My 13-year-old niece is out of control

We took her in because her home life was unbearable. Now my home life is unbearable.

By Cary Tennis

Published November 24, 2008 11:10AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My husband lost two of his brothers within six years. One of them had a 13-year-old daughter from a one-night stand. I suggested to my husband that he get to know her. That was nine months ago. She is now staying with us because her life at home is so unbearable.

I'm not allowed to interfere with her at all. I can't wake her up for school because I don't do it right, etc.

She lies constantly. She hates me because I'm married to her uncle. She wants him to herself. My husband and I've had no life together since she's been here. He's not allowed to kiss me when she's here, which is constantly. She won't leave his side. That's partly his fault. The two of them are together constantly. If I go to watch TV with them, I'm accused of either going there to start trouble, or she tells me to go to my room. My husband denies hearing her say anything unpleasant to me.

My husband works two midnights a week. When he leaves at night, I've been going to my bedroom to watch TV so she can't accuse me of doing or saying anything to her. She still calls my husband and makes up things. Then he calls, screaming at me. I know he wants to believe her, and she keeps telling him he's the only one that's ever been there for her. If he doesn't do what she wants, she threatens to go live somewhere else. I can't make excuses for his behavior any longer.

She has also made up stories at her school that were investigated and dismissed. And she has reported to the police that she's been molested over the years by many different people at her home. It started out with once; now it's many times with at least nine people. I don't know what to think of that.

I want her out of the house, since I really didn't have any say about her moving in. How can I do that short of a divorce?

I believe we probably will get a divorce anyway for the verbal abuse and the way he's forgotten about our marriage. They act like a couple. Everything is "we" instead of me and her or me and him. Do you have any advice?

Caught in a Bad Situation

Dear Caught,

Let me first say this. You have done a very good and kind thing. You are not getting credit for it and that is not surprising. But you have done a humane, moral thing. You have extended your hand to someone who needed help.

Now your act of kindness is making your life a living hell. Such is the irony of life. You naturally ask if you can get through this, if it was the right thing to do, and how will you survive it. It is an understatement to say that we are not always rewarded immediately for our attempts to help others. In certain cases, like yours, it is more like we get kicked in the teeth for trying to help others.

But know this: If you can just find a way to keep at it, provide this child a stable living situation, and gradually make improvements, and gradually set limits for her, and set goals for her, and get her the help that she needs, you may be able to save her life. That is what this comes down to. You are saving a young woman's life.

You cannot do it alone. So reach out to social service agencies. Learn as much as you can about the kinds of services that are available. Talk to the police and learn as much as you can about what allegations she has made concerning sexual abuse. It may be that her allegations are not all completely factual. But it would be rare for a young woman to make such allegations out of whole cloth. It is likely that she has been sexually abused in some way. Learn where she stands legally on these issues. Ask the police what prospect of justice exists for her.

She is 13. She is a child. She has been through hell. She has lost her father. She has lost her home. And she has been probably been sexually abused. She needs an advocate.

Begin keeping a journal so that you can organize your information. Write down everything you can think of that pertains to her situation. Go to her school and explain to her teachers why she is staying with you and ask what kinds of support are available for her. Tell them that you want to help her but that you cannot do it alone.

Because of what has happened to her, you might say, under the circumstances, she is acting normally. That doesn't make her behavior right and it doesn't make your life any easier. But she is not at fault. She is a child. Consider the larger picture. If the adults around this child cannot contain her and protect her from herself, if they cannot somehow hold her together over the next few years, hers may well be a tragic story. She is profoundly vulnerable and at risk. If she is unable to stay in her own skin, unable to focus her emotions, unable to control her actions, and she sets off on her own, she may end up exploited, addicted, suicidal, institutionalized or worse. But if, with your help, she can get through her teen years, she may survive. She may get through school. She may marry and have children, and you may watch her children grow up and see them playing in the yard and know that they owe their lives to you just as she does.

So it is worth exercising all the restraint and willpower and love that you can muster, right now, in order to make a difference in this one person's life.

Her behavior toward your husband must be especially hard to handle. At her age, the line between girlhood and womanhood is beginning to blur. Since she lost her father, she has attached herself to your husband. In her need for a father's affection she may be flirting with your husband in a sexual way. Your husband, to your great chagrin, may not seem to respond with appropriate sternness. You may feel that your husband is acting like an idiot. You may feel that, although she is 13, she is in a sense seducing your husband. You may feel a bewildering array of conflicting emotions. You may feel squeezed out, teamed up on, edged out.

Your husband must be warned that a young woman who has been traumatized and sexually abused may act out in ways that are tragically destructive to herself and to others. This is a volatile situation. There are of course certain concrete actions that are completely out of bounds.

But it is also a life-and-death situation in which, no matter what happens, you cannot just abandon this child.

At times you are going to feel that she is simply taking advantage of you, insulting you, disrespecting you, making your life hell. But the truth is that she is a girl, a child, and she does not know what she is doing. She is not responsible. She came into this world innocently. She cannot yet make meaningful choices. You, on the other hand, are an adult, and have the choice. You can save this girl's life. You have already taken steps to do so.

It is evident that you want to help her. So I beg of you to find it in your heart to do what is right. Seek support in social service agencies and in her school. Struggle to keep this home life stable. Stay with your husband through this awful chaos. Hold it together.

This could go either way. This child could become yet another broken human abandoned on the trash heap of a culture that does not take care of all its children but only certain ones. Or she could be salvaged and guided into life. It is up to you. You can do this.

Imagine if you are successful. Imagine if your one success were multiplied 10 times, or 10,000 times. Imagine if it were multiplied 100,000 times. Imagine if it were multiplied a million times, if your one example of forbearance and sacrifice could radiate out into a world teeming with discarded children, children of accidents and betrayal, children of children, children of murdered fathers, children conceived in quick, desperate, doomed feints at love, children brought into the world as accessories and trophies, children exploited for their sex before they develop. Your act might result in the salvaging of many more such young women. You do not act alone. You act in a moral context. You act in history. You act as a representative of what is good in humanity.

You can help this kid. You are what she needs in the world. She may never tell you this. She may have been too brutally shaken to know what is happening to her. But if she survives she will owe her life to you. Even if she never tells you, you will know.

Effects of abuse? See p. 127, 218, 234, 251 ...

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Cary Tennis

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