How do you civilize a thirteen year old girl? (Long, unflattering.)

Okay, before you break out the pitchforks and the torches, I have anticipated you. I know exactly what you’ll say. It starts with “How can you hate a child?!” and “She knows you don’t like her!” and “She can sense your feelings about her father!” and “You might as well not even try because you don’t like her!” So you can keep that to yourself because I’ve already been through that mental dialogue. I only want helpful, constructive responses, please. Think of me what you please, but please think it to yourself.

A little background is in order. My half brother is really my adoptive stepbrother. My dad and his first wife the insane alcoholic adopted him long before I was born. I’ll call him my brother for convenience sake, but please understand that that’s a legal term and not an emotional one. My brother is a shitstain of a person. My father is the most giving person in the world - he would have given my brother anything he asked for, but my brother would rather steal it. The scams he’s pulled on my dad are essentially innumerable and we probably don’t even know about all of them. For instance, there was the time he pretended to go to college for almost four years (at 35 or so) before my mom finally found out about it. There’s the time they stole checks from my dad’s mailbox and eventually committed identity theft of epic proportions (that of course my dad wouldn’t prosecute) and my brother blamed it on his wife. There’s the time when we’re 90% sure they lied to everybody about the seriousness of his wife’s cancer. So there’s that.

Additionally, his wife is now disabled because of an actual real malpractice event (although we’ve always suspected some shadiness involved somewhere, which tells you something about these people.) She has serious short-term memory problems, among other things.

They have three children. The oldest is the girl in question, 13. Then there’s Boy 1, who’s bright but overlooked, at 11, and Boy 2, who’s delayed but very sweet, at 10. They have practically admitted they had Boy 2 to keep my dad from prosecuting the identity theft thing. They may not be the world’s shittiest parents, but they’re in the runner up group. An example of their parenting skills - when the girl (we’ll call her A) was two or so, she had one of those total meltdown toddler tantrums in our living room. Instead of ignoring it, my brother ran to her, his favorite child, and said “What did your mother do to you?”

My point, I guess, is that A’s problems are not that she’s 13. She’s always been like this. Her problems are that she’s had and will continue to have shitty parenting, and that she’s just like her father. She’s shifty. She lies. She’s incredibly abusive to her brothers, especially the younger one. She’s always “too sick to go to school” and her father lets her stay home. She’s the instigator - when it’s just the two boys together, they’re as sweet as can be, but when she’s there they pick on Boy 2 mercilessly. You get the idea that the parents make fun of him too. The amazing thing is that he remains so sweet and loving.

So, yes, I don’t like her. There’s not much to like. She got held back a grade because, well, she never goes, and she’s such a… mooncalf. She always has this “no there there” look on her face. You’d think she was borderline retarded, although she isn’t. I spent the whole afternoon with her today getting her the school stuff on her list, and she spoke maybe three words to me. All she cares about is talking with her friends, and her parents don’t make her converse like a human being. (Well, I’m sure she has no model for it.) She also had hair so matted today that my mom is dragging her to get it cut Tuesday and I can’t imagine they can do anything but shave it off - the girl is 13, but her parents throw up her hands and say they can’t make her do anything. She isn’t even a tall, burly 13! She’s tiny! I could damned well make her wash her hair and give it a run through with a comb if I wanted to, and there’s just one of me and I’m the weakest, sorriest grownup you’ve ever seen! She moons after boys like she was four years older and six orders of magnitude dumber. We fully expect her to turn up pregnant within the next few years.

So today at dinner my dad said, shockingly enough, my brother seems to realize there’s a problem with A. Just now? I’m the trustee for them and I’ve been planning for years to make sure their trusts will cover college for Boy 2, occupational therapy for Boy 3, and cosmetology school and an abortion for A. So he asked my dad if I’d consider mentoring her a bit.

Well, after our outing today I was thinking about it myself. But what the hell can I do with her? How do I fix her? I’m a grownup, I can hide my distaste for the child and hatred of her family. I don’t need help with that, although I guess it probably sounds like I do. I said I’d take her shopping for school clothes this week. But what am I supposed to do if she won’t say a word to me?

I thought maybe I could start dragging her along to dinner with me and Himself, so she can see what a real relationship between smart grownups looks like and how people are expected to converse with one another. (Himself’s take: “You better get her whipped into shape before you expect me to hang out with her. And make sure you rinse her off a bit.” He’s met her once and got the picture.) I figured maybe I’d drag her to some museum exhibits or plays or the Philharmonic or something. But that doesn’t answer the main question: how do you get through to somebody like that? How do you put a there there?

It’s not like you can just shake a girl and sit her down and explain to her that if she doesn’t start combing her hair and speaking like she has something to say that people are going to figure out tout suite what trash she is. You can’t make somebody be honest and honorable and kind if they don’t want to be, either. And you certainly can’t make somebody be well-read and interesting, or have enough respect for themselves not to get knocked up before they can actually get promoted out of seventh grade, not when their parents aren’t exactly providing a role model to the contrary. So how on earth do you do it? “Be a role model”, maybe you say - but if somebody has no respect for you and doesn’t see your path as having much value, will they model themselves after you?

Arrrgh. I read the other emergency parenting threads here about norinew’s oldest and the one about boot camp right now and realize that this is small potatoes - somebody has to work at Wal-Mart, right? Not everybody gets to be an astronaut. The world needs ditch diggers too, and people to be on Cops. And I know it doesn’t show me in a particularly good light. Please remember that this is coming from the perspective of somebody who has seen the agony her brother has caused her dad; one of his heart attacks and his stroke coincide with ugly revelations about my brother. If you have sympathy left, please spare some from my dad, who I know feels guilty and responsible about my brother and how he grew up.

But if you’ve managed to read this far, I could really use some help here. I want to do right by this kid. I don’t want to call a 13 year old girl a dull bitch, but I don’t want a 13 year old girl to be a dull bitch. If anybody’s got a chance at her, maybe it’s me, but I’ll be damned if I know what to do about it. (Paging WhyNot.)

Meh, I think most 13 year olds have at least some gross 13-year-old nastyness to deal with - this girl just has a LOT more than average, so I sure wouldn’t feel bad about not liking her. She probably doesn’t really like herself at this stage of the game (not that many 13 year old girls do).

I suppose the best I could suggest it to spend some time with her and be nice to her, even though it sucks. You have to accept that she may not become an intellectual giant - hell, she may not even make it out of highschool - but just because she’s not smart doesn’t mean she can’t learn stuff.

When my niece was born I decided to be the ‘cool aunt’. I take her places that her parents don’t take her, I act goofy with her and we hang out and do girl stuff. You could just start with stuff like taking her to get her hair cut (although I see your mom is), and maybe doing an activity together. Maybe you could teach her a craft.

I really don’t know - I think you’ll have to try a lot of stuff before you figure out what she likes. I imagine when she’s doing something she likes she’ll be more likeable too.

Speaking as a professional educator…
duct tape. Lots and lots of duct tape.

I raised two daughters, so perhaps I could make a suggestion or two. To begin with, it doesn’t sound like there’s anyone in her life who’s there for her. Dad & mom both have their won trips going, kiddies are left out there (if I’m reading your post correctly).

Aunt Zsofia, are you ready to commit the next 8-10 years to making sure this lost soul gets through life? If not, then forget the rest of this.

If you still want to make an impact in your niece’s life, I might suggest this: if you feel you’re strong enough (and it’ll take a lot of long-term strength), be there for her. Be the adult she can turn to. Take her out on a regular basis. Include her in your life (put yourself into her life, into her school and whatever other life she might have). Find an interest & include her in it, be it something athletic, in music or arts, or some other outlet. Whatever you do, don’t give up.

Aunt Zsofia, if you decide you want to commit to this child, please, please stay the course. No matter what happens, stay in there for her. You might be the only adult she’s got, & you know she’ll test you to see if you’ll stay there for her (her parents, she’ll feel, blew her off, so she might think you’ll do the same).

Once you decide she’s finally coming out of her shell, she might go to the other extreme, might get manic. Handle it as best you can, but please, please, stay in there for her. YOU are the adult. Show her how an adult handles life. It may not show for some years, but she’ll notice your approach.

She’s 13. If you decide to commit to your niece, you’ve got 7-10 “interesting” years ahead of you, but please, please, please…once you’ve committed yourself to her, stay the course. Your niece needs you more than you know.

Love, Phil

I was just checking out the Web site for Big Brothers & Big Sisters of America…considering way in the back of my mind to be a Big Sis.

Anyway, on their FAQ they suggest that in the beginning you just TALK with the child. Converse. Ask what they’re in to, what their thoughts are on topics, what their questions, dreams and hopes are. They suggest that this is all best done on a one-on-one basis instead of you dragging the kid along to observe you.

Showing her that adults are ok, relationships are ok and that it’s ok to be a minimum-wage worker isn’t really going to help this kid. She’s just going to be bored and then belligerent. You’d be amazed how different kids can be when you just converse with them. She’ll end up telling you how you can help her without her even knowing.

I think the place to start is to sit the kid down and explain the deal: that she’s 13, and it’s time to grow up before she does something stupid and becomes a mother before she’s out of high school. Tell her it’s time that she has to take responsiblity for her own decisions.

Then ask her what she expects to be doing when she finishes high school.

That’s the thing, though - if she’d talk I’d know what to do about her. I know all kids will tell you school was “fine” and stuff - it’s like she takes that to the absurd. I feel like I can’t ever get a real honest opinion out of her. I couldn’t even get her to espouse an opinion about bookbags today! Shit, you can pick any one you want! After I prodded and threatened to choose for her she picked one of those “Rock School” or something like that branded things, and I tried to get her to talk about it - do you like that show, what’s it about, who’s that guy - I know I’m totally an old lady, and I know I rolled my eyes when people tried that with me when I was her age, but hell, it was something she showed some volition on. Nothin’. It’s very frustrating.

ETA - Phil, my parents have tried to be very involved with the kids (because obviously their parents suck.) My mom’s more involved with the boys because she (correctly) thinks they get majorly neglected, but she tries to do stuff with A too. My mom’s 66 though, and I’m 28.

My take is that you will be better off meeting her closer to her comfort zone than dragging her into yours. Model how to appropriately go to the mall, eat at Applebees, shop for groceries. Don’t try the Philharmonic unless things change a whole lot.

Don’t blame her for stuff her parents haven’t taught her. For example, if her parents have essentially taught her that it’s OK to go out with her hair like that, don’t blame her for learning from their example. That doesn’t mean she’s dumb, it means she had bad examples. Maybe take her to a stylist for a special “makeover” and have the stylist explain how to care for her new hairstyle (comb, blow drier, conditioner). Having it come from an expert and not a relative might make her more receptive. Pick a young, cute stylist and brief her in advance.

Also, is there an activity you could get her involved in together? Sort of like her joining Girl Scouts and you being a scout leader? But probably less geeky- maybe a sports team or a school/community play? There is research out there on sports having a statistically significant effect at reducing teen girls’ risk of pregnancy. Maybe it’s self confidence, maybe it’s just keeping them busy for 3 hours in the afternoon. But something that you could do to help her make friends with some of the more functional 13-year-olds could have a good effect.

One, and this is really important–you can dislike her, but if you feel real, honest to god contempt for her, I don’t think you can do anything. Once you get her talking (and that can be done), you are going to discover that much of what she values you consider meaningless and much of what you value she considers stupid, at best. Once she gets to the stage of revealing her values, you can’t try to dismiss them or argue her out of them–by 13, they are pretty well set, and any shifting is going to come from her, at her own pace. Any rejection is going to be taken as a rejection of her, as a person.

As far as getting her talking, the trick it to DO things. Play cards, dig up a garden, play frisbee, do something to fill up the time and provide a topic of conversation. Once that starts, don’t comment about anything she says about herself–much of it you won’t be able to approve of, and she’ll take any disapproval as rejection of herself, personally, and will clam up again. So just keep talking about yourself and asking her questions about herself. Anything that isn’t dangerous, let go.

One final note: you don’t have to do this. You really don’t. There is plenty of good to be done in the world, and you don’t have to take on this particular burden.

Well, I’m not WhyNot, and I haven’t BTDT b/c my kids are 4 years old.

But I was dealing with a blank slate a few years ago, when my twins were babies (and you never know WHAT they’re thinking) and you know what I did? I just amused myself. Lots of monologues. And jokes - I cracked myself up a lot.

Eventually they kind of got caught up in my little world.
And then they started joining in.

I dunno - I just had this image of you dragging a sullen kid around and slapping a really dorky backpack on her just for your own amusement. That does explain a lot of the infant wear you see out there.

If there’s no there there, then fill in your own and see what happens.

No, I don’t have to… but my dad asked me to. And somebody ought to try.

It’s a good point about just not liking the stuff she likes, even if she wasn’t, you know, common trash. I don’t think this conversation does much good for anybody:
“We went to see (crap, I can’t even think of the names of any current shitty teenage movies) and it was SO FUNNY. You need to see it!”
“I’m sorry, I don’t watch shitty movies. Perhaps you would like to go with me to see a silent French film about longing. You’ll love it. It’s in black and white.”

But if you had to have common interests with kids nobody would ever talk to them, right? I mean, they’re not gonna all be like you were at their age, and I’d probably find a bookish nerdy kid like me boring too.

Maybe she’d like golf. I doubt it, since it doesn’t happen on a computer screen (that’s all three of them) but you never know.

It’s not going to be stuff like that that is the problem: it’s going to be stuff like where she assumes the rational response to a girl liking the same boy as her is to start a nasty rumor about her. Or that gay people are fucking sickos. Or that college is pointless. Or that her little brother is an asshole. You don’t have to (and you shouldn’t) agree when she says stuff like that, but you don’t have to disagree, either. Tandem stories take the place of conversation with kids like this. Finding a common activity–even if it’s just the movies or a TV show you watch together once a week–really helps.

Working with kids like this is two steps forward and one step back, over and over and over again. And she will likely NEVER appreciate you and will likely resent the hell out of you. I’m not saying this to discourage you, but it is something you need to be prepared for.

Zsofia, if you’re going to do this, you have to find something, some thing, about this child that you like. No matter how brain-dead she might be, she’s not so stupid she can’t sense your antipathy.

If you have to fake interest in a stupid, crap teenage POS movie, then do it. Find something positive to say about it, and leave out the negative stuff.

Because, believe me, she knows you can’t stand her, and as long as she knows that, there’s no way you’re going to reach her. If you can’t find something about her to like, then leave the poor child alone.

Consistency is so important, like phil417 said. Even just starting small, with a weekly phone call that consists of a lot of “I dunno. Fine. Whatever.” answers on her part, do it every week and eventually the fact that an adult is taking an interest in her starts to sink in. Listen to her stories of teenaged drama, no matter how excruciating it is for you, if she comes out of her shell enough to share them with you it’s important to her.

Good for you for taking this on, she obviously needs someone.

Sometimes it takes just one positive influence in a person’s life to make the difference, so I do think this is a good idea and may ultimately benefit her. Especially if you can find something to like about her as you get to know her.

This is a great point. The kid may not really be stupid for all you know. Maybe she just has never had a chance to develop her potential. You probably would have grown up acting stupid if you were raised by people like your ‘brother’ too.
It could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if you treat her like she’s stupid, so I do think it’s important to give her a chance and try to avoid making her feel like you consider her stupid.

As for the issue of not talking, it’s quite possible that she is intimidated by grown ups or just doesn’t know what to say to them, rather than the silence being because she’s being a brat or anything like that. For that reason, I wouldn’t take it personally if that does happen. Just try to be patient and keep trying to make conversation.
I think it’s best to try some activities that are close to the kinds of things she normally enjoys to build a rapport before trying to make her go to a nice restaurant or the Philharmonic or anything else a kid that age might view as boring.
Summer is a good time to try to find something fun to do at least. Maybe a carnival, a trip to the beach, something like that. OH, I know…mini golf. :slight_smile: (although a teenager might view that as dorky, if she is open to the idea it might be more fun for her than real golf). There’s gotta be something!

If you think your brother is a shitstain and you dislike his daughter why would you involved yourself in his life in any way? They are NOT your problem, repeat this to yourself as many times as necesary then repeat it to any family members that ask you to get involved until they get the hint.

Two of my dad’s brothers were alcoholics and drug addicts, as were their respective wifes. The two oldest daughters are both currently location unknown and had babies when they were teens to fathers twenty years their age or so. The middle daughter of one just got married to a nice guy, and is sane and normal and nice herself. The youngest son of the same father has some sever anger issues but we’re still waiting to see how he’ll turn out.

But so the middle daughter spent lots of time, growing up, out of her parents house with her grandma–who, while somewhat of a piece of work herself, is at least mostly a normal person. She had some problems when she went to college (paid for by my parents), stealing some things from her best friend’s family and ditching school a lot, but she seems to have finally gotten all of that out of her system.

Now, if at thirteen your niece isn’t already sleeping around and going to parties and getting drunk–I’d say that there’s a decent chance that you can still have an impact. Once she starts dating, you’re fairly well screwed. Essentially, I would judge, you have until she starts high school to make an impact. What impact you can make, I would suspect, will best come by having her in your house with you as a quasi-parental force. Otherwise it’s doubtful that you’ll be able to accomplish anything except for being more emotionally involved when it all starts to go downhill. Not a good thing by any means.

My recommendation would be to “hire” her as a helping hand. For instance, tell her parents that you’ve decided to start cooking a nice big dinner once a week and it would be helpful if you could borrow her to help you do the cooking all day. Pay her a small allowance even (which should be a flat fee which doesn’t waver unless she is a no-show–don’t try to raise or lower it based on performance.) Your key goal is to establish authority not to have heart-to-hearts. You are her boss. This will play in to her silence and any potential distrust she may have of you and your intentions. Over time she’ll get bored with silence and the two of you will end up chatting just because.

Learning about boundaries and rules is more important than trying to get her to go to school or what-have-you. In the kitchen (or whatever make-work you decide on (now might be a good time to find a new hobby)) she has to follow your orders, she has to put things away after she is done using them; she has to wash her hands upon arrival and after each visit to the restroom; she has to have her hair bound back; etc. All small things, but the repetition of a worklike enforcement will be a good influence just straight off the bat. And once the two of you do start conversing you’ll have an influence just by talking about the world and life according to your view of it.

The longer you have with her, the more effect you will have. She’ll most likely drop out of the weekly/daily visits at some point, but the longer she has had with you–a sane person–the less long it will be until she turns around as an adult. And so something like an allowance will be good since even when she gets to high school (the time that she would be most likely to stop meeting with you), it will provide an impetus to keep coming so that she can afford to get the newest CDs and clothes.

Or at least that would be my, fairly entirely untested, suggestion. :wink:

I’ve always liked the expression, “I love you, but I don’t like you.” It fits family circumstances so well, sometimes.

IMO first you need to realize that you’re inheriting a situation. Had you been the parent, you never would have let this shit get this far in the first place. But okay, done is done and we start from where we are.

The most important thing to teenagers is other teenagers. Even in the healthiest of family situations, peer approval is just baked into the deal. If possilble…

  1. put her among higher-functioning teens. It may rub off.
  2. put her among average teens. If you can show her, in any way, that other teens think she’s weird, it may bring her back in line. I mean that in an “invisible hand” sort of way.

As for what you can do: ask and find out what she cares about. If she’s really into a new band called “Nazi Dickhead Psychos,” sit down with her and listen to the record with her. Ask what her favorite song is and why—get away from Yes/No questions and pick her brain. Agree where you can.

When you find that out, I think you’ll demonstrate to her that you care. You won’t be talking at her; you’ll be talking to her as an individual who matters. If you’re lucky as hell, she’ll ask you what musical group you like and why, and that’s the beginning of a relationship. Get into it—what pissed you off about your parents? Access that teen angst and show her that you’re not just another fossil. And talk about how you learned that you had to channel impulses etc.

Finally, and most importantly, you need to promise yourself that you will not put yourself on the hook for this. You will do what you can, but by the time a child is a teen, she’s automatically rebellious anyway. Qualified professionals have a hell of a time with them, so you do what you can, hope for the best, and take some comfort that you’re trying to be part of the solution. But don’t imagine that you have the magic wand that makes it all ok. You’re fighting an uphill battle and every inch of ground is precious territory.

Good luck, and know, by simple virtue of the fact that you care, that you rock!

Kids are really good at picking up attitudes - you don’t like her, you don’t respect her, she’s probably very very experienced in picking up those attitudes from people. The fact that she doesn’t care about her appearance would hint that her esteem is pretty low.

And let’s not forget. You’re not interested in her, you’re doing it for your dad. She’ll probably pick up on that too. Unless you decide she’s worth the effort, it’s unlikely to be very rewarding for either of you. She may not want to be your favour to dad.

If you really want to help her become a happier, more confident young woman, then others have already given you some great ideas. Talking, games, shared interests - they all take an investment in time. If you think she’s really worth the time, she could just return the compliment.

Does she watch makeover shows? You can offer to be her own personal insert makeover maven name here, ask your dad if he’ll fund the shopping (but make it clear that as the makeover queen, the clothes are your choice).

Same with the haircut. Once your mother has finished with her, offer to jazz things up with whatever accessories will match both her sense of ‘cool’ and your sense of appropriateness.

Whatever she allows you to change, give her praise and worth - not that *you *have achieved anything, but finally you can *see *the great/gorgeous young woman you *knew *was in there.

Honestly, when reading your description of her in the OP I wondered if she’s been sexually abused by someone. Perhaps not your “brother”, but someone else? Not brushing her hair, being favored by the father, being over-the-top rude/mean. I could be (and hope I am) totally off base here, but perhaps?