How do I tell my moody 19-year-old niece she has to help out around the house?

Eleanor Gordon-Smith
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy

How do I tell my moody 19-year-old niece that when she comes over to stay she has to help out around the house with chores? The last time she visited, she only appeared for meals, didn’t help with any food preparation nor cleaning up.

Otherwise she’s obsessed with her phone and doesn’t want to chat – her mum says that she will choose when she wants to speak. As her parents are overseas, I get to have her during her uni holidays.

I find her self-absorbed and quite lazy. I have teenagers too, but they know that they have to help out as a member of the family. I know her parents spoil her but I work and can’t/won’t do the same. At the same time, I don’t want her to feel unwelcome because she has nowhere else to go.

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Eleanor says: The problem you’ve got here is that everybody thinks they’re the one doing the other a favour. Teenagers shipped to a relative’s house seldom see themselves as guests falling on others’ hospitality; they see themselves as prisoners bounced to another adult who expects – no, relishes – the chance to see them.

The second problem you’ve got is that she probably doesn’t want to be there. At 19 she’s probably counting the seconds until she’s allowed (or can afford) to be left without a guardian, and in no mood to say “please” and “thank you” to the guardian she’d rather be rid of.

Her bad behaviour might well be a sublimation of that protest. When you’re a teenager you can’t say “no” to much. You don’t have the money or the interpersonal power to do what you want – when your parents tell you to stay with family, you go.

It’s frustrating not to be able to refuse things. When you can’t enact your preferences, sometimes you’ll express them in other ways: eye-rolling, ignoring, retreating, taking advantage of the fact that your emotional demeanour is the one thing you can control. Fine, I’ll go, but you can’t make me have a good time.

I wonder whether she’d take to just being spoken to directly about this. If she’s chafing at being treated like a child, you might get success by talking to her as an adult. “[First name], pick up a tea towel, would you?” You could try making a joke out of it so it feels less like a rebuke – say “I’d love some” when she buys herself a snack; cheerfully say “go on, put the phone away and have a chat”.

If that doesn’t work I’d take her on a walk so you each have somewhere else to look and puncture the illusion that she can’t help but be a delight. Either she knows she’s being rude or she doesn’t; either way you aren’t doing anything wrong to point it out.

You could practice what you want to say first, so you find a clear but gentle tone: “I hope you know you’re welcome here, but it makes me feel taken for granted when you don’t offer to help around the house or think about us in the little ways that we try to think about you. It’s been a hard year for all of us and I want this visit to be fun – do you think you could help by pitching in?”

You could give her space to express adult feelings at the same time as you ask her for adult courtesy. You could acknowledge that she might feel frustrated by the arrangement, or ask her how she feels in a way that genuinely permits an answer.

The fact that she’s used to being spoiled doesn’t mean she’s used to being heard; she might be feared by her parents, or coddled, or babied with presents, none of which actually mean being listened to – and spoken to – as an adult. She might find it a welcome change.

This question has been edited for length


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