54

Background

My wife and I recently moved into a town-house apartment in a large complex. We have a Husky pup that my wife walks twice a day (she's a stay-at-home) and the dog attracts lots of attention from the neighborhood kids. One of those kids is a 13-year-old girl (we'll call her "Angela") who has a rather unfortunate history. She's lost both her parents and now lives with her disabled grandparents who are, according to Angela, frequently ill and struggling with money. Angela herself appears to have many psychological issues that sound like, without getting too far into the reasoning, either bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder. For what it's worth she's always very sweet to us.

The Setup

First off, my wife and I have no kids and no experience raising them, and we're in our late 20s, younger than any other apartment tenants in the community. Angela took a shine to our Husky and subsequently became friends with us. It started out just with her running outside to greet us when walking the dog, chatting for ten or fifteen minutes and then parting ways. When we found out her grandparents were sick and having trouble putting food on the table we even offered to make meals for her, which she always declines.

The Problem

Angela's comfort level with us has grown to the point where we find her knocking on or waiting outside our door multiple times a day to play with the dog, talk about friends, etc. to the point of being disruptive and actually ignoring her other friends. We've invited her in a couple times (with permission) to play games or watch movies, and tried to set expectations on only being available to do that on certain days/times, but still every day she's there waiting on the doorstep and one of us has to politely tell her we're busy and she has to come back another time.

With all that in mind, how can we make it clear to this girl she can't just show up any time and that she needs to spend most of her time with her friends? We like the fact that she feels she can open up to us about her problems and we want to help, but we know it's not healthy for her to start spending all her time with us instead of her friends, and we also can't sustain the amount of time she wants from us. My wife has tried to make it clear to her that just because she's home doesn't mean she's free to play, and she's also concerned other parents might start to think we're up to no good if Angela's other friends start telling them she's constantly ignoring them to hang out with us.

Update: For those interested, we've engaged directly with her guardians and learned a lot from them about her situation. She's actually getting psychiatric help (despite what she told us) and definitely seems to have some beginning symptoms of BPD due to childhood trauma/neglect. My wife has a strong desire to help, so we're trying to come up with a plan (with the guardians) to do so in a safe and constructive manner. As a side note, it's hard to pick a single "right" answer to this because the solution seems to be from parts and pieces of several of them, but I'll ponder it a bit further before accepting one. In the meantime further suggestions are always welcome. Thanks for everyone's input.

  • 28
    Just a minor comment, when you talk to her, don't tell her she needs to "spend time with her friends", because she probably thinks you are also her friends. – Erik Jun 16 '16 at 13:30
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    If she actually suffer from some psychological issues, I'd suggest you contact an expert before doing anything. The fact you wrote here means you are a caring person and don't want to hurt her, so the best thing would be to ask for professional support. – algiogia Jun 16 '16 at 15:33
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    It's not acceptable to diagnose someone else when you clearly have no training. Bi-polar and borderline are both very serious diagnoses, but are very very different from each other. If you're getting confused about that it's a clear sign that you don't understand the diagnoses. – user19912 Jun 16 '16 at 17:19
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    It sounds like in absence or her parents, you've been adopted by Angela. I see that most of the answers are about ways to lessen your interactions with her and while that may be your first inclination perhaps she's come into your life at this moment as much for your benefit as hers. I would think about this in the long term, where will she be in 5 years, where will you be and what kind of impact will you all had (or not had) on each others lives. Maybe it's worth a bit more effort now. Of course on the other extreme you could always just move. – Justin Ohms Jun 16 '16 at 19:19
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    At her age it will be pretty normal one teen to hang aorund the cool neighbors, more so a kid with her background. I dare say it is a passing phase. Pretty soon she will find other interests and her presence wont be so constant. – Rui F Ribeiro Jun 17 '16 at 6:51
59

You can't make anything clear to someone who doesn't respect your opinion. Explanations only matter if the person you're explaining to has kind of the same world view as you do. This is where boundaries come in.

Clearly things are not ideal for this girl, and it's natural to want to be helpful, but in this situation, true helpfulness is often more than what is comfortable for the vast majority of people (I would think this would involve meeting the grandparents, getting social services involved to assist them with their needs and Angela's, cooking them occasional meals, etc. etc. Which is waaaay out of the comfort zones of most.)

I agree that you should not have a minor in your house for any significant period of time without the knowledge and permission of the legal guardians, which gives you an excuse to meet the grandparents and assess the situation yourself. It also gives you a chance to have some kind of relationship with them before discussing concerns you might have should the need arise. Telling them about Angela's desire to spend time with you might prompt them to look into a Big Brother/Big Sister kind of program as well.

It's time to be honest with Angela and yourselves and decide on and set up your boundaries. Reading about boundaries, what they are, and how to enforce them will help.

If you only want to let Angela accompany you on dog walks, let her come along when you walk the dog. You can even let her know the day before what time you'll be walking the dog if you know that. If that's the extent of involvement you want to have, that's fine; it's your decision. If you want to give more, that's fine, too, but be consistent. If she comes to you at other times - when you're not available or you want to be alone together - just inform her politely. You don't have to explain or justify, you merely need to be kind, polite, and direct. Then close the door. If she continues to knock, I'd open the door and repeat once. Then stop answering the door.

Will it hurt her? Yes, it probably will. Can you ease her pain by explaining she needs to spend more time with her friends? I don't think so. If being with her friends was meeting the precise needs she has, she would make that choice herself.

It sounds like the truth is Angela needs much more than you want to give, but (and I don't mean to sound callous) Angela is not your responsibility, unless you want to and are willing to invest that kind of time and effort into her life.

In an ideal world, every adult would respond to every child in need in an ideal manner. Probably a lot of people reading this feel that more should be done for the child, and the truth is, more should be done for the child, but it should be done by people who feel called to do so - by moral imperative, by profession, or by some other sense of or actual duty. It is a heart-rending situation without easy answers, or the OP would not have posted here. But moving into an apartment complex wherein there exists a needy teen (and we don't really know a lot more than that) does not constitute a definitive moral obligation to get involved in that needy teen's life. As someone with real-life experience with treating mental illness, I know that there are no easy answers. It is probably better to give a little bit with kindness, consistency, and real caring than more involvement with reluctance/resentment and ultimate withdrawal if the teen continues to push boundaries. The OP can take it from there.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please keep further comments focused on clarification of the answer, not arguing about details of the situation which nobody on the internet can possibly know. – Acire Jun 16 '16 at 23:44
27

This is actually pretty common. First, lets get some things out on the table.

Your talking to her. That makes you her friend, at least a little. Don't think that because you're older you can't "be friends". There need to be boundaries, obviously. But to someone that age "friend" can be anyone that listens. There are structured groups (Boys and Girls Club, Big Bro./Sis.) that are built on that fact.

You have no right to tell her what to do, or how to act. You can only direct what you do and how you act. 13 is old enough to make her own decisions about "I don't like so and so, I'm not going over there any more," and "I like so and so, let's go talk to them."

She probably wants to hang out with people that listen. Not to mention the dog.

That said, there are some things I think you should do. First, welcome to the community. The old saying, "Raising a kid takes a village" doesn't mean just a village of parents. Your being a member of that community; you take on a social responsibility for that child. Whether it's driving slower in the parking lot, or something more involved, your still have a responsibility. Your only other option is to go hide in a cave (or adult-only communities) and not deal with children.

Next, you should set her up with a "job". She likes your dog, and she likes talking with you. Great, give her a "job". Arrange to make her a snack or give her money or whatever in exchange for "working with the dog". Work it out with her grandparents first, of course, but something like, "Angela likes playing with the dog, we thought we might have her stop by after school and take the dog for her evening walk. We can't really pay much, but we can provide snacks, or a little cash." This instantly sets some boundaries up. Very natural ones. Ones you can work with. It also gives the grandparents a way to interact.

Next using the dog as a way to do so, try to include the grandparents in some "group" activities. "Hey, we want to take Dog to the park, would you and Angela like to come along?" The Grandparents may be grateful for the opportunity to bond. They may say no. Talk to the Grandparents first.

There are some things to remember here.

  • First and foremost, not your kid. Remember that. It's super important.
  • Get the grandparents' permission, for everything. Make sure to include them. Ask first. You do not want to; "If your Grandma says it's ok, then we can go to the park." That will put you between them and their granddaughter. Instead, ask them first.
  • You're becoming a part of her life. A mentor. Make sure to treat it like such. Don't overdo it, but "Hey, how was school?" every now and then is great.
  • Keep the interaction "public". Make sure, at least for the foreseeable future, that the activities (like dog walking) are outside and where everyone can see. If you want to thank her for doing a good job, then invite her and her grandparents over for dinner, or better yet, make dinner and take it to them.
  • Keep conversations light. Small talk. If she starts asking for real "heavy" advise, then don't be afraid to give it, but ALWAYS remember "not your kid," and some topics need to be punted to the grandparents. You will have to find out where that line is over time. But for now, small talk.
  • 2
    Yes, yes, yes. This. – Wildcard Jun 17 '16 at 1:33
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    As someone who once was "Angela", this is pretty good advice. – RBarryYoung Jun 17 '16 at 21:09
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    +1 especially for "You have no right to tell her what to do." As someone who's had more than their fair share of toxic "friends" during childhood, I found OP's assertion that "she needs to spend most of her time with her friends" quite patronising. – user7953 Jun 19 '16 at 18:50
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    That is indeed a good point about her "friends" obviously not meeting her needs. I also appreciate your straight-forwardness about the situation – thanby Jun 20 '16 at 15:21
8

As you describe the situation, I would consider Angela as possibly a traumatized child in a troubled home situation, until you learn otherwise. This is not to say that her guardians have intent to neglect Angela, but according to Angela they're old and sick and perhaps unprepared (as you wisely observe that you are not fully confident) to raise her and deal with the extent of the trauma she has experienced.

Having children in your home from troubled backgrounds (and when placed in foster care, any situation where you and the child do not have guardians present) is something that states require specific training on before allowing parents to participate in the fostering program. And with good reason! (I've gone through such training, and I would never advise adopting or fostering a traumatized child without it.) The more you bring Angela into your home and your lives, the more prepared you need to be to fulfill the parent role, which from your description seems to me to be what she is really seeking.

Whatever level of involvement you ultimately decide to have in Angela's life, I think your first step needs to be to engage with her grandparents / guardians. It appears you have not met or talked to them yet. Do not allow her inside your home until this occurs. If she has serious trauma in her background, everything you believe about her guardians and her background could be completely wrong, and her real situation could be very different. (Traumatized children "misbehave", including lying, to protect themselves. What to us is misbehavior, to them is survival and coping. If she has trauma, you need to learn about these kinds of issues before engaging further.) And bringing her inside your home without their knowledge and permission makes you legally vulnerable.

Regardless of whether there is actually any trauma in her background, to continue down your current path, you and the guardians need to be on a familiar basis, in constant communication, and specifically, not relying on Angela to be the messenger between the households. Talk to them face to face, often. Make sure they know she is with you for every visit, checking in at arrival and departure. Be certain that they are fully comfortable with you as someone Angela can spend time with as friends. Establish ground rules and parameters and follow them, and expect Angela to follow them. If the guardians don't seem interested in having these discussions, consider it a giant risk factor for any deeper involvement in her life.

That I would consider an absolute minimum if it was me. Beyond that, you mentioned concern over being accused of being inappropriate with Angela by neighbors etc. (And the guardians!) One way to manage that would be to never bring Angela into your home, unless the guardians come with her (ie inviting the whole family to dinner). Instead, you simply play outdoors with the dogs, etc. or visit her home when invited by the guardians.

If Angela is dealing with severe trauma, and/or her guardians are overwhelmed due to illness as she says, there may be a clear need to involve the state in her situation. If you come to believe that, don't try to be the heroes yourselves, and don't look the other way, call in family services. It is a misconception that every call to family services results in children being torn away from their homes and families.

If Angela's case tugs at your heart strings, but ultimately you decide it is best for you not to involve yourselves deeply in her life, you might consider entering the foster parent program in your state. There are many other children like her, some with even more troubled situations, who need caring homes, either as a prelude to adoption or as a temporary measure while their families sort out their issues.

6

I want to offer a quick couple of points for you.

Step 1 - tell her everything you wrote in your last paragraph to us. Kids are not dumb and she will most likely understand.

Step 2 - don't feel bad when you tell her you cannot spend time with her. I suspect you feel bad or guilty for doing this. Telling her no is perfectly ok and after you explain step 1 to her I think she'll begin to grasp these relationship boundaries.

Obviously you don't want her to show up anytime she wants, but the fact is that she can unless you peruse legal action (I suggest you don't, strongly). So the real question is how do you deal with it? Because she is needy she will struggle with respecting your boundaries and perhaps after that she will struggle with understanding that she can still have a positive relationship with you. With time and simple honesty and patience it should be fine.

If she does have an emotional reaction to feeling rejected by your boundaries just realize this is a normal thing for kids (and adults) and even more so based on her life experience. If you maintain a steady behavior and show her kindness while keeping boundaries she will learn a valuable life lesson for all her future relationships in life.

3

That is a hard situation since you also have your own personal priorities. The child needs psychiatric help, perhaps you can extend a bit more to look for someone who can offer such help? It would make a big difference if you can ask for help for her.

  • This is a tricky one because my wife spotted the BPD-like behaviors which she's had some experience with in the past and we want to help this girl out so she doesn't go through life dealing with it. The problem is the girl claims she's already asked her grandparents for help but they "won't listen." I have no idea if that's true, which would probably take an actual conversation with them to find out. – thanby Jun 16 '16 at 12:59
  • She could probably use having a friend a lot more than having a psychiatrist. (So could most people.) Unless you think psychotropic drugs are a good treatment (tourniquet) for emotional responses to life, I'd have to strongly disagree with this advice. – Wildcard Jun 17 '16 at 1:31
2

Boundaries, Expectations and Communication

Your first step is to communicate with the grand parents. If they are unaware of your relationship with their grand daughter and discover she is entering your home without their knowledge they may have a negative reaction. Shore up that relationship first and assess their capacity to communicate, understand and discover who you are.

This is a proactive stance to ensure your good standing with the community.

Set a boundary

Never let her in the house without another person in the house, especially alone with a male. There is a certain amount of risk your are incurring by allowing her in the house, especially without another female. Explain to her that coming in the home alone is not a societal norm and tell her it's for her own safety and to never enter a home alone with only a male. Tell her grandparents that you told her that and that you felt it was a good lesson for her. Seek their approval of that action so they understand that you aren't a threat. If she has possible mental health issues it's entirely possible her grandparents do to. Whether the source of her potential issues are nature or nurture, there is a good chance her grandparents suffer as well. Be aware of the possibility. If they ARE borderline, you have risk interacting with them if they consider you a threat.

A threat to a borderline sufferer can be the grand daughter enjoying your company more than theirs. If she quotes you in a disagreement with her grandparents, you can become a threat. Beware, borderlines can be dangerous and do whatever they can to be deemed 'normal', that includes directing negative attention at those around them in a dramatic way in order to hide in the shadows of the chaos and drama they create.

Communication

Never be judgmental in any of your communication with the daughter or the grandparents. Use empathy and ask questions that aren't loaded.

You can tell stories about how important peers and same age relationships were to you growing up. Share the lessons you learned when you were young.

Maybe you have folding chairs you can take outside of your apartment that you use if you visit with her. Ensure you maintain your boundaries that you have established by communicating with action the established boundary. The idea that, "actions speak louder than words."

0

Listen to hu45,

What a wonderful opportunity to make a difference in a child's life. What you make of it is up to you. But as someone that has been in that position before, I suggest you act boldly, in the girls best interest, being open to the realization that her interest are your interest.

Your young and at the perfect age to start a family, do it. Nothing wrong with a head start (13 years). Talk to the grand parents about becoming legal guardian, letting her live with you. Adopt her when the grand parents pass on. Life is not about living, its about giving.

When you tell your friends and they all freak, you will know you are doing the right thing!

Will it be easy? Hell no, parent hood is the hardest job there is, but also, by far, the most rewarding. There isn't even a close second.

  • 1
    What if girl's legal guardians won't approve the bold actions? What if they won't let their granddaughter live with some random family? What if, most importantly, the family simply does not want to adopt a random teenager friend? – user20326 Jun 21 '16 at 14:10
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    "When you tell your friends and they all freak, you will know you are doing the right thing" -- this is generally not a metric by which one should measure any parenting decisions. – Acire Jun 21 '16 at 17:15
-1

First of all, if you have a problem for which professional help is available, of which this is one, then you should seek professional help. (Reference: MBA program). Consider finding out what resources are available in the community for this girl and try to put her in touch with them.

Second, but this is absolutely critical, the chief job of a teenager is to develop a sense of identity. (Reference: Grusec, J. E., & Hastings, P. D. (Eds.). (2007). Handbook of Socialization: Theory and Research. New York, London: The Guilford Press.) Successful people, particularly in engineering, develop a zest for one or more of the academic disciplines at this age, and pursue excellence therein for the rest of their lives. (See Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success (Kindle ed.). New York: Little, Brown and Company). You cannot let Angela self-identify solely as an ethnic group member or solely as a woman. Remember, the job of raising children is turn a "tabula rasa" into someone who is ready, willing, able, and eager to make a contribution to society sufficiently worthwhile that someone is willing to pay them for it. There is no money or contribution to society for people who self-identify solely as a "Latina" or a young black woman, but it happens all too frequently. I know it is time-consuming, and "not your job," but now is the time that Angela has to make the connection between success in school and success in life (Sociology of Industry) and make a decision, however tentative, about what she is going to grow up to be. Please don't let this opportunity go by to turn a young girl with too much time on her hands into someone who wants to make her community, town, state, or country into a better place in which to live.

-3

The girl is clearly not happy at home, and her guardians dont seem too interested in looking after her. Those psychological issues could be multiple personality disorder -- and some victims of traumatic abuse will do exactly what you are describing in the hope of adopting a new family.

I make no assumptions about the possible perpetrator: she could have been abused in a foster home. And grandma could be a bipolar/manic-depressive who constantly bitches about everything, no matter how good she has it. I've seen this before, so who knows. The poor kid might need a psychic as much as a psychologist.

Some people say that fear, not hate, is the opposite of love. Maybe sometimes that's true. What does it say about our society when people are too afraid to help or care for anyone else? How would you like to be treated if you were in her position? I know this is difficult, but perhaps you could gently inquire about her life, find out what she really wants, and give her some practical guidance. If her welfare is left in the hands of government bureaucrats and uncaring relatives, a positive long term outcome is unlikely. Maybe the grandparents dont really want her either. If so, you might be able to help her find some decent foster parents or the right kind of mentoring program. Think it over, and at the very least, do try to make constructive use of the time you spend with that child. And thanks for asking.

  • 9
    multiple personality disorder is fantastically rare, and probably doesn't exist. Did you mean Borderline Personality Disorder? You probably shouldn't use psychiatric diagnoses if you don't know what you're talking about. It's really damaging to the people with those diagnoses -- your ignorance causes harm. – user19912 Jun 16 '16 at 17:22
  • By "psychic" did you mean "psychiatrist"? Or what's the connection here? – Dan Getz Jun 18 '16 at 15:09

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