Q. I've been baby-sitting my 12-year-old granddaughter for years, first because my son and his wife were working, and then because they got a divorce after she had an affair.
That was two years ago. My son has had primary custody ever since, and the child's mother now lives 80 miles away. She calls her daughter every day, but she has to work several jobs and is a reservist, so she can't always see her every other weekend. This must really hurt because my granddaughter told me that Mother's Day is her least favorite holiday.
The child loves people, learning and school and is a high honor student. She also likes to socialize, read, work at the computer and listen to that horrid music. She is so busy she almost seems hyperactive.
I know she loves and trusts me and we still have fun together, but lately she's been awful with me. She is often bored when I'm around, she doesn't want me in her room, and she has shoved me twice, with her hands on my shoulders, when she was angry.
If she's shopping with me, all is fine -- as long as we are shopping for her -- but when we go to the grocery store she flies down the aisles so she can finish quickly and she speaks quite rudely to me. My children and my other grandchild have never treated me that way.
I got some books about difficult children from the library and decided that maybe I didn't have a huge problem, but in the back of my mind I worry. My son saw a counselor after his divorce -- he was broken up by it -- but my granddaughter did not. Do you think she should? I seem to remember my daughter going through a rowdy time in junior high, but I was younger then. I am too OLD for this now, but I will not quit!
A.You have the right attitude.
No one should give up on a child, especially a 12-year-old who is wrestling with the aftermath of a divorce.
Even the most amicable breakup upsets a child and it can take five years or even longer for the hurt to heal.
Your granddaughter's rudeness and impatience tells you that she still has a way to go, and hormones only make her behavior worse. She gets angry with you simply because she feels safe with you. She knows you will never abandon her, no matter what she does or says.
The next time she explodes in public, don't get mad or act hurt. Just tell her that you know that household shopping can be boring, and it's fine if she wants to sit in the car and wait. This is a polite way to give a timeout to a 12-year-old without having a scene.
That night, when she is calm and contrite, have a long and soulful talk. Tell her, frankly and gently, how much you love and accept her, and how well she handles her life, most of the time. Then gently lay your hand on her forearm while you tell her how sorry you are that she gets unhappy and angry, and how much it hurts you when she's mean to you or pushes you or embarrasses you in public.
No matter how stoical she looks while you talk, her arm will stiffen if you go too far too fast, and you'll know that it's time to ask her how she would handle things if she were the grandmother and you were the child. A young teenager has a hard time putting herself in any shoes but her own unless someone teaches her to be more empathetic.
Talk to her, too, about having six to eight sessions with a psychotherapist, so she can get rid of all those whys and what-ifs that have been rattling around in her head since the divorce.
A psychologist or a clinical social worker could also evaluate your granddaughter to see if she is super-busy because she's that sort of person, or if she's keeping herself busy to cover up depression. This is an important distinction to make.
For an excellent overview on the issues your granddaughter is facing, read "Helping Children Cope With Divorce" by Edward Teyber (Jossey-Bass; $17.95). You will learn a lot.
Questions? Write to Box 15310, Washington D.C. 20003, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org