Dear Carolyn: I set up time to hang out with my 14-year-old niece, who is very sweet and also has been getting in trouble — skipping school, lying to family, etc. She reminds me so much of myself at her age. I figure I can relate to her in that regard and try to share what I know now that I'm decades older.
Since this hangout is coming up soon, any tips on how to make it comfortable for her to open up to me, or how to start getting through to her about the path she's on? Is talking/listening to her how I would have wanted someone to talk/listen to me at that age a good enough approach?
Heart-to-Heart: Worth a try, certainly. But with strong caveats: She is not you, no matter how strong the resemblance, and your knowing now what you needed to hear then doesn’t mean you would have listened then.
Err on the side of listening. That way she can tell you, in her own way, what approach she’d welcome right now.
Re: Teenager: Decide ahead of time how to handle if she says, "Don't tell my parents," because if she discloses anything that shows she's in danger, you cannot keep her confidence. Breaking her trust will do far more damage if she thinks what you're saying is private and you cannot keep quiet about what she says.
Because she reminds you of yourself, be very careful that you're not substituting your feelings for hers. Be careful about criticizing her parents or choosing sides. Whatever you say might be repeated as, "Aunt says you're an idiot for not letting me juggle knives."
Re: Heart-to-Heart: Your description of your niece as "very sweet" combined with her behaviors seems incongruous; in my experience, rebellious teenagers tend to be sullen and taciturn.
Either way, there may be something deeper going on. Just for example, skipping school would make sense if she was being badly bullied. Or something else might be the culprit. Just keep your ears open. Don't be afraid to ask questions, but be ready to back off if she puts her shields up.
— Ears Open
Ears Open: You’re probably right, but I do think “sweet” and boundary-pushing can coexist, for what it’s worth. Different faces for different people, for example, or self-destructive choices vs. angry ones.
Re: Heart-to-Heart: If you're driving someplace together, then try broaching tough topics in the car. There will be fewer distractions, and it makes it okay to avoid eye contact since it's not a face-to-face confrontation. Walking together can have the same effect. It's just a very different dynamic than eyeing each other across a table.
Driving: So true, thank you. The cross-table grilling is difficult for a lot of people, not just teenagers. Meanwhile, walking (or hiking or gardening or cooking or jogging together) can also open people up more to conversation. Thanks for chipping in.