Friday, April 6, 2007

HTT, I'm starting to dislike my friend's daughter; what can I do?

Dear HTT,

My friend has a nine-year-old daughter who I am really starting to dislike. The daughter is intelligent, mature, and respectful in her dealings with me, but her interactions with her mother are something different.

The daughter interrupts conversations, sometimes just making loud noises if she doesn't have anything to say. If there's a plan to be somewhere and the daughter is involved somehow, they will be late. I've been there when the daughter dawdles, saying she forgot to feed the hamster, or she needs to go to the bathroom, etc. while keeping a roomful of adults waiting. Last month a dinner out was ruined because the daughter not only needed to visit the bathroom three times over the course of the evening, she required her mother to go with her and each visit took a minimum of 20 minutes. The daughter also speaks disrespectfully to her mother, talking to her as if she is stupid. The last time she did this, I did intervene, and I told the girl that I thought what she said was a really mean thing to say to her mother. The girl's response was that she "...didn't care, that [she] wanted to make her mother miserable."

The girl's mother is a very caring, gentle and good person, mother and friend. The family also lost everything in Katrina, and are trying to rebuild their home. I can see my friend struggling with everything that is already going on in her life, so seeing her treated badly by her child...well, you can imagine.

I'm finding myself bowing out of plans that involve the daughter as I'm finding it increasingly difficult to disguise my dislike of her. Is there something else I can do, either something that will make the kid bother me less or something I could/should say? Since the bad behavior is directed at the mother and not me, I've been thinking it's inappropriate to get in the middle. What do you think?

Loyal Fan of the Advice Goddess

Dear LF,

Thanks for writing and for reading my column so faithfully!

I have six nieces and nephews and some very good friends with children. So I know that even the best kids can be trying sometimes. Just like adults! And no matter how charming a friend’s entire family unit may be, there are still times when you just want an adult conversation sprinkled with a few choice curses and a gin and tonic. Definitely not kid friendly.

But the behavior you describe sounds more serious than the occasional temper tantrum or back talk. I’m curious; did you know this family pre-Katrina? I wonder how much of the girl’s behavior might be a result of hurricane-related trauma she’s experienced. I imagine that losing everything at that age (or at any age) could unmoor a person. Here’s an excerpt from an article about the kinds of behavior child victims of Katrina have been exhibiting in school:

"Reaction to Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent Hurricane Rita has varied according to age. Younger children tended to exhibit internalizing behavior such as fear, behavior regression or apathy. Most teachers were somewhat prepared for these reactions. However, many teachers were not expecting the externalizing behavior seen in middle school and high school-aged children. They hadn’t expected to witness aggressive, angry behavior or the tension and violent incidents that developed."

Another article went on to list some behaviors that could be expected of children who had been affected by Hurricane Katrina, even two years later:

• Extended periods of depression (loss of interest in activities, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, inability to experience moments of joy, profound emptiness)

• Inability to respond to comfort and rejection of support

• Purposeful withdrawal from friends, loss of sociability

• Destructive outbursts

• Inappropriate/illegal behavior

• Decline in school performance, refusal to attend school

So is it possible this kid is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder? Or that she’s lashing out because of the chaos that must surely accompany the rebuilding of their house and their lives?

Or, then again, for all I know, maybe she’s just a brat.

But in either case, I don’t think you can get away with a direct intervention aimed at the daughter. If you and your friend are close and if your relationship can withstand an above-average level of candor, you might be able to tell her that you’re worried about her and her daughter. Maybe something along the lines of “I’ve noticed that little Emma seems angry lately. Is she having a tough time in school/with all the change in her life/etc.?”

If that feels uncomfortable, you might just have to avoid going on any mother-daughter outings with them for a while. When you invite your friend to socialize, be clear that you need adult time with her. And hope that her daughter’s just going though a phase.

Let me know how it works out.