How Much Can an Aunt Help?

Q: I’m a 27-year-old unmarried aunt, who tries to help her very overwhelmed sister with a family of six children. I’m writing to you (though I’m not yet a parent), because I want to know realistically, how much I can help this family?

My mother feels that I should stay out of their way, and not make waves, but it is difficult to hear the children’s continual fighting when I come to babysit. I know that I’m no expert in parenting, but it seems that my nieces and nephews are seeing poor role models in my brother-in-law and sister (especially my brother-in-law). Both parents work full-time, and have little energy left by the time they are home.

My brother-in-law in particular can work from 10 to 10 (he is a computer programmer), and can flare up easily, when he returns home. What makes it worse is that you never know what can set him off. The same scene that occurred two nights ago, which didn’t seem to cause him much distress, can aggravate him greatly two nights later. The children are afraid of him, because they don’t know what might bring on the next outburst.

I know from my mother that my sister and her husband have gone for counseling, but when they go to the therapist, my sister usually just gets the blame for all the family problems by her husband.

I understand logically that I can’t just take a magic wand and change things, but what can I do in a small way, when I’m babysitting?

What bothers me even more, is how the 13-year-old boy has resorted to smacking his siblings whenever he is in charge, and can’t stop their fighting. Any suggestions?

A: It is very frustrating and disheartening to see a problematic situation before you, and there is little that you can do to fix negative family patterns. The problem in this family seems to be a global one, affecting all family members.

Most likely, positive statements among family members are at a minimum, as your sister also has a constant concern that her husband might “blow up.” Any concrete and specific words of praise, reflecting the essential good of the children that you appreciate, is a small but essential step that you can take to help.

However, sometimes individuals with limited frustration tolerance don’t like to hear praise of others who “get on their nerves,” so hearing praises of his children may actually irritate your brother-in-law (strange as that may sound). Working with a volatile parent involves trial and error in relation to their responses to anyone’s helping initiatives.

Giving small prizes for good behavior, “the simchah chart” and the “Ahavas Yisrael chart,” are examples of what can be created. These charts reflect the consistency needed to improve one’s character traits and coping mechanisms, in contrast to the children’s father’s enraged and inconsistent responses to his daily life challenges. The 13-year-old will then have a constructive strategy to work with when trying to stop sibling fights.

Again, if your sister and brother-in-law do not feel that you are overstepping your boundaries, doing this can be a positive addition to their daily lives.

The term pachad temidi (continual fear) is used by the Rambam to express character traits that a husband should not cause. Research studies show that children of alcoholic fathers in inner-city homes can better deal with the father who comes home drunk every Saturday night, ready to be violent towards family members, than those who might do this, unexpectedly, when they are drunk twice a year. The children who know that their father will be violent avoid him, or avoid being home, when he first gets home. Not knowing when a parent may exhibit great anger is traumatic in itself.

Whatever consistency and positive energy you can convey towards your nieces and nephews is a continual gift that you can give them. As your sister is attempting to improve the general home situation) and she has not asked for your advice), your role is a limited one.

Hatzlachah in whatever you’re able to accomplish.