Someone is Complaining
about my Child!
Effective Communication Tips for Parents
This article was originally written for use with my family and school consultation services.
If you could use some help with figuring out how this might work for
you and your family, I invite you to give me a call to see how I can help.
You’re a parent – and of course you want the best for your child.You also know your own child better than anyone else who does not live in your home. You know that child better than the neighbors do, better than the rest of your family does, and certainly, better than the school staff does! This is fine, as long as things are going smoothly for your child. You can probably deal with the small stuff – the little things kids do (or don’t do) to irritate others in their world. When more important problems arise, you may still be able to handle them – if you are able to get those other people to work with you to address your child’s behavior.
The challenges arise when others in your child’s life express concerns that you have difficulty handling. Why can’t you get the teachers to really hear your point of view? Why doesn’t the next door neighbor understand that he’s just a kid who made a mistake? Why don’t her grandparents leave you alone to raise your child without their criticism? Do you know how to effectively communicate with these people so that conversations about your child don’t end in conflict, with you feeling frustrated and angry?
Most likely, when others express concern about your child’s behavior or school progress, it’s unlikely to be a result of a dislike for you or your child – at least not at first. How you handle others’ input can make the difference between a productive exchange and one full of anger and hostility that will quickly and negatively impact your child. So, let’s start out assuming that: it’s not personal!!! Keep this in mind as you continue reading and repeat as necessary (with a deep breath!) when you feel like yelling back at me before you’ve read through to the end. Even when it’s a family member being critical, it’s initially about their personal concerns and communication style – most likely, it’s not personal!!! Even if it is or becomes personal, you are best served by acting as it’s not personal!!! (Deep breath!)
First, let’s look at some areas of potential conflict regarding communication about your child. Next, I offer some simple solutions that might be of help in dealing with neighbors, family, and the school. Sometimes, just having a few simple tools might be enough help. If your anger and frustration continue to impact your ability to communicate effectively about your child, you might want to seek professional help for yourself, your child or your family. More about that later.
You remember that sweet infant who charmed everyone? Your job as a parent is to protect and guide that infant into successful adulthood. You’ve done the best you can getting your child to this point, in spite of the many challenges along the way. But, keep in mind, others don’t have your history. What they see (or think they see) in the moment is all they know. They don’t know that, from your perspective, your child always tells the truth. Or, they don’t know that the momentary impulsive act may not be how your child always behaves. They don’t know the feelings behind that behavior. They also often don’t see the many positive aspects of your child that you see regularly. All they know is their immediate concern or irritation.
Your family may feel that, because they are related to you, they have the right or obligation to express their opinions about your child-rearing practices, whether or not you care to hear them! Grandparents often feel as though their experiences in raising a child should be honored when they voice their opinions. “I only want the best for you.” “Don’t I have a right to my opinion? After all, I’m your mother!” “As your sister, I think you should know……..” Does any of this sound familiar? Have you gotten into serious arguments about these efforts to move into your life and to influence how you handle your child?
Perhaps the neighbors have complained about the noise. Or they want your kids to stay off of their property. Or they have told you they don’t like the friends your son or daughter brings into the neighborhood. Some friends or neighbors may feel they’ve observed behavior that could be problematic for your child. If you have experienced similar feedback, how have you handled the situation?
Maybe the teacher is concerned and has asked for a conference – and you expect a complaint. All children spend a huge amount of time at school – but when they’re young, you probably know a lot about what happens there. However, as your child gets older and moves into adolescence, less time will be spent with you. Your child now has a whole life outside your home. Sometimes, the only clue you get that the school is concerned is when you see a report card or get a concerned phone call from a dean, teacher or counselor. The way in which you deal with these contacts can be critical to your child’s school success. Since the only contact the school may make with you might be centered around a complaint, you may feel you’ve had no warning and no counterbalancing positive information. A complaint about your child is likely to feel like criticism of your parenting skills. Do you feel or act defensive when you are contacted by the school?
While the above paragraphs describe different situations, all are about the same issue: Someone is telling me my child has done something wrong, and I am expected to do something! (Another deep breath: it’s not personal!!!) In order to be an effective advocate for your child, you need to be able to create a support team, with you in a leadership position. You also need to be able to put your feelings on a shelf (to deal with later) and assume the role of an open-minded child advocate who simply wants to help this child do better. If you are able to start at this point, you are one step ahead of those who start from feeling rather than logic. I suggest trying the strategies listed below.
First: Assume the best (even if it’s not true) – that the person with the complaint is trying to help with a problem your child is having.
Next: Listen openly to the full story without using defensive responses. If it’s a complicated story, take notes on the details, and jot down areas for future responses.
Before responding: Clarify your understanding. Repeat back what you think the speaker wants you to know, and check to see that you’ve got it right. You may need to do that a few times, before you both have the same understanding of the complaint. It’s not yet time for your response!
Question: Find out what the speaker would like from you (asked in a collaborative manner and without hostility).
If needed: If you are listening to someone who is angry, yelling, unpleasant, quietly stress your intent to work collaboratively, and let them know you really want to understand the concerns being raised. You are both there to help your child. (Remember – take a deep breath and assume that it’s not personal!!!)
Offer thanks: Saying “I appreciate your concern. Thank you for taking the time to let me know.” goes a long way toward calming anger.
Give information:This is the time to volunteer information about your child, if you think that would help the other person’s understanding of the behavior.
Offer to jointly come up with a plan: Identify the desired outcome, and discuss how you can both work together to make any changes.
Plan for follow-up: Decide how you will communicate about future problems, if they arise. Try to agree on how you can be informed, before a problem becomes too large for an easy solution.
Monitor Progress: Now that you have a plan, you will need to check in to be sure that there has been improvement. By phone or in person, have another meeting to let the other person know that you have seriously considered the concern and want to be sure the problem has been adequately addressed.
Success with this approach means you will need to put aside those defensive feelings that come naturally with being a parent! Remember that I said it’s not personal. That’s not entirely true. It’s always personal when it’s about your child, even though the other individual may not understand that. However, in your child’s best interests, you might want to consider putting aside your feelings for the moment in order to handle the situation in a more rational and effective manner. Consider this approach a life lesson for your child. Even if the person complaining is totally wrong, you and your child probably still need to find a way to have continued interactions with this individual without conflict. After all, your family isn’t likely to disappear, neighbors or friends may be around for a while, and your child will need to continue to attend school. The more you can establish positive relationships with these people, the more your child is likely to thrive.
How you deal with your feelings about your child and how well you are able to hear criticism in a non-defensive manner have a lot to do with things you learned in your own family when you were growing up. Since some emotional and behavioral traits may be inherited, your child’s problems may seem familiar, experienced by either you or other family members. Personal experience with the same problems your child is now experiencing may make it more difficult for you to react effectively. Other challenges in your life may also have had an impact on how you deal with frustration, anger and the many changes and challenges life hands us.
If you are having difficulty managing your own feelings, you may find that the strategies I’ve listed above don’t work for you. In that case, you may need some help understanding your own coping process before you can fully be effective for your child. An added benefit of getting help: nothing makes you a better role model for your child than demonstrating how to solve a personal problem by doing so yourself.
If you do decide you need extra help, you have many resources available to you, depending on your specific need. If your child has a school counselor with whom you feel comfortable, this might be a good start. This person can tell you if there is reason to be concerned about your child and if further evaluation is warranted. If school is not the problem, but your child’s behavior is arousing other concerns, you might want to ask for a referral to someone who is an expert at working with children or adolescents. If you are having continuous conflict and difficulty communicating with the adults in your child’s life, you may want to consider some personal counseling or consultation to help you identify the problem and to arrive at some possible solutions. You are doing the best you know how to do as a parent. If this best isn’t working as well as you would like, I encourage you to continue to try to find alternative approaches. In the long run, this will pay off significantly for your child!