Managing Others Interactions with Your Child

Parent Question:

I am reaching out to see if you can point me to some resources for approaching parents who are disrespectful to children. I had a parent recently speak really aggressively to E and I didn’t want to react in the moment, and make a misstep. But now I would like to thoughtfully respond to the parent before too much time passes. E observed that a child was not in a class and didn’t have to do what the class was doing. The child’s mom got down in E’s face with her finger and told her she was not the boss of her daughter and how dare she boss her around and tell her what to do and that she’s not allowed to do that, etc.etc. E was cowering and when the mom finally left crumpled into a heap of sobs. Do have any reading material about how to approach other parents on behalf of your child?

Our Response:

Phew that’s so tough I’m sorry that E experienced that and you had to witness it, yuck. Unfortunately there are people in the world that for whatever reason use or attempt to use intimidation to meet their needs. I wish I had a magic bullet for what to say to open their eyes and help them see E as a person deserving of respect but unfortunately I don’t. In my experience engaging with adults who aren’t seeking advice or feedback rarely works which is too bad but leaves you with a lot of open questions.

What do you want E to learn?

That’s the first and most important question. She’s going to learn from you more than she will ever learn from others, so what do you hope she will take away from this experience? If it were my daughter I would want her to know some basic skills for respectfully speaking up to adults when they are not respectfully speaking to her. Unfortunately the adult-child power dynamic means that the child is going to be held to a much higher standard because they are speaking up to a person in power (and people in power can mostly do what they want). I think, as E grows, help her build the skills to say, “I’m sorry you think I have done something wrong. I would be happy to engage you about that, if you would kindly step back, then we can talk it through.” or ,”It seems like you’re having a tough day, would you like a hug, and then we can talk about what you were hoping for?” I write this with all the rage of a mother who thinks it’s absolutely ridiculous that I can and will teach my child to speak very respectfully when this individual is in a position of power and openly hostile. Yet, I know that will be a powerful skill for my child to learn. 

How to help E learn from and process that experience is another open question.

Retelling the story and practicing what she could say is powerful. Practicing with dolls or puppets and letting E play each role could help her. The goal is that she sees the aggressive adult’s perspective too. If she just sees that person as mean she won’t be as able to connect and communicate. If E were a teenager I would say this is her battle and you should coach and support but encourage her to go back and talk with the adult. If she were a preschooler it would obviously be your responsibility as her parent to speak up to the adult. She’s in between, which means you have to consider if E has a role in sharing her feelings and needs or if that’s not a position she should be in, either because of a shallow relationship with this person or another reason. There is significant research that retelling the story and processing more than once is necessary. You should likely at least talk to her about your plan to talk with this adult so she’s learning how you handle this situation. Sometimes adults are hesitant to bring up difficult moments with their children after they have passed but that’s a missed learning opportunity. 

What to do now?

Then I would ask the three questions from Crucial Conversations that help me to ground. What do I want for me, for this individual, and for our relationship? If this is a person you have a deep and regular relationship with it may be possible to give feedback they could hear and maybe internalize. If this is an acquaintance that you’re going to see regularly because of your social group your goals may be different. If this is someone you could avoid, you might consider that as an option. Those questions will drive how you speak up.Before you have the conversation,draft a clear request that you’re willing to ask for. This can be really hard to do but ultimately what  you want this person to do matters and will shape how you approach them. It might be you want them to act a specific way with E and you want to articulate that. In contrast, it might be that you just want them to hear you out and to consider your and E’s perspective. If you want an apology, ask directly for that. 

How to speak up:

When I’ve decided to speak up, these are a few things that have helped me. I try to start with something soft like, “I was reflecting on the interaction between you and E”… or, “I’m not sure what might have been going on for you that day”. The more you can use “I” statements such as, “I feel”… “I need”… “I value”, the better. I find it particularly helpful to talk about values. “I really value in my family talking to children as I would an adult:respectfully, clearly, and calmly.” I  also find it helpful to relate the child to the adult perspective and name openly the feelings, “I know you would never talk to me like that. E was really sad and scared by your harsh tone and words; she was sobbing after you left.”

Unfortunately I don’t know any good resources that talk more in depth about the specific challenge of approaching other parents but the books Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, and Nonviolent Communication are all immensely helpful and focus on adult communication.

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