Q. I'm having a hard time being around my brother's 13-year-old—she's always yelling at her little sister, who is a very nice girl. Do you have any advice?
A. Keep in mind that kids often think screaming is the only way to get their siblings to listen. Now I know I get in trouble with some of my readers for saying it's okay for extended family members to correct children when they're acting out, but I'm holding firm. Just don't lecture—that never works. Instead, invite your niece out for hot chocolate and tell her you've noticed she often seems frustrated with her sister and you'd like to know why. Then say that as long as she yells, she'll just keep being reprimanded and no one will see her side of the story. Also ask about specific times and places her sister completely angers her, explain that it's okay to be angry but not mean, and help her make a plan for how she can go to an adult for assistance instead of losing her cool. And you don't want to end on a heavy note, so bring up something easier to talk about—maybe who's her favorite guy in Twilight.
Q. My 15-year-old daughter says kids at school are calling my 12-year-old son "gay boy," "queer boy," and so on. How can I help him?
A. First, let me say how much I hate that so many kids equate the word "gay" with something they can ridicule. Second, you should take a moment to credit yourself for raising an empathetic daughter who broke the kid code of silence and dared to tell her parent something bad. Next, reach out to your son and say, "Your sister told me people at school are making fun of you. I'm really grateful she came to me because whether it's bothering you a little or a lot, I want to check in with you about it. And I want you to know it's okay to repeat the exact words they said." The idea is for him to express his feelings (if he's not comfortable talking, he could draw or write). Then you should decide which school administrator would address the problem most effectively and arrange a meeting for the three of you. Reassure your son that he's never going to be alone, he is brave for confronting the issue, and you love him unconditionally.
Q. When I leave my boys, 9 and 11, with my mother she doesn't have any control over them. What should I do?
A. I think you need to do three things: 1) In front of your mother tell your sons in no uncertain terms that she's in charge while you're away. Ask them to repeat back to you what you just said so there's no room for misinterpretation. 2) Have your mom explain in her strongest, firmest voice two specific behaviors she wants them to change. 3) Conclude by assuring your sons that you'll be getting a report of how they did, and that there will be specific consequences for noncompliance, like doing chores at your mother's house. Then back off so your mother and your boys can finally drop their power struggle and enjoy the best of what a relationship with a grandparent can be.
Originally published in the February2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.