I recently found out that my 14 year-old niece has started cutting herself. She, obviously, has deep rooted issues as a result of a very unstable and unhealthy home life. How can I be a help to her without stepping on her mother’s (my sister) toes or overstepping my boundaries as her Aunt? -C.B.
It sounds like you are in the difficult position of having information but not being sure about influence. I’m hesitant to give too much advice without knowing more about the family relationships, especially that between you and your sister.
If you have a good, trusting relationship with your sister, I would encourage honesty and simply approach her much as you did this question. You could say something like, “I’m not sure how to go about this, but I have some concerns about (your niece). Could we talk about this?” That may lead you into a helpful discussion where you can be a support to your sister and your niece.
On the other hand, if there is a great deal of tension in your relationship and your sister is not very approachable, I think bringing up your concerns with her may just lead to more conflict. In that case, I would simply make your presence known, making yourself available to be a listening ear, withholding judgment and giving practical aid in a day to day manner. This may lead to an opportunity for you to speak to your sister, based on gaining trust.
If at some point your sister is being neglectful of her daughter and ignoring the behavior, you may need to take a much stronger, but potentially explosive, step. That would be to take along with you another sibling and/or relative to address the issues together, starting with your sister.
As I write, I realize there is so much information I don’t have. My strongest advice is for you to find someone local (a school counselor, a therapist, or pastor) with whom you can discuss the issue in more detail. Your approach depends so much on your relationships and we can explore that in depth in this setting.
Know that you are in our prayers and please write back if you have further and more specific information.
Travis Stewart, LPC