Thanks, but no thanks: Dealing with unsolicited parenting advice graciously and non-defensively

Well, it’s that time of year again.

No, I’m not referring to the holiday season, with its tidings of gladness, good cheer, and festivity.

I’m referring to the season of awkward family encounters.

Ah, the time of year parents dread most. That annual occasion when well-meaning parents, grandparents, in-laws, uncles, and third cousins twice removed all get together to make stilted conversation and offer unsolicited advice on how to raise your little ones. 

I’ve had several families express frustration, resentment, and helplessness about how to handle these kinds of encounters in the upcoming weeks of merriment. Through our resulting conversations, I articulated the following three-step approach to responding productively to intrusive and unwanted advice on parenting (although truly, these could be used to address intrusive and unwanted advice on anything, really!). Enjoy!

Find your empathy

As a therapist, I strive to adopt the approach that everyone is doing the best they can at all times. This means that even when someone is doing something that feels upsetting or hurtful, they are most likely not doing so with the deliberate intention to upset or hurt.

In order to come from a place of empathy, we must assume the basic humanity and goodwill of everyone we encounter.

Grandparents and other older relatives can start to feel obsolete in an ageist society that no longer sees them as useful. Perhaps they are offering advice to bolster themselves against feeling worthless. If this feels possible to you, perhaps it will soften your heart when you hear whatever outdated or misguided words of wisdom that accompany this painful phase of life transition.

It can also be difficult for people to witness the discomfort that manifests when the rubber meets the road of messy parenting moments. Heck, it’s uncomfortable for the parents and kids too! In the face of discomfort, people do all kinds of awkward things: tell jokes, try to fix things, make weird noises, or head to the kitchen to see if some dishes really ought to be washed right now. Whatever the reason, there’s no need to let their discomfort become (or exacerbate) your discomfort.

Don’t forget that in the midst of all of this, there’s one person who needs empathy even more urgently: you! Yes, at moments like these, we can often feel that our vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and uncertainties are being paraded around for all to see. It’s nerve-jangling and can put us on the defensive.

However, these are also moments to be careful and proceed gently; defensiveness only begets defensiveness in return. Resist the urge to defend or justify your approach, or to discredit the proposed alternative (and its spokesperson too, while we’re at it); this is the number one trap parents fall into. What to do instead? Take a mindful moment, inhale slowly and release, and remind yourself of your own basic humanity and goodwill. You are doing the best you can. And instead of getting defensive…

Get curious

The truth is, you are under absolutely no obligation or pressure to defend your parenting practices or attack another’s; you’re not on trial, nor is your parenting. Instead, I opt for the “tell me more” approach. This three-word gem is a therapist’s best tool, and I offer it here for parents to use liberally as a way of transforming a perceived attack into a simple conversation. 

Tell me more.

“Tell me more” can be augmented with “how” and “what” questions to gather more information and express curiosity about the person’s advice:

  • How did you learn about this approach?
  • How does it work?
  • How does it change a child’s behavior?
  • What values does this approach communicate?
  • What has your experience been in using this approach?
  • What do you like best about it? What do you like least about it?
  • What influence does this approach have on the parent-child relationship?
  • What are the long-term outcomes of this approach?

What I love about this technique is that it turns the tables on the awkward advice giving, and appropriately so. If someone comes to you with what they think is a better idea of how to do something, the burden rests on them to explain convincingly why this is the case. And who knows – they may happen to make a sound argument for their suggestion, and a solid parenting gem might come out of one of these encounters!

So, let them try and convince you…about time outs, spanking, sleep training, weaning, potty training, or anything else their heart desires. Gather all the information you can about their wisdom on the subject. And then…

Defer to a higher authority

Even though others can and will certainly offer feedback on various aspects of your life (including but not limited to your parenting skills), they most certainly do not have the final say in whether or not you accept and implement that feedback.  Once your fact-finding mission appears to have come to its natural ending, you can wrap it up with the following gem of a conversation concluder:

“Thanks so much for the advice. I’ll bring it up with my (pediatrician/parent consultant/spouse).”

That’s right. When it comes to decisions related to parenting, your responsibility is to gather all the information you can, then, in concert with your co-parent, make the best decision for your family. Your relatives and friends, while well-meaning and important, will never have the last word. This fact should not be surprising, nor should it be delivered in a  shaming way. It’s just the way things are.

Hopefully these three tips will help guide you through the coming onslaught of advice and holiday spice blends with grace, poise, and no small amount of confidence. Happy everything to those who celebrate.

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Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track.

Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!

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