My sister overdosed. I’m now her 11-year-old son’s legal guardian. He’s been shuffled between living in her broken-down car, various shelters, motels, friends and abandoned buildings. He’s behind academically but bright and polite, despite his crappy life. He’s also very quiet. I can’t figure out what he’s thinking or what he needs and he doesn’t tell me. When I ask questions he doesn’t answer, not even about what he wants to eat for dinner. He just shakes his head or goes to his bedroom and shuts the door. He refuses to go to therapy. Do you have any suggestions for me on how to handle his silences?
Yes. Don’t ask questions. Instead, reassure him. While it may feel right to give your nephew the power of making his own decisions, it’s likely overwhelming. Give him time to adjust to a stable new life full of amazing possibilities. Instead of asking questions, make statements: “This is our home. I’m grateful that you’re here.” And: “I’m available anytime you want someone to listen or if you need help. Together, we can find a solution.”
Notice whether you’re the kind of person who needs a lot of conversation in order to feel close to someone. Trust that emotional intimacy can develop over time by allowing your nephew to be himself, a quiet boy who is slowly healing. Until then, find comfort in his silence. It gives you an opportunity to understand that sometimes silence is an acceptable response.
When you’re cooking, say something that guides him to trust abundance: “I’m trying a new recipe. Take a bite. If you don’t like it, help yourself to something else in the fridge.” Coach him to understand how the household works, too: “Let’s place dirty dishes right into the dishwasher instead of the sink. That way, we don’t have to clean up twice.”
Be someone that champions your nephew’s presence and progress. You’re not his mother and don’t have to be. The truth is, we don’t all need parents. If we did, we would have them. What all children need are caregivers who consistently love, guide and support them. You are already succeeding in these skills. Just keep going.
My girlfriend has been sneaking out at night to meet up with me. Her parents caught her and threatened to put a lock on her door and window. They also took away her phone (we go to the same school so we talk at school anyway). Is this is legal?
Yes, her parents have the right to take away her phone. But if they make good on their threat to lock her into her bedroom at night, Child Protective Services should be notified. While I can understand their frustration with your girlfriend’s behavior, this is a situation ripe for family counseling, not a 19th century punishment. One last thing: What sort of friend are you to encourage your girlfriend to sneak out when you know the trouble it causes? If you care about her, find a way to enjoy your relationship without creating chaos for her and her family.