Worried Aunt

Dear Emily,
Do you have any recommendations for how to discretely help children that are in emotionally difficult situations? I have an 8 year old niece and 5 year old nephew that live far away, their mother has something wrong with her, not sure what….she is VERY ANGRY all the time, and rude to me (her sister) and our mother. Not just “normal” rude, but hateful and blames EVERYTHING on EVERYONE else. She doesn’t always interact with her children in a loving manner….They have been through a very rough few years, their father suddenly started doing drugs and everything spiraled. (There was divorce and restraining orders-they do not see him anymore). I want to help them (and my sister too!) but if she for any reason might think I am interfering or doing something “improper” in her opinion, I am afraid she will cut off communication. I was hoping there are some good books for kids that teach lessons about dealing with difficult people/ staying positive/handling life situations in an emotionally healthy manner. What would you suggest for this situation?

Thank you,

Worried Aunt


Dear Worried Aunt,

Before I answer, I wanted to ask you a few more questions:

1. Has your sister always been a rude, angry person, or is this new behavior?

2. Are your niece and nephew ever able to fly out to visit you (ideally without their mom)?

3. Do the kids get to spend time with their grandmother (your mom) on a regular basis?

I’m going to do some research on books for kids. I hope to hear from you soon. Thanks for being my first official question!


Dear Emily,

1. I thought I should have mentioned that yes, she has always been somewhat “mean”, probably since she was a teen. Our parents divorced when she was about 14, and I recall her bad attitude really surfacing then. (She is quite polite to strangers/someone she doesn’t know well and co-workers, etc, but family gets treated embarrassingly bad. It’s awful to watch her lay into our mother for stupid nonsensical things). (she will be rude to me too, but I haven’t seen her in a long time, so it took a few days for her to snap at me during our recent visit, haha). (Plus I am very careful what I say to her–we definitely walk on eggshells around her).
2.I am not sure she will let the children fly to us, but it is something I plan to ask.
3. The kids are spending lots of time with Grandma as they now live close to her and she helps out with child care and such. I think daily.

Thank you :-)


Dear Worried Aunt,

Obviously your sister is a difficult person.  I’m going to assume that she is “ordinary difficult” as opposed to “personality-disordered difficult.”  I’ll explain some of the challenges of dealing with personality-disordered people in another post.  Based on the “ordinary difficult” assumption, here is my advice:

  1. There is substantial evidence that children can successfully cope with adversity if they have at least one positive role model.  It is a tremendous benefit that your niece and nephew have frequent contact with your mom, because it sounds like your mom is a stabilizing influence in their lives.
  2. If you are able to have the kids come spend time with you, this will give them another point of comparison.  For example, they may think, “Mom always yells at us and tells us we’re bad, but Auntie doesn’t say that.  Maybe we’re not bad.”  It’s easier for kids to cope with a dysfunctional home life if they know that the whole world doesn’t operate the same way.
  3. I know you think the kids need therapy, and I agree.  I also understand why you’re worried your sister will freak out if you suggest it.  I’m wondering if you could avoid the freak out by putting all the blame on her ex-husband.  You could try saying something like, “I’m so mad about all of the trauma that (Evil Ex-husband) put the kids through.  He should be paying for them to have weekly therapy!  Have you ever thought about taking the kids in?  I just saw this really scary article about the effects of domestic violence on children…”
  4. You are in such a tough spot.  I wish there was more I could do to help.  Please let me know if you have any follow-up questions.  Good luck.
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