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Heavy Meddle: Help! I'm Worried That My Angry Young Niece May Be A Danger To My Children

When is a child's aggressive behavior a normal part of growing up, and when does it signal that something more serious may be wrong? (Michal Parzuchowski/Unsplash)
When is a child's aggressive behavior a normal part of growing up, and when does it signal that something more serious may be wrong? (Michal Parzuchowski/Unsplash)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

My niece stopped wearing dresses when she was 2. It was her request, and her mother, though a bit heartbroken, complied. Since then (she is now 8), she has worn only boy clothes, including underwear, and had her long blond hair cut short. No one meeting her would suspect she is a girl. She likes it that way.

Her interests tend toward the more stereotypically boyish as well: she likes a lot of games that involve imagined shootouts and explosions, and she talks a lot about zombies laying waste to families.

We have a large extended family that spends a lot of time together, and everyone has taken her preferences to heart. There's no judgment about wanting to look or act like a boy. If she isn't a tomboy, and if she does decide one day to transition genders, she'll be lucky to find a family that supports her in that.

I sometimes wonder if her aggression toward my sons, who are younger and who adore her, has to do with envy over their getting to be in boy bodies.

Here's where I worry, however. This child also exhibits a cruel streak — toward animals, insects and, most worrying to me, other children, including my own, who are boys. I sometimes wonder if her aggression toward my sons, who are younger and who adore her, has to do with envy over their getting to be in boy bodies. We’ve stopped group baths because she was very fixated on our sons' anatomies. I am full of empathy for a child who might be feeling angry and frustrated about being in the wrong body. I'm also keeping a nervous eye on her when she's with my sons, because her instinct toward them is a bullying one (no one in her family is a bully, or even aggressive). She lies. She steals their things. She seeks to make them cry or make them feel bad about something they might be proud of.

Each of us in the family has observed these tendencies and assured ourselves aloud that she's going through a phase — not the gender identity aspect, but the meanness. But after learning from my boys that she tortured a small animal one weekend behind her grandmother's house, and that they had pleaded with her to stop, I worry: Would she try to harm other kids? One of my sons has been having nightmares about this.

I can't say too much to her mother. She's not my child, and it's not for me to worry aloud about her character. But I find myself hovering when she's with my boys, and I find myself fearing that her impulses toward them might turn violent. She's already struck them and claimed it was an accident.

What would you do, Steve?

-A Concerned Auntie

Dear Concerned Auntie,

PHOTOThere are two separate issues here.

The first has to do with your niece’s emergent identity, and our culture’s various entrenched attitudes when it comes to gender. On that issue, I agree that she’s fortunate to be growing up in a family that appears tolerant when it comes to defining masculinity and femininity (though it’s worth noting that her mother was “heartbroken” when she stopped wearing dresses). It’s also great that you’re sensitive to these dynamics.

But the central issue here is this child’s aggressive behavior toward your kids.

To be clear, all children struggle with aggression. It’s a natural impulse and not one that needs to be pathologized. Aggressive behavior is triggered by a variety of causes, ranging from frustration and anxiety to more serious concerns.

Whatever the root cause of your niece’s behavior, she is clearly acting out, in part by bullying your sons. She lies, steals and humiliates them. According to your sons, she also tortures animals. This last behavior is something that can be an indicator of deeper psychological troubles.

I don’t know enough about this child to be able to determine whether she’s a danger to your sons, but you clearly believe this to be the case. So there are two issues, moving forward. The first has to do with deciding under what conditions you feel comfortable allowing her to play with your boys. Do they need casual supervision? Strict supervision? Or do you need to impose a break, until her behavior toward them improves?

This leads to the second issue, which is whether to broach this concern with the girl’s parents. Here’s where I have the most questions. If your niece’s concerning behaviors are clear and obvious to “each of us in the family,” where are her parents? To what extent are they supervising and/or disciplining the child? What boundaries are they setting? What boundaries does the family in general set? And why, exactly, do you feel you can’t speak to her folks? (Golden Rule this scenario. If one of your sons had tortured an animal in front of younger cousins, wouldn’t you want to know about it?)

Actually, scratch that. I understand exactly why you’re reluctant to bring this up. It’s something of a taboo to speak about another child’s behavior in this era, in which so many parents judge themselves by the conduct of their kids. This is also family, so there’s a powerful incentive to avoid conflict. So I get that it’s incredibly touchy, especially because your niece is already a kid whose behavior around gender stands out.

But it’s important to get a sense of where the child’s parents stand on all this, the extent to which they recognize their child’s behaviors as destructive, and/or are even aware of them. This will no doubt affect your decision-making in regards to when and how your boys play with their older cousin.

Aggression is an inborn impulse. But acting out aggression is usually symptomatic of internal psychic struggles.

Also, remember: You’re this child’s aunt, not some distant relation or stranger. Your concerns aren’t just about her “character.” They’re about her behaviors. In bringing this up, I’d stick with discussing the specific behaviors that trouble you, and avoid characterizing her more broadly. It goes without saying that you should be as loving and respectful as possible.

Aggression is an inborn impulse. But acting out aggression is usually symptomatic of internal psychic struggles. In the case of your niece, these may have something to do with her frustrations around gender. But ultimately I’m not sure how much the causes matter.

I don’t know the nature of your relationship with your niece’s parents, but I hope there’s room inside it for you to raise these concerns and to hear what they have to say, accepting that they might see things differently.

It may also be that you, and the rest of the family, are using the idea that she’s “going through a phase,” or that she’s struggling with gender identity issues, as a way of avoiding having this discussion.

I’d strive to be candid. Because the other option—talking about them rather than with them—may result in the same message coming across via your behavior (i.e., avoiding contact with your niece, or insisting on supervision). These indirect forms of communication could come across as passive aggressive and thus complicate a more direct exchange down the line.

I wish you patience and courage,

Steve

Author's note:Wow, is this a complicated question. My wife and I have both struggled with it over the past few years. Candor is always the best policy. But parents get so defensive about their children. (And by parents, I include myself.) Any advice from fellow parents is much appreciated, in the comments section below. And feel free to send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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