Parents are a major influence in their children’s lives — but other family members like aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, step parents and older siblings can have influence, too. These family members often have a different connection with a teen or young adult and have an opportunity to communicate in a unique way, outside of a parent-child relationship structure. Sometimes it takes another adult role model to get through to a young person, particularly a young person who might be going through a difficult time in his or her life.
While a teen or young adult may look to friends for advice on drugs, alcohol or marijuana, it’s always good to have the counsel of a wise adult to turn to when that young adult doesn’t feel comfortable talking with his or her parents.
If you’re worried about your brother, sister, niece, nephew, cousin, stepson, stepdaughter or grandchild, the first thing to do is talk with him or her. “If you are concerned that there is something going on, be very genuine and very open,” suggests Dr. Jane Greer, Marriage and Family Therapist. Try simple phrases to help him or her open up, such as, “How are things going with your friends?” or “How has life been going lately?” or “You seem a little not like yourself these days — everything okay?”
Let’s say you’re trying to connect with your 15-year-old nephew. First, be aware that it can be extra tricky to get through to teens. “If he’s not ready to talk,” says Greer, “continue by saying, ‘Okay, I’m just going to check in and, of course, you know I’m here.’” And then take the responsibility to make the phone calls, to send the emails and texts, to stop by for the visits so that he not only hears that you’re there, but really feels that you’re there for him and sees it.” It can make a world of difference for a teen to know that you care. That text message or FaceTime call might just come at the perfect time.
It helps to use “active listening” to get past the emotions and on to what’s really bugging him. Active listening works like this: You listen without interrupting (no matter what), then sum up what you heard, describing the emotions for him to confirm. (“It sounds to me like you’re feeling ignored and angry. Is that true?”) In the end, you get clear on his problem and he feels understood. Be sure to remind him that you love him and are there for him whenever he has questions or needs to talk.
What should you do if your nephew confesses to you that he drank or smoked or took a pill? “The first thing is to ask them a lot of questions to collect information,” says Dr. Susan Bartell, psychologist, speaker and author on several parenting books. “‘How much did you drink?’ and ‘Was this your first time?’”
Be sure to explain to your nephew that you need to let his parents know — and why you need to do this.
“Offer to talk to his parents with him, and role play how you’ll tell them,” says Dr. Bartell. “You can say, ‘I love you and I want you to be safe and that’s most important. If I don’t tell your mom or dad there’s a chance you could get in trouble or get hurt or even die, and I’d be responsible for that.’ If they confided in you about their substance use, it’s for a reason — and you need to take it seriously.”
If you’re truly worried and feel there’s a real problem, like substance use or depression, and he hasn’t confessed anything to you — it’s better to be safe than sorry.
“While you want to maintain the trust you’ve developed with him,” says Dr. Bartell, “his safety must come first. Get in touch with his parent to share your concerns and see if there’s any way you can help.” It’s helpful to have specifics to point to, as well. “For example,” says Dr. Bartell, “you could say ‘I’m just wondering, but I noticed John’s grades have gone down, his friends are smoking and he’s acting more disrespectful. And it’s making me worried.’”
No matter what, don’t forget about the influence you hold in a teen or young adult’s life — even if they don’t seem to be interested in you or paying attention, they’re absolutely watching you as a role model. You could make the difference in the choices they make.