think “sweet” and boundary-pushing can coexist, though, especially when the acting out reflects a low opinion of oneself vs. a low opinion of others.


Re: Heart-to-heart:

If you’re driving someplace together, try broaching tough topics in the car. Fewer distractions, it’s OK to avoid eye contact, it’s not a face-to-face confrontation. Walking together can have the same effect. It’s just a very different dynamic than eyeing each other across a table.

— Anonymous

Fewer distractions for the passenger, that is.

Anyway. Walking together has the added benefit of physical activity, which can get people talking. Thanks.

Carolyn Hax

Carolyn Hax

Syndicated Advice Columnist
Advice Columnist Carolyn Hax takes your questions and tackles your problems.

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