Carolyn Hax: Deal with troubled kids, even if it causes a rift

May 19, 2013 

Carolyn: I'm having trouble dealing with my violent niece and nephew, 5 and 7. I have two children of my own a little older. We are a tight family that (mostly, despite this big issue) enjoys hanging out together quite often. It's common for the 5-year-old to hold my 7-year-old down and just swing punches.

The boy was kicked out of day care at 2 for his violence. In an effort to not tear the family apart, we've tried to deal with it by telling ourselves that in time it will go away. Things aren't better, except that he is wiser now and waits for when he thinks we're not watching to hit our kids. At a recent birthday, the two hit or kicked every kid at least once.

I am as nonconfrontational as it gets, and as a result I think my kids have learned that being hit by them is OK. In a world of bullies, I need to send the message that it is most definitely not OK, even with family.

I just don't know how to open the parents' eyes. They don't express any concern or impose any real discipline and leave everyone else to deal with them. The children don't take our discipline seriously as a result of a lifelong use of empty threats by the parents.

I love them and want them in our lives, but I'm worried about causing a rift in our family. As of now, we just make up excuses for why we can't hang out.

L.

If your plan is to wait on the sidelines until you're sure you can "open the parents' eyes," then you're in for a bad case of bleacher-butt.

As you sit there, you're also abdicating other important responsibilities, ones that are actually within your control where other people's eyelids are not.

You've identified the most immediate one yourself: You have a duty to protect your kids, both from their cousins' haymakers and, far more dangerous, from the mindset that it's better to take abuse quietly than risk a disruption. You can project that into other areas of their lives, can't you? When they're in their 20s and an intimate partner is hitting them, but they don't speak up for fear of ruining Christmas?

There are many ways to teach the life skill of setting personal limits, from telling your kids to let you know whenever their cousins hit them, to supervising the kids and stepping in when it gets ugly, to saying openly that if the kids keep hitting then you will ask them to leave, to enrolling your kids in martial arts. Pick your popcorn. All that matters is that you mean it and your kids see it.

Two other major responsibilities you have are to your niece and nephew, and to society. You do none of them any favors by being the adult who was in a position to flag this problem early but chickened out.

If you don't think intervening with troubled kids and teaching your kids to stand up for themselves are worth a family rift, then please keep thinking. Avoiding a rift is primarily about your comfort. As a priority, it doesn't stand up to a moment's scrutiny.

It's also a goal you're not even accomplishing. You aren't comfortable, you're upset; you aren't keeping peace with the family, you're hiding from them. When you stand to lose something of value to you, that's when you most need solid principles. This problem might cost you a sibling, and that would be terrible, but that would also be the fault of parents who won't do their jobs. If this problem costs you yourself or your kids their confidence or health, then that will be on you.

Carolyn: I am listening to family members talk about my sister's recent announcement. It annoys me hearing them talk about how they knew instantly she was pregnant based on a turned-down drink.

"I KNEW INSTANTLY"

Maybe tonight a few more club sodas will be respected as none of anyone's business.

Email tellme@washpost.com. Chat online at 10 a.m. Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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