Q&A: Helping neglected child

Well, that was a vastly longer break than I thought I was going to take! Sorry about that.

Here's a question to twist your head around from Anonymous, who is not a parent yet:

"I have a cousin. Quick background: my mom is one of 4. She had a fairly screwy childhood, falling down drunk mother, very angry father, lots of WASP-y upper middle class pressure, etc. She is the oldest and then her sister, then 2 brothers. Her mother admitted that she never really liked my mom's sister, who we'll call...Q. Q had a hard time growing up, obviously, and a hard time being an adult. She's now married to a guy, J, who is just not very bright. The trouble is this: they adopted a boy, G, from Guatemala when he was 9 months old. Prior to that, G basically lived in a crib and was fed just formula. When they brought him home he couldn't even sit up.

Now G is 12 and we are all very, very worried about him. His parents are completely incompetent. I know I sound like a judgmental bitch, but it's horrid. My parents weren't exactly terrific either, and I worry that G will have some of the troubles I did, but since he is a boy he is less likely to turn violence inward. He is already getting into fights, running away from his mother in malls, getting in trouble in school for being restless, etc. His parents are just terrible, and always have been, about setting any limits and having any boundaries. They often don't do basic things like having dinner and bedtime at a certain time. They do things that indicate that they don't really want to spend time with him--for example he stays with cousins on Christmas Eve, and in the summer when family visits they don't keep track of him and just let him wander wherever he wants, which has led to some serious trouble with another boy--throwing bikes off the pier, etc. Their assumption if family is in town is that someone else will watch him, and half the time they don't know where he is. Basically, they expect others to parent for them. His mother is VERY manipulative and narcissistic : when my grandmother was dying, she swore G to secrecy about their kitten having fleas, b/c she knew others wouldn't want fleas around a dying woman. She told my aunt the other day that it was "really sad" that G wouldnt have presents under the tree-b/c she hadn't gotten any. There are thousands of examples.

So what can I do to support him? I am really worried about the kid. He is very sweet some of the time, and although he sometimes treats me like crap when he visits (he does that w/ the ppl who are taking care of him) I always enjoy seeing him and he seems to respond to boundaries, consistent meal and bedtimes, etc. But he doesn't get that at home. He lives in an area with a number of gangs and I am really worried about his future. I fear that he will become very self-destructive or get caught up in some really bad behavior. Honestly, I just want him to survive adolescence more or less intact so he can start processing all of this madness. There is a small chance his mother could be persuaded to send him to some sort of small nurturing boarding school, and I'd love to take him in 1.5 years when I graduate from college and start grad school but that's probably not realistic--I'll be 26 and he'll be 13 and I'm not sure it would work! I would really, really appreciate any advice on supporting him throughout the next 6 years as well as general advice on dealing with the situation."

Wow. This is a big ball of wax and I'm not even sure where to start.

One thing it does make me think about is all the emails and conversations I've had over the years with people who've said something like "My parents were so horrible that I really have no model for how to do this, so I'm just trying to do my best." And they feel inadequate. This it what I know:

Your best is important. You do not have to be perfect, but you have to try. And if you're trying and you make mistakes, then you try to fix them and stay connected to your kids. You all are doing that, and it's good.

What hurts me most about G's situation is that his parents don't seem to care that they're neglecting him, or even realize it. So he's being trained to think that he doesn't matter and his needs aren't important enough to be met.

If the goal is "to survive adolescence more or less intact so he can start processing all of this madness" (a worthy goal) then he needs to know that what's happening to him isn't right, so he has an alternative to assess against.

I don't know if you could just talk to him straight out about it, cousin to cousin, and talk about it as a family problem that you had to deal with and that he has to deal with, too. But make him aware that it's not normal. Call it out, at least for him, like we were talking about calling bullying bullying.

And I wonder if it's possible to get him some kind of support in his local area. Is there a Boys and Girls Club near him? Or a religious institution near him with a youth group that would reach out to him?

And could you become a pen pal for him. Kids need hugs and food and the basics, but they also need someone to take them seriously and listen to their problems and listen through the rehash of the movie they just saw and just be there. That's something you could do in letters or by email or Skype or any of the other ways we communicate. It might be a little awkward at the beginning if you haven't had an established relationship, but it's worth pursuing.

Does anyone else have ideas of how Anon could support G to help him get through the next few years? Or how she could think about his future? It doesn't seem like he's going to get any help from his parents in figuring out a next step after high school. Has anyone been in a similar situation? What would have helped you most?