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'Should We Take Guardianship Of My Difficult Niece?'

Are we being selfish and giving up too soon--is it selfish to think we're asking too much of ourselves and our kids? Or are we recognizing our limitations for handling a child who will need extra consistency, attention, and will eventually have to deal with the trauma she's repressing so far?
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Reader Conflicted Aunt writes,

My husband and I have a 9 year old boy and 7 year old girl. We thought we were going to foster/take uncontested guardianship of our 6 year old niece. After a few weekends of having her visit, we saw more of 'the real her' in terms of her behavior and attitude. She takes a psych med twice a day to treat oppositional defiant disorder, and responds with meltdowns of crying and 'everyone hates me' and 'you're being mean to me' when things aren't fair or going her way.

She doesn't see her biological father because some events took place when she was 4 that put him in prison. She lives with her mom, and younger sister, who her mom admits she loves more than her and blatantly ignores her. Her brother already lives down the road with grandma/grandpa for the same reason. She and our 7 year old would be sharing a room with bunk beds. They get along okay, but they're both strong personalities and every little thing is 'I finished first haha' and 'made you look' and especially 'No I'M Daddy's girl' (referring to my husband). My husband's driving her back home today, and telling his sister that we're not ready to take her full-time...

Are we being selfish and giving up too soon--is it selfish to think we're asking too much of ourselves and our kids? Or are we recognizing our limitations for handling a child who will need extra consistency, attention, and will eventually have to deal with the trauma she's repressing so far?

Dear CA,

This is a very difficult situation and one with no easy answer. You are exactly correct that your niece will need extra love, attention, and resources, including therapy. (Her trauma doesn't seem to be repressed though- it is right there on the surface and manifesting itself in her behavior.) You and your husband are the people who will have to give her these extra emotional and physical resources, and since there are only 24 hours in the day, her needs may often have to take precedence over those of your kids. This is no different than what happens whenever a sibling is added to the family, but in the case of a biological or stepchild, you generally cannot just decide to give the child away if their behavior is challenging. In this case, you have the option.

I can tell you that taking this girl into your home would be a wonderful thing to do, and a good deed, and would show your kids that the right thing to do when someone is in need is to step up and help. But I can also tell you that there are no guarantees that your kids will not resent this child, and you, for creating this situation. Even the most loving and kind children can be traumatized by the intrusion of a stepsibling or biological sibling that has special needs and acts out in difficult ways. Your niece may also be unhappy in your home. She is used to being the least favored child in her own home, and via what we call behavioral confirmation, she is subconsciously creating this situation in her prospective home with you as well, by doing things that anger and annoy you.

I suggest that you try to become more involved in your niece's life for a year, and at the end of that time, reconsider if you would be able to take her into your family with a full and open heart. This plan would include:
  1. Individual therapy for your niece (which at this age includes parent sessions that you would attend)
  2. Weekly visits, or every other week at least, including some sleepovers
  3. Standing in whenever she needs a parent involved at school (attending parent-teacher night, the daddy-daughter dance, or whatever there is at her school)
  4. Taking her to a weekly activity, like dance or sports
This would mean that your niece gets a lot of the positive effects of having a highly involved extended family, and you take on some of the parent-surrogate role, without completely moving her in to your home at this stage where you are not fully committed to her. I believe that you can make a large impact on your niece without sacrificing your own family life completely. The worst case scenario would be taking her and then returning her, which would massively exacerbate her existing abandonment issues, and this plan could allow you to know that you're helping her while not fully investing in parenting her until (if) you know you are ready.

Best of luck and please keep me updated. Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says That Extended Family Can Be A Great Buffer When Kids Are Being Parented Dysfunctionally.

This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.

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