Monday 9 December 2019

My violent, out-of-control niece (13) has me worried

David Coleman

David Coleman

My concern is for my 13-year-old niece. My sister and her husband separated only five months ago and over the last three or four months my niece is wildly spiralling out of control.

She has only been to school a handful of days over the last two months, she refuses to get out of the bed and when my sister forces the issue my niece reacts violently leaving her mother with a black eye, split lip, bruises and scratches over the months.

My sister has brought her to her GP, the school has tried to get her into counselling but she refuses to talk to anyone. Her attitude comes across as just pure selfishness. The family walks on eggshells, waiting for her next explosion. She seems to have absolutely no fear of any authority figure and she lives in her own little bubble where if she's left alone and let do what she wants, when she wants to, then life is rosy but God help anyone who challenges her in any way.

She even had a run-in with the gardai on one occasion, screaming, kicking and lashing out at them.

They had to restrain her and voiced concern at leaving her in the house with my sister and her two siblings.

The gardai wanted to take her away that night only my sister wouldn't allow it. What can my sister do?

YOUR niece sounds like she is in a great deal of distress. I can only imagine that she is upset by her parents' separation. However, her violence and her assertion of power are unlikely to have been learned in the last five months.

I wonder what life was like in your sister's house in the years leading up to the separation? For example, if her husband was violent or abusive it would have been powerful (albeit destructive) modelling for your niece. She may have learned that you hit out in order to enforce your will.

Even if she didn't witness violence in the home, she probably experienced a great deal of conflict between her parents.

Watching this kind of conflict may have taught your niece to be stubborn and unyielding.

She sounds, to me, like she has long had a feeling of omnipotence. By this I mean that she has an inflated sense of her own importance and her own power.

Perhaps she was always indulged, maybe as a guilty response to the stress and disruption that was present between your sister and her husband?

Perhaps her parents couldn't agree about how to deal with her and so she was able to use their conflict to play each off the other.

Perhaps she grew up in quite a strict and controlling environment and her behaviour is her way of now trying to be "in charge".

While she may seem to be calling the shots at home, underneath it all she is likely to be feeling quite frightened, isolated and bad about herself.

For whatever reason, she has now reached a point where she will not accept any authority. This is not healthy for her or her mother and siblings.

I am never a fan of punishment as our only means of managing children and their behaviour. However, there are times when youngsters need to learn that their actions have consequences.

It is a real pity that your sister intervened to keep her from being arrested after that incident you describe with the gardai. Perhaps if the gardai had been allowed to do their job she may have learned that there is some authority that she can't ignore.

She actually needs to experience safe, but powerful, adults who can limit her and her behaviour. She needs to feel that all of her distress, confusion and hurt can be contained.

While she is unable to control or regulate her own feelings and behaviour (much like a toddler) she needs someone who can be really firm, but considerate, and will regulate these things for her.

So she needs help to soothe her feelings of anger and hurt. She also needs to be stopped from acting out those feelings violently.

Your sister may be in an emotionally vulnerable place herself, given how recent the separation is. She may also still be struggling with many of her own issues as a consequence of the years she spent with her husband.

This may mean that she is unable to be that safe and powerful adult that your niece needs. So, either your sister needs good therapeutic support, or she should consider sending your niece to live elsewhere.

It is not good, however, for her to remain at home with your sister while your sister cannot cope with her.

Perhaps her father may be able to curb her omnipotence. Perhaps there is someone else within your extended family or friends who could step in for a period of time. As a last resort I would even consider placing her in care with the HSE.

What is clear to me, though, is that your niece and her family are in crisis. They need real tangible therapeutic and practical support, far beyond the advice or guidance I can give here.

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