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Daddy talking to his son about serious things

How Do You Solve a Problem Like This Nephew?

By Amalah

Hello Amy,

I was wondering if you might have a bit of advice for a frustrating situation my fiance and I are in. I have family in the area, and I was raised that family ties are hugely important. After some drama with one of my sisters (we’ll call her Diana) we’re finally back on speaking terms and cautiously re-starting the monthly family Sunday dinner.

This means my fiance and I are starting to see more of Diana’s kids again. While I adore my niece and find her moody teenage views on life to be unintentionally hilarious, I have a harder time with her younger brother (my 9 yr old nephew John). John has ADHD and bless my sister’s heart, he’s a lot to handle. I can see dramatic improvements since last year when they finally put him on medication (he was out of control, ping-ponging from activity to activity every 20 seconds and oblivious to anyone trying to talk to him).

Now that he’s more able to focus I’m starting to realize that behaviors I thought were the ADHD might actually be the way he’s being raised. He will come into our home, immediately get into things without asking, try to boss me around in my own home, push incessantly if he’s told no, ignore what he’s told to do, say incredibly disrespectful things to any adult in the house and then laugh if that adult tells him to behave. My sister and her husband seem so relieved to have a break from him that they barely watch him during these family get-togethers.

This last dinner I was catching occasional glimpses of John and his cousin from the kitchen, and they were hitting each other as hard as they could over the head with our decorative couch pillows while my sister and brother in law ignored them. The only times they even used “serious voice” were when John was so blatantly rude to my oldest sister that she challenged him with serious voice, and when I finally raised Diana’s awareness to the fact that I’d asked John 3 times now to move his dinner to the kids’ table so the adults would have enough room to eat (he had of course moved into the living room to play).

I really don’t know what to do here. I don’t have children of my own so to be honest it’s hard for me sometimes to figure out where the line would be of too much vs too little. I was raised old school, where you got spanked or grounded if you misbehaved, but my sister and her husband don’t seem to be big into either one of those.

Things are complicated by the fact that this sister and I still haven’t patched things up from our own argument because she gets immediately defensive when it looks like any conflict is going to break out, and storms off (this is why she and my brother are also just barely on speaking terms). I don’t want to put my relationships through any more stress than they’re already under when I already can’t talk to her about other problems, but I don’t know how much more I can be around my nephew before I explode at someone.

I thought about organizing more “adults only” gatherings but then I’ll be missing out on time with my niece and other nephew. And call me crazy, I really do want to have a good relationship with John and be in his life as he grows if he can just not be such a little turd. What’s the best path here?

Ah, the joys of Other People’s Children.

I think you’re entirely correct that the majority of John’s behavior issues don’t actually stem from ADHD, but from being raised without (seemingly) any boundaries or discipline. ADHD might cause a child to blurt out something inappropriate during grace or struggle to keep from interrupting adults, but outright rudeness and disrespect? Laughing at adults when corrected? Nah, fam. I’m guessing Diana and her husband are either giving him a pass because “he has ADHD, he can’t help it” (spoiler alert…he can) or because they’re exhausted, frustrated and just sort of tapped out. But by ceding their roles as Authority Figures — even just at these family dinners as a “break,” thus destroying any sense of consistency in behavior expectations — they’re raising a kid who doesn’t see any adult as an Authority Figure.

But they’re not the ones who wrote to me. You did. And of course, you’re limited in what you can actually do long-term for John, as there are definitely limits and lines when it comes to disciplining someone else’s child. (Please do not go “old school” and spank your nephew. And please [pleeeeeease] let go of any inner fantasy you might have that John’s behavior would be drastically different if his parents just whooped his butt every now and then.) But you CAN absolutely set limits and behavior expectations in your own home.

But what ARE reasonable limits and behavior expectations?

And HOW do you enforce those limits when he laughs in your face and you know his parents won’t back you up? These are super tricky questions, and that’s before we add in all the other Tough Family Dynamics going on here, like your still-shaky relationship with your sister.

And now I’m going to ask you MORE questions! (Aren’t you so glad you wrote in?) Is there actually anything for the kids to DO at these family get-togethers? Since you don’t have children, you naturally don’t have a house already stocked full of toys and games or a basement playroom where the wild cousins (and resulting mess) can be safely contained for the evening. Are they just expected to “bring stuff to do from home?” Do you have a stash of toys/games/books that you bring out for the kids? How often does it get a refresh or restock? Do you put a movie on for them? Bust out some Mario Kart? Send them outside with a bucket of water balloons (these are the best!!) or a soccer ball/goal set or Stomp Rockets (COOL AUNT ALERT)?

If not, believe me, BOREDOM is going to be your mortal enemy here, and it will morph into the form of an obnoxious 9-year-old turning decorative pillows into deadly weapons.

(Although that…eh. Unless the pillows were like, delicate family heirlooms or there was a real and present danger of damage to their surroundings, two cousins having a pillow fight isn’t a huge deal in my book. At most, I’d ask them to take the fight away from lamps/vases/expensive electronics. At best, I’d probably join in.)

(Also, you mention that your sister and BIL “barely watch” him during the dinners, but…he’s 9, not 3. And while I TOTALLY get that you don’t really trust him and want your sister to DO SOMETHING about his rudeness/lack of manners, I just want to point out that most parents of kids this age don’t feel the need to constantly watch or hover over them at a casual family dinner party.)

So yes, make sure your expectations are realistic.

We adults enjoy standing around with a glass of wine, talking for hours and then eating a nice looooong dinner…and then sitting around and talking some more. But for a high-energy child this might just be one of his personal circles of hell. Thus: IT’S CRAZY ACTING-UP HYPER TIME! So before you host again, take some time and thought to really plan a fun parallel evening for your younger guests.

This might also be the right angle to approach the issue with your sister! Ask her for help and ideas for things John would enjoy. That way you can possibly lightly mention your concerns in a way that isn’t fully blaming her. “I’m worried John is getting really bored at the family dinners and that might be why (he’s hyper, destructive, grumpy/argumentative with adults, etc.). What do you think I should have on hand that would keep him better entertained?” Look, you’re even shouldering some of the blame to further soften the blow! She might take the hint that oh, this is a problem that we need a solution for better vs. you just going off like ‘YOUR SON IS DEMON SEED GET OFF YOUR BUTT AND PARENT HIM ALREADY.”

And finally, consider spending some time with Demon Seed John one-on-one.

Take him to a movie or bowling or whatever he likes to do. Grab lunch or just an ice cream cone. Ask about his day and his interests. Load him up on positive attention, and gently correct when necessary. (“Whoa dude, that was kinda rude! Can you not talk to me like that? Thanks.”) He needs an Authority Figure, yes, but he also needs an Authority Figure who does more than just scold and nag and correct him over everything using their Serious Voice.

I know you say he just ignores any attempt to correct his behavior, but trust me. He still hears it. And he probably, right now, is hearing it all the time, from so, so many adults. (I once read an adult’s heartbreaking description of growing up with ADHD: He remembers his entire childhood as “a sea of angry grown-up faces.”) Show him that you’re a person who likes him (even if you’re faking it, for now) and that people who like him deserve his respect, not rudeness. With some time and real effort on your part, that respect will carry over to his time in your home. And hopefully, for the rest of your lives.

(Especially once he outgrows his current turd phase.)

More on discipline and kids  from Alpha Mom:

1. R-E-S-P-E-C-T and Teens
2. Disciplining Other People’s Children
3. Holidays and Other People’s Kids

Photo source: Depositphotos/Goodluz

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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