Tell Me About It

Niece cares for her baby sibling at the expense of her social life

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

My sister and her husband had a baby. They have two older kids ages 17 and 14. The 17-year-old, “Nicole,” is on the shy side and we’ve always had a good relationship. The baby is 6 months, and when I hear Nicole talk about the baby, it almost sounds like her baby, not her parents’. Nicole is responsible for the baby at least three nights a week from the time she gets off school to about midnight, when my sister’s shift ends. Nicole also watches the baby quite a bit on the weekends because the 14-year-old is heavily involved in athletics.

Nicole seems to like it, but has also confided in me that she’s turned down social stuff because she was baby-sitting. Nicole also said from time to time her homework suffered, but she’s not too worried about it.

This is Nicole’s senior year of high school and instead of hanging out with friends she is babysitting. I think this is unfair, and I think Nicole gets overwhelmed, but I don’t think she knows how to tell my sister and brother-in-law that. Can I do anything to help?

— Confided In

You can encourage Nicole to stand up for herself. She’s certainly going to need it. And if she’s caving completely to her parents’ demands, then she’s getting a late start at developing self-determination skills.

But you also don’t want to be just another person cutting in on Nicole’s autonomy. So, draw her out. When she says “she’s turned down social stuff” to baby-sit, you say, “Does that bother you?” or, “Would you rather be out with friends?”

If the answer is yes, then: “Have you said that to your parents?”

If the answer is no, then assure her it’s OK to articulate what she wants and needs. Period — it’s not just about parents and siblings and babysitting.

If the answer is yes, then ask how her parents responded to that.

If she says they responded by not budging, then ask her: “How do you feel about that — do you think it’s appropriate?”

If she expresses unhappiness with their response, then ask: “What do you think you’ll do about that?”

If she expresses qualms about doing anything, then be encouraging on your way to butting out. “That’s your prerogative. You’ll be on your own soon, though, so give some thought to how you’ll handle something like this when it’s not your parents asking.”

This isn’t a script, it’s the demonstration of a point — that you can discuss this with her without actually telling her what to think or do (except the assurances here and there of what’s possible).

The way I’ve laid out the questions, at any given time Nicole can express that she prefers babysitting, or that she shares her parents’ values and sees it as her place/duty/honor to pitch in with the family responsibilities. Which is fine — the important thing here isn’t that Nicole parties with friends, but that Nicole at 17 and graduating soon is at least on the cusp of being able to speak for herself.

© 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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