Dear Savvy Auntie,

Originally spotted in our Savvy Auntie forums, we thought it required some expert advice from our Dear Savvy Auntie columnist, Natalie Garfield.

I am here in need of some advice about what my role would be in my nephew's life. He is 6 years old and about to start first grade. He is the light of my life, and we are very close. I find him to be incredibly warm, charming, thoughtful, hilarious and brilliant. Even from infancy, his intellectual ability has far exceeded other children his age. He was talking in sentences and memorizing songs well before his 3rd birthday.

Now at the age of 6, he knows a great deal of multiplication tables, easily performs addition and subtraction in his head and is reading independently. I would say in most academic areas, he is at least 1 year ahead of most children his age.

He is also very charming and relational. He's thoughtful and convinced me to buy our grandfather (his great-gpa, my gpa) a birthday gift when we went to pick up a card. He is always pointing out gifts his sister would like. Just this weekend, he apologized to me for breaking my swim googles when I wasn't around without any prompting by an adult. I also see him quickly and easily connecting with other children his age, though my observations of his social interactions have been limited.

However, ever since pre-K, his teachers have had a VERY hard time with him behaviorally. He does not follow the rules or respond to simple instruction in school, and he often has temper tantrums and cannot control his anger when asked to do something he does not want to do.

He has a very difficult home life as his parents are very unstable and fight with one another constantly. The other day he used the F word, and when I asked him where he had heard that word, he told me that his mommy and daddy use that word with one another in front of him. My brother used to be an alcoholic, and has had one domestic violence arrest. His mother, who was very young when he was born, is very unstable, angry, manipulative and self-absorbed.

Thankfully, my nephew is also surrounded by very positive influences in that he has my parents and my grandparents who adore him. He also has me, my other brother and his wife (so 2 aunts and 1 uncle). We are a very close family, and I spend at least a day per month with my nephew even though I live 90 minutes away.

Just recently, his mother took him to a doctor's appointment (I am assuming a psychiatrist or psychologist) where he was diagnosed as autistic. I have been very annoyed and angry since hearing this news. Now, if I did agree that he was autistic, it wouldn't change a thing about my heart for him, and I would love him and support his parents as they sought out the best way to love and support him on that journey. However, in my experience of him, he has zero autistic symptoms. I see his acting out at school as his externalizing of the anxiety he feels at home. I feel that he most needs affection and consistency and that he has never learned a constructive form a discipline, such as "no, buddy we can't play video games right now because you haven't done your homework." The only "discipline" he receives at home is yelling and punishment. Therefore, when teachers kindly remind him of the rules, he doesn't know how to respond and gets angry for not being able to do what he wants.

He is also very often ignored at home. He and his sister play in their rooms or in the living room alone often while my sister-in-law watches TV or browses Facebook in her room. So he is fairly autonomous most of the time, but then yelled at when he does something wrong. It's a very confusing world for him, and my heart hurts at how this is affecting him.

I am needing advice about what my role is in this little life. I have considered emailing his school counselor (I am acquainted with her because her husband was one of my favorite teachers in high school). It breaks my heart that he will be sent off to first grade with a new label that doesn't fit, and I don't want to see him absorb that label as his identity and have it change the way he feels about himself and his abilities. Has anyone found themselves in a similar situation of feeling the need to bypass the parents for the good of the child?

(I'm sure the first advice will be to talk to my brother and sister-in-law directly. However, I have found them to be very resistant to reason. My brother does not agree that my nephew is autistic, but takes a very passive role in his marriage these days because his wife does whatever she wants no matter what his perspective is. I have made my perspective known to them, but talking to them directly is not an effective pathway to changing this situation.)                                             

What's My Role?

Dear What's My Role?,

Yes, you are in an "overpopulated" group of caring aunties - and grandmothers too.

From your description, I am suspect that the mom made up the diagnosis. No matter, you can be most helpful by playing games and going on outings that offer an opportunity to outline rules and provide rules and reasonable consequences.

The most educational  are those that are " closest in time and closest in time." So, if he dashes and you have previously told him he must walk with you, then say he must hold your hand for one block. If he exceeds the time limit for an activity dock him that amount of time for the next activity. Use timers. I like an hour glass, but you can also use a kitchen timer. By helping him with structure you will be helping him to develop his own inner structure and ways to  deal with the chaos at home and the boundaries at school.

Try to visit him at school to see how his behavior is there. Perhaps the mom will also learn the effectiveness of positive discipline and feel more in control in a positive manner. Remember that being intellectually advanced is often accompanied by emotional and behavioral lack of less advanced development.

I wish you luck and patience as 6-year-olds are still more like 3-year-olds than 8-year-olds in school or in groups. Your love and caring go a long way toward his growing up.

Natalie Garfield

Homepage Photo: pinkypills
Published: August 17, 2016

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