Q. My 14-year-old niece has become defiant and rebellious. She has developed a reputation at school as the leader of the pack. She's often in detention for mouthing off. How can we guide her off this dangerous path? Her father, a screamer who doesn't follow through with discipline, has custody of her and her brother. My sister left her family when my niece was 9, but she's trying to get back into her children's lives.
-- A Reader in New York
A. Peek beneath the mask of a teenager adrift, with neither roots nor wings. What do you see?
"What looks like defiance is a coverup for the hurt and pain that's underneath," says Judy Ford, a family therapist. "If adults address only the anger, defiance and mouthing off, they miss the real issue. Her behavior is a cry for help."
Her father's screaming and inconsistent discipline at home add to the inner turmoil she carries at school.
"Inside, she's still a 9-year-old girl who needs her mommy, and her mommy hasn't been there," Ford says. "If you respond to her tough exterior, you miss the soft little girl inside."
For the long process of healing to begin, the adults in this teenager's life need to create an atmosphere in which she feels they're interested in her concerns -- in which she feels free to talk about what it was like for her mother to leave when she was 9, and what it's like for her to return, Ford says.
"One issue of the teenage years is internal conflicts," says Ford, who teamed up with her daughter, Amanda Ford, then 19, to write "Between Mother and Daughter" (Conari Press, 1999). "If adults can allow for a wide range of emotions, from hate to love, the child understands that she can want her mother one minute and not want her the next."
As teenagers act out within a paradox -- a desire to be independent, and a longing to be secure within the family -- they need stable forces in their lives, experts agree.
"Adolescence is such an unstable time -- the body is changing, the mind is changing," says Michael Riera, educator and co-author of "Field Guide to the American Teenager" (Perseus, 2000). "They need stability around them."
One of the best steps the aunt can take is to be involved in her niece's life, he says. Invite her to dinner, remember her birthday, take her and her friends to the movies. Don't try to be a substitute mom or a disciplinarian, but develop a relationship with the teenager, Riera says.
The aunt can point out her niece's strengths and touch on her misbehavior at school without dwelling on it: "You are a natural leader, but I don't understand why you're heading in this direction." She has heard plenty of lectures, Riera says. Instead, talk to her about her dreams and aspirations.
"All kids need to see that their parents believe in them, but this 14-year-old isn't seeing this," says Riera.
For some kids, negative attention at school is more exciting and more familiar, especially if that's what they're used to at home, says Carol Maxym, author of "Teens in Turmoil" (Viking, 2000). For others, mouthing off makes them feel cool or deflects attention from their academic difficulties.
"Any kid who doesn't have a strong sense of self may not feel safe enough to develop her sense of self by doing the right things -- being diligent, honest, intelligent, respectful," says Maxym, an educational consultant.
If the mother wants to guide her daughter in a new direction, she needs to ask herself whether she's certain she can be a positive influence and how much she's willing to do to pave the way, Maxym suggests.
Among many questions to explore, perhaps with professional help, she says: "Is the mother's attempt to get back into the child's life a solution or part of the problem? What is the child's understanding of why her mother left and why she wants to return?"
Can you help?
Why do school staffs and teachers pick the same kids for everything? We have seven children who are never acknowledged for anything. My 9-year-old's philosophy is why bother to try out for anything because the same kids get picked. A school psychologist agreed that the schools are guilty of this, and my mother says it was the same way 60 years ago.
-- A Mother in Minnesota
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