Question: My family consists of 20-plus people. Every Thanksgiving we gather at my sister's house and Christmas at mine.

Our niece, who is divorced, has three children, but two are adults so they only show up later to snack. Her youngest is under 10 so she brings him, and if she has a boyfriend at the time, she asks if it's OK to bring him.

I am getting tired of meeting these guys only to find out she is no longer with them and/or they have hurt her. How do I gently tell her I no longer want to meet or have these short-term boyfriends in my house?

Answer: While I sympathize fully with the impulse to insulate yourself from this pain (her emotional pain, your pain in the butt), I'm not really worried about you, or the other 17-ish people who are holiday bystanders to this chaos. My worry stands with the son who has no say in what for him is the daily presence of an ultimately transient figure who eventually dumps on his mom.

I also feel for the niece, though she at least has the power to help herself. Here's hoping she wakes up and uses it.

In these situations, one of the strongest forces of love and stability is an extended family that acts as a safe place, a patient example, a steady source of compassion where put-downs too often preside. No matter how you phrase it, nixing the boyfriends will come out as a request that she keep her trash out of your house, and that's not building her up.

You also can't know when one of these boyfriends will become the one who stays.

For the sake of her emotional health and her son's, show them what good treatment feels like and what the word "home" represents.

E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.