Care and Feeding

How Do I Get My Niece to Talk to Me?

I’ve long tried creating a relationship, but she seems to want no part of it.

Hands holding out a phone that shows "Aunt" is calling, and the person about to press the Decline button.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two younger siblings and am the aunt to their combined five children. I never married and have no children of my own. My relationship with four of the children is fine; we talk about once a month, I send cards on the holidays, and the children generally keep me apprised of life events via email.

The problem is my niece “Rebecca.” She’s 23 and about a year into her first post-college job. I’ve tried creating a relationship, but she seems to want no part of it. Whenever I call, we talk for a few minutes, then she says she’s busy and has to go. She sends thank-you notes for cards and gifts but otherwise doesn’t initiate communication. On one occasion, she cut our call short after about 15 minutes. I was hurt, so I asked her older sister if something was wrong with her. The sister told Rebecca, who got upset that I had been talking about her, but we never talked about it again (as I didn’t want to upset her further).

It makes me sad Rebecca doesn’t seem to what a relationship with me. Growing up, she was always the most sensitive and introverted of the bunch. I don’t know if it’s something about me that she finds tiring or what, but she seems to really resent my efforts. It’s hurtful. Her mother (my sister) and I are not very close due to a troubled childhood, so I’m wondering whether her mother is bad-mouthing me. What can I do to repair this relationship?

—Aunt in Akron

Dear A.A.,

I’m so sorry that you and Rebecca don’t have the relationship you’d like to have with her. It may be important to note that your niece is at a stage in her life where young people are often evasive with even their closest loved ones, finding themselves busy with jobs and social lives instead. I wouldn’t take her rejection to be personal or intentional, and it may not be her mother’s issues with you that are keeping her distant.

That said, it’s not shocking considering the state of things between you and her mother, as it’s easy for a child to reflect their parent’s animus toward something, whether it was fed to her intentionally or gleaned on her own. You can try and provide your niece with context for your history with your sister, but it seems likely that she’ll continue to be informed by what she has heard from her mom.

Let your niece know that while you understand that your complicated relationship with her mother has not given the two of you the privilege of spending much time together over the years, that you are always there for her whenever she may need you. Don’t impose or try to force things, but be consistent in reminding her that there is someone who loves her in her corner whom she can turn to, and hopefully, in time, she’ll come to know you independently of her mother.

To that end, the best chance at getting closer may come when your niece is herself a bit older. The fact that she was the shy, quiet kid growing up could very well mean that she is still that way today and would hate to land in the middle of an awkward sibling situation. In the meantime, if there is any hope for reconciliation with your sibling, you may want to concentrate your efforts there instead. Wishing you all the best.

—Jamilah