Saturday 16 December 2017

My 10-year-old niece is out of control, acting like a teen

I have a 10-year-old niece; her parents have been separated since she was four or five. She longs for attention from her father (my brother) who she has not seen a lot of in the past, although he has been more active in her life in the last couple of years.

She is a big attention seeker and a repeat liar. I am quite heavily involved in her life and have been since she was little. Although I don't want to, I find myself correcting her on her language and behaviour and I now feel like I am nagging her!

Recently she has been getting into a lot of trouble in school, not listening to the teacher, lying to the teacher, telling other kids what to do in the school yard at lunch time . . . just to name a few things. The school contacted her mother and she disciplined her by grounding her from her grandparents' house (my house). Her mother feels that taking the mobile phone off my niece or not letting her out to play with other kids in the street are ineffective ways of punishing her, and that not allowing her to visit our house is the only way to get through to her.

At the start we were not okay with this, but her behaviour has become so bad that we have felt that she, in fact, should not be allowed to visit our house until she learns from her mistakes. She is only 10 but her attitude is that of a teenager. I'm wondering is there anything we can do to help to stop this so that she can be a relatively 'normal' child. She's too concerned with growing up and I'd like her to live her childhood. I'm worried when she becomes a teenager she will be out of control and I really do not want that to happen.

I can imagine that your family and her mum's family are all worried about your niece. Everyone will have her best interests at heart and, no doubt, everyone has given their opinion about how she should be 'handled'.

Indeed, reading your query I wonder if, in fact, there have been too many inputs into rearing her, such that she gets a very confused message.

It may be a case of "too many cooks spoil the broth". Ironically, even with all the different people in her life she may not feel like she gets the right kind of understanding.

Consequently, I think a lot of her negative behaviour is indeed a way of getting attention.

However, she now seems stuck in a very negative cycle where she misbehaves and gets punished, leaving her feeling cross, angry, misunderstood and more likely to misbehave again.

Your brother, her dad, sounds like he has been very inconsistent for her and that has no doubt been hard on her.

She probably has quite an idealised view of who her dad should be and how he should act.

It makes sense that she would seek his attention, even acting up, in order to feel noticed by him. She probably wants to avoid being forgotten by him or abandoned by him again as she was for a couple of years after the separation.

If you read my feature article last week you will know that I am not a fan of punishment. It seems odd to me that her mum chooses to punish her for her behaviour in school.

I would have thought that the school should be putting the consequences in place if that is where she is misbehaving.

The particular punishment that her mum has chosen, banning her from your house, also seems odd.

Assuming that she likes coming to your house, I can only imagine that being prevented from contact with you, her dad and her grandparents will make her more cross and more liable to act out in school.

A positive behaviour system for school will, I believe, be more effective than punishment.

She seems to give a strong message that she doesn't care much about punishment anyway and it clearly doesn't function to improve her behaviour.

She needs to be reinforced for speaking politely and appropriately, both to the teachers and to her fellow pupils.

At home it may be worth her mam and dad putting aside their differences to discuss how they deal with her. Your brother probably needs to be more regularly and reliably involved with her, so that he can take an active part in the parenting.

She sounds like she is crying out for people to notice her and to understand that her life is messy and complex.

I think that it would be easier for her if life was a bit simpler. Nobody can help the separation but everyone can help to minimise the impact. One way, for example, would be to simplify it by at least having a consistent approach to her no matter what house she is in.

Also, have a really clear plan for what house she will be in on a given day and who will be caring for her.

As things stand it sounds like she may not have enough structure to her week.

More than that I think she would really benefit from some good quality therapeutic help to make sense of any confused or difficult feelings she has about her parents' separation and how her life works (or doesn't) at the moment.

It will be good for her to be helped to talk about what it is like having all these adults trying to run her life and to give her guidance and discipline.

Having someone outside the family who doesn't need to be taking sides or favouring a particular parent, or having to discipline her, could be really supportive for her. She may feel that she has somewhere to go that helps her to feel better, rather than her current situation of having to show everyone that she doesn't feel great.

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author

Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence

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