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Responding to Unwanted Parenting Advice

Dear Crucial Skills,

My husband and I have four children, two of whom are biological brothers we adopted at ages one and two. One of our adopted sons has severe behavior issues at school and at home. He is now fifteen years old and due to safety issues—wandering around in the middle of the night and threatening us and teachers—has spent much of the past two years in mental health/residential placements outside our house.

My husband’s family frequently questions our actions concerning our son. “Why are we sending him into placement?” “Why is he on medication?” “What are we doing to set our son off?” Although they don’t realize it, they also undermine our authority with our son. For example, he calls them sometimes to intervene when he is not getting his way. We’ve tried to explain to them how destructive this intervention is to our relationship with our son. They see it as trying to help him.

We’re expecting our son to come back home in a couple months and we’re not sure how to approach the situation with my husband’s family. We’ve tried having discussions with them, but our conversations always seem to turn into arguments about our course of action with our son.

Back Seat Parenting

Dear Parenting,

I admire you for making the decision to adopt and deferring to the needs of two brothers who would want to grow up together. I also know a little about your pain. I had to make a decision to remove a child from my home as well. I’ve never cried or agonized more in my life. I can’t think of a role in life where you have to make more profound decisions with more imperfect understanding than that of a parent in your situation. I appreciate the depth of your dilemma and the difficulty of making any kind of decision and then living in peace with it afterward.

I also know what it’s like to have others criticize that decision. When our children were young, I would sometimes sit in smug judgment of neighbors whose children wandered. I was sure that our enlightened approach to parenting could never produce such results. I saw clearly the errors in others’ actions. Then, my kids became teenagers.

Here are some reflections from the wrinkles and gray hair I earned through those years.

Be sure you absorb useful feedback. While others might be dead wrong in their judgments and could be offering pabulum when you need wisdom, it never hurts to look for truth in what they say.

Involve them in the story. If you want to help judgmental family members feel more supportive of your approach, give them a vicarious experience of it. Don’t be defensive. Don’t give them your “answer.” Don’t try to convince them you’ve done the right thing. Just tell them a story about a typical crisis you’ve faced in all its glorious complexity. Then say, “We don’t know if we’ve made the right decision. What would you do?”

It’s easy to judge when you’re defending a single value rather than trading off multiple ones that are inevitably in conflict in your situation. For example, your in-laws might say, “You should be more patient with him!” Patience is a virtue and it’s impossible to argue against the need to be patient, but they may be less likely to be so simplistic if you non-defensively lay out the full story for them. Help them see that it’s not just about patience—it’s about balancing compassion for one child with safety for the others. You have two values to address, not just one.

For example, you might say: “I know we should be more patient. Perhaps you could help me think this through. I know I may not be handling things perfectly. Could I describe a situation I faced and ask for your counsel? On Monday, I walked into the living room and found Cliff with his little brother pinned to the floor with his hands around his throat. Jason’s eyes were wide and terrified. Since then, Jason has wet his bed every night and wakes up screaming most nights . . .”

You get the idea. In telling the story, you need to anticipate every simplistic off ramp they might take and be sure to share enough detail that they understand the fears, frustrations, and failed attempts you’ve been through. If you lay it out fully then pause humbly and ask for their help, you may change their confidence in their judgments. It’s possible this approach won’t eliminate their disagreements with your decisions, but it may soften them.

Get comfortable in your skin. As my wife and I made tough parenting decisions, family and friends judged us as well. Over time, I’ve learned to pause and look inward rather than outward when I feel misunderstood. If, rather than focusing on the injustice of their disapproval, I reexamine my own motives and deliberations, my resentment subsides. If I search my heart and conclude that I’ve made a reasonable judgment based on pure motives, I find my peace in that knowledge. Then I do my best to assume the truth will show itself over time, whether by helping me or them to be smarter, or both. In the meantime, I try to be comfortable that I live in a world where reasonable people can disagree.

Ask for explicit commitments to boundaries. Finally, I support your desire to have some clear “no-no”s for the in-laws. Be sure you and your husband are unified. Have him take the lead in laying out these boundaries. One should be, “Please never discuss concerns with our parenting with one of our children. When you do—even just by responding to his complaints behind our back—it does not change our decision. What it does do is bolster his decision to rebel, making things worse for him. I’m sure that’s not what you intend. But that has been the effect.”

Be sure to end this crucial conversation with a request for commitment and consent to confront noncompliance. “Do you understand why this is important to us even if we’re handling things differently than you think we should? Can we have your commitment to that rule?”

After gaining commitment, follow up with, “May we also call you to discuss it if we’re concerned this has happened? I just want to keep the air clear and be sure Cliff is not playing us against each other. Would that be okay?”

There are no easy answers here, and my advice may be ill informed as I lack some critical information about things you’ve already tried. If so, I am sorry. I truly wish for you the wisdom and peace to bless this young man as much as you can—and to find joy in doing so. You certainly have my love and respect.


P.S. Have you lost a loved one? I received a question from a reader whose husband recently passed away and she’s struggling to respond to insensitive comments about her husband’s death. Have you faced the same or similar problems? If so, what comments were more hurtful than helpful? What comments helped you cope with your grief? How did you respond when someone made a comment that was insensitive or hurtful?

Share your suggestions by responding to my comment on Facebook, or if you can’t access Facebook, e-mail your suggestions to us at with “Commenting on Grief” in the subject line.

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9 thoughts on “Responding to Unwanted Parenting Advice”

  1. Katherine Schindler

    Hi Joseph.

    Responding to Unwanted Parenting Advice article.

    I want thank you for this helpful article how to deal with unwanted advice from parents.

    I have a concern about this portion of the article. You advice that the husband take the lead. I would like your rationale for why the husband should take the lead since there has been strides in gender equality. Shouldn’t that be decided by the couple who facilitates the meeting between the parents and the couple? I feel disappointed that the man slated to take the lead.

    “Finally, I support your desire to have some clear “no-no”s for the in-laws. Be sure you and your husband are unified. Have him take the lead in laying out these boundaries.”


    1. Jenna

      I don’t see this as a matter of gender inequality. His family is the one that is causing the problem and therefore might respond better to the their son than to their daughter-in-law. After all, he is the one they raised, the one that has had the benefit of the parenting skills in which they seem to be so confident. They might be thinking, “What does she know?” Although this wouldn’t necessarily be true for all families, it is likely that he has more influence on them than she does simply by nature of being their son. I am sure that if it were her family instead, the advice would be for her to take the lead in setting the boundaries.

  2. Louise

    As a “critical” family member, I learned a lot from this article. It made me realize that my sister and her husband may have been dealing with a situation that I may not have fully understood!

  3. Heather Kauer

    Joseph – I really aspire to be as humble and zen as you. Great response.

  4. Joseph Grenny

    @Katherine Schindler Katherine – good comment. I may have read more in than I should. The questioner said it was her husband’s family that was critical. I assumed he should not be dumping the responsibility to address concerns on her exclusively – it should be shared or he should take somewhat of the lead as he has the stronger relationship. An least in my opinion!

  5. Joseph Grenny

    That’s impressive, Louise. What a mark of your humility.
    @Joseph Grenny

  6. Amy Buckingham

    As soon as I began reading the Q&A titled Responding to Unwanted Parenting Advice I thought of my personal experiences with similar situations. In these situations the children were inaccurately diagnosed and ineffectively treated. The “treatments” actually made the situations worse and more painful for all. It wasn’t until I found someone familiar with FAS/FASD (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome/Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders) that there seemed to be hope and we began to make progress. This is most often overlooked. I urge anyone experiencing these hard to explain symptoms in children to seek out someone experienced in recognizing and providing guidance to people effected by FAS/FASD and their families. A good reference in which to begin understanding is the
    SAMHSA FASD Center for Excellence. The link is as follows:

    My heart goes out to families struggling with this.

  7. Patsi Maroney

    Hi Joseph, thanks for sharing your personal experience with this devastating “unspeakable” that happens more often than most people realize. I was in the unenviable position of being a single mom and having to remove my 11-year-old “dual diagnosis” (developmentally disabled/psychotic) son from our home when he became physically violent with me and his younger brother (he’s now 29 & doing quite a bit better). I find myself in disagreement with your “involve them in the story” portion of your advice. If I had used that with the critical people in my life, they would have viewed it as “oh goody, she wants even more of ‘my help'” (eek!!). There was not enough safety in our relationship for me to open that door for them, and that was not the time to try & build it.

    I would like to offer an alternative approach to that portion of your advice. Instead of asking them “tell me how you would have handled this”, I used more of the “clarity with my boundaries” approach, saying, “I really appreciate your caring and desire to help. The way you can help me the most is to not openly question my decisions, especially not in front of Johnny. If you’re confused about why I’ve decided something, I would be happy to give you more details at another time & place when Johnny can’t overhear our conversation.” Basically, I had to let go of my expectations that they would agree/support my decisions, even though I thought they “should” when they had the full story themselves.

    Thanks again for all you do; I find your tools incredibly helpful in many aspects of my life. Take care.

  8. bscopes best leadership blogs | RAPIDBI

    […] Responding to Unwanted Parenting Advice […]

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