Care and Feeding

My Rebellious Teen Niece Is Leading Our Younger Daughters Astray

Every time they hang out, my kids come back sullen and grouchy.

A teen girl in cool glasses smokes.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by AleksandrYu/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My brother and sister-in-law have two daughters, and we have two daughters as well.
All are within four years of each other’s ages and have pretty much grown up together. The four girls usually spend weekends and holidays together, with our respective families stepping up to handle childcare/carpool if one set of parents can’t. My oldest niece, “Erica,” is now 14, and she is really struggling. She got in trouble at school at the beginning of this year for sending nude photos, and again for vaping in the school bathroom. Her language has devolved to frequent cursing, sarcasm, and negativity directed at whoever happens to have gotten on her bad side that day. I know this can be a normal part of adolescence, and I really want to keep Erica close, as I also know that social support and belonging is crucial to helping teens navigate these hormone-filled years.

But here’s the problem: Whenever my two daughters spend time with Erica, they adopt her attitude for at least 24-to-48 hours afterwards, and sometimes longer. They are sullen, grouchy, rude, and uninterested in anything except screen time after they come back from hanging out with her. Once they have some time away from her, they go back to their usual baseline (certainly some grouchiness as is normal in all tweens, but nothing like Erica’s behavior—though we did have one incident where our older daughter, who is 12, was caught with a vape cartridge she got from Erica). My husband absolutely hates this and wants to cut way back on the visits with Erica. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to communicate to Erica that we are abandoning her when she’s going through a rough patch. My husband calls her behavior “contagious,” and it frustrates him that I insist on getting the kids together, especially because there is a history of substance abuse in his family and he is extremely sensitive to the topic.

Should we cut back on the visits? And if we should, how would we do so without excluding Erica’s younger sister? What should we say if our daughters ask why we don’t see Erica as much? Is there a way to support Erica while still shielding my daughters from the behavior Erica is engaging in? Please advise.

—Unsure Aunt in Tennessee

Dear Unsure Aunt,

It seems to me that you and your husband are operating at cross-purposes and that if you accede to his wish to keep your daughters away from Erica—whom your daughters love, and whom you love and don’t want to abandon—a whole host of other problems are going to crop up. Of course he hates that his daughters act the way they do for that brief period after spending time with their older, classically rebellious/difficult cousin. Everyone hates being around rude, sullen, generally unpleasant teenagers. Luckily, it usually passes once they get through that awful age, as long as they have the support and steady love of the adults they can count on to be around them, as you yourself seem to wisely recognize. And of course, it may be worth gently reminding your husband that there is every chance his own angels are going to start behaving “badly” independent of their cousin—quotation marks because what you’ve mentioned about Erica’s behavior seems to be on the lower end of the possible teen badness scale—once they hit 14, and that he might have to work on strategies for coping with it.

The point you make about the substance abuse history in your husband’s family is interesting: I am guessing that Erica’s vaping (presumably we’re talking tobacco?) seems to your husband a possible preamble or precursor to more serious drug-taking, and that her behavior is triggering to him because of that. But this is a conversation worth having with him, and it’s a trigger worth his scrutiny, because again, there is no guarantee that your own two daughters won’t go through a sullen, sarcastic, rebellious, generally obnoxious phase. If he overreacts to it, I guarantee it will make things much worse.

As you explore all this with your husband, I would also—if I were you—not dig in your heels but be open to compromise. That compromise should not take the form of excluding Erica from cousin get-togethers, which would be cruel. It might take the form, however, of not spending every weekend together and of scheduling more activities with the four girls at which adults are present and even an angry, unhappy 14-year-old can let down her guard a little and just have fun. How I wish that some compassionate adult had forced me at that age to get outside and run around, swim, or otherwise just still be a kid and let go, at least for a little while, of all my angst and misbegotten attempts to act like a grownup!

— Michelle

More Advice From Slate

A couple of weeks ago our 18-year-old son had a newer friend, “Ben,” over for the weekend. We had already begun to suspect there might be more than friendship to this relationship, and unbeknownst to our son, my husband caught the boys fooling around in the hot tub one night during Ben’s visit. We haven’t spoken to our son about this because we do not want to make him uncomfortable about his sexuality. How can we let him know that we support him, love him, and accept him no matter what (and that we like Ben and know that he and Ben are more than friends)?