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Hax: Suddenly, aunt has the role of guardian

| Sunday, April 27, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn:

After the sudden death of my brother and his wife, I'm the brand-new guardian of my 13-year-old nephew. We're both in therapy to adjust to the changes, and the kiddo is in grief counseling with some other kids his age, too.

I lovemy nephew but I'm 29 and hadn't planned on being a parent. I don't have caretaking skills other than the love I lavish on my dog. I'm so worried about damaging my nephew at this tough changing point in his life. (Plus, he's in middle school. His life is awful right now).

You always have great book recommendations — can you recommend anything? We always had more of a mischievous, sibling dynamic (pranks, goofing off, etc.) when my brother was alive, and the new dynamic in our relationship is causing growing pains and sulking, with him telling me that he hates his life.

I get that he's a 13-year-old, and challenging authority is part of that, plus the whoalife changes, and before now, I was the one goading him to break rules, not keep them.

I also would appreciate any kind but concise way to tell people he's not my son. It's painful for him when people call me his mother in public.

— New Guardian

I am so sorry, for both of you — such a stunning loss. That you guys have a loving history is the good news here, and it will carry you through, if you both trust it.

The best resource I can recommend might not be available in your area, but I'll try: Parent Encouragement Program, or PEP, comes highly recommended (www.parentencouragement.org). Your nephew's pediatrician likely can recommend local programs.

A good book that is slightly off-point for the traumatic adjustment you're both making, but is bang on for middle-school agonies, is “Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children” by Michael Thompson, Catherine O'Neill-Grace and Lawrence J. Cohen. It's a great primer on learning not to try to fix everything, but, instead, to understand and recognize when to step in.

Also, if there's any way you can pull this off, consider building into your routine some relief from walking the parental line — some activity you can do that allows you to revert to your mischievous sibling dynamic. Parents swing this in different and personal ways, but it's why you see parents throwing their kids around at the pool, or going around on Halloween in costume, or taking theme-park vacations. Sometimes, you have to play. Neither of you might be ready for this yet, but keep it in mind.

In the meantime: Your stepping in is nothing short of heroic. To quote the AdoptUSKids ad campaign, “You don't have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.” Just be there.

To: Guardian:

And what to tell people who mistakenly call you the parent? “I wish I were. But I'm his aunt and his guardian. And he's the greatest kid on Earth.” Eventually, it'll get through.

— Anonymous

Beautiful.

Email Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com.

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