Guest Blog: How to intervene when other adults disrespect your child

eye childThis week’s guest blog is from Jill:

I’m happy to be back at AwakeParent.com as a guest blogger today. I wanted to share with you some thoughts on dealing with other adults in your life who interact with your children. As parents striving for greater consciousness, I have found it can sometimes be painful when other adults interact with our precious children in ways that don’t support the experience we’re trying so hard to create.

At times, I have both asked and been asked by other adults to treat a child differently.  This hasn’t gone very well!  The time I was asked not to interact with a child in the way I wanted to I felt a sense of shame, even though intellectually I agreed with the parent’s boundary. What happened? I touched a child’s hair without permission. Not a big deal, in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but really, how would I feel if someone I didn’t know reach out and started fondling my tresses, rather than ask? I could see in the parent’s eyes that that was exactly what he was tuned into. I got it; still, I felt small.

I have also not found a way to make such a request of another adult that feels both compassionate and authentic. When I have made such requests, it’s also felt alienating, rather than connecting. It seems no one likes to hear, “Please don’t do that to my child.”

Here’s what I think is going on, and what we can do about it.  One, I think a vulnerable part of us comes forth when we connect with a child.  I want to treat this part of myself and others with gentleness and compassion, so I want to honor all good faith attempts to connect with children.  Two, if I intervene on his behalf, I do my own child a bit of a disservice. I exercise my autonomy instead of allowing him to exercise his.  At the same time, I want to intervene if it looks like my child would rather not be experiencing what’s happening.

So, if my son looks uncomfortable though not in danger (or being tickled), or like he’s just tolerating something an adult is doing, I ask him, within the other person’s earshot, and with a lighthearted attitude, “Is that okay with you?”  Often he says “no,” and almost always the adult apologizes to him, and does not seem offended. This way, I’m also training my son to check in with himself, and ask “Is this OK with me?”

I think most adults genuinely want to connect with children in mutually consensual ways, but we feel awkward because we so seldom see this kind of behavior modeled for us. I still feel slightly embarrassed sometimes when I do manage to treat my child with complete respect, because it’s not what I’ve seen modeled. However, occasionally someone will say they were touched or moved by how I interacted with my son. Maybe we can all help to awaken in each other our deep yearning for all beings, large and small, to be treated with complete respect.

Back in real life, our beloved friends and relatives may not follow our lead as quickly as we would like—or at all, for that matter—people generally default to what they’re familiar with. However, what I’ve noticed is that the more we can respect and embrace the adults’ loving intentions at the same time as we model respect for our children (by lightheartedly asking the child if what’s happening is OK with them), the less likely we will be to trigger shame in the other adult, and to feel triggered ourselves. I want to remind myself and others that we adults are always doing the best we can with the young people in their lives. I want us all to try to support each other where we are, even as we hold out possibilities for where we might be.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this.

Warmly,

Jill

Jill Nagle is the cofounder of Awakeparent.com, and former regular blogger. Currently, she blogs at Zendesk.com, works as a freelance writer and content strategist, and does family mediation with a focus on creative family structures. She works over the phone as well as in person. Learn more here: http://tinyurl.com/thirdsidemediation

20 comments
Jill
Jill

Mandy: That's one of the big reasons I like teaching autonomy early--so it isn't such a darn struggle to try to learn it from scratch when we grow up. I think, how many date rapes and spousal abuses could have been prevented if we'd started early on by teaching children that their bodies are their own and they don't have to tolerate uncomfortable situations, even for a moment!
Michelle: I think this could be a long-term project, where you have a heart-to-heart, ONE AT A TIME (I think this is crucial) in which you share your feelings about what's happening with their son, and make a clear request for support and alliehood, such as, "The next time X happens, would you be willing to help out by saying___or doing___?" If someone feels you're pulling THEM aside because you have a special trust in their ability to understand and help, I think they'll be much more likely to advocate for your son in those situations. Over time you can have that very same conversation with each adult--I bet the dynamic changes!

Shelly
Shelly

Hi Michelle, Family time can be so challenging! It sounds to me like you may need to have a few private conversations with the adults involved so that you can establish a clear boundary and let your family know that if the boundary gets crossed, you and your son will be leaving. I'm guessing that your family members probably think they're helping, and you can let them know exactly how you'd like them to help and what you don't want them to do.

Consider using the Nonviolent Communication framework of sharing and observation, feeling, need and request. For instance, "I've noticed that you tend to talk with my son about what foods he's eating when we're at the table. I feel uncomfortable with some of the things I'm hearing (or share even more specifically). My son and I really need consistency, so would you be willing to let me handle it in the future? I would really like it if I was the only one encouraging him to try new foods, OK?

Do you think this strategy would work well for you?

I hope so! Warmly, Shelly

Shelly
Shelly

Hey Chrissy, I'm not sure exactly what you mean when you say "bonus" son, but any dual household co-parenting situation can be challenging. I had a similar experience growing up in two very different households with two different sets of rules and expectations. If I were you, I'd support your son in tuning in to his feelings and needs, that way, whether he's encouraged to express them or not at least he's aware of what's happening inside him and he's able to give himself some empathy if he's not receiving it from others.

By learning Nonviolent Communication (by Marshall Rosenberg) your son will have a way to understand and interpret any situation compassionately. He can begin to understand why he gets less autonomy at one house (possibly because the parents of that household are needing more safety, security, and order). In any case, Nonviolent Communication truly is a language of compassion and has helped me understand the different styles and needs of my very different parents and households growing up, I hope it can help you and your son as well.

Chrissy
Chrissy

I also have a difficult situation that I need some insight into. I have a bonus son who we see quite regularly. At one house he is respected and encouraged to stand up and think for himself, at the other house he is told how to think and feel. How can we encourage body and emotional autonomy if the style in which he is parented is in total contrast with one another?

Michelle
Michelle

I've only just come across this blog, but found this article really helpful. One situation where I'm unsure on how to handle it is this;
My son has recently been diagnosed with Aspergers, so he often doesn't realise when people are teasing or making fun...although I think he has a 'gut' feeling that how they are speaking to him is not okay.
I come from a large family and on Sunday's we often get together for dinner at my parents house. My son is a very fussy eater and usually does not wish to try the food offered at dinner. Often I will offer him alternate food, but occasionally I will try to gently coax him to try the food offered. My family seems to take this as an invitation to hassle and harrass my son to eat the food- as we were co-erced as children with bribes and guilt.
In particular one of my brother's and his son (who is only a couple of years older than my son) will go on and on about it so that it consumes the entire conversation at dinner-time, and then my nephew becomes inappropriate and teases and tries to dish out discipline to MY son!
At first I let it go, but then I started speaking out by saying- 'Can everyone STOP hassling him please' or saying loud enough for everyone to hear 'it okay darling' (to my son) 'you don't have to eat anything you don't want to'....but even then they often continue. So lately I have stopped going to the Sunday dinners, which is a real shame as I don't see my family as much and my son doesn't get to play with his cousin.
Its really difficult when I am trying to gently offer him food without making it into a 'big deal' and my family continues to MAKE it into a big deal and upsets my son.....if I wanted to force my son to eat the food I would have done it a long time ago!
hmmmm, perhaps I should take each of the perpetrators aside and speak to them about it? Again, I'm not sure how I could do it without causing offense and possibly insulting my brother's parenting style (where eating at the table becomes more important that respecting a child's self determination).
Any tips??

Mandy
Mandy

One of the reasons I like your "is this okay with your" approach is because it teaches our children responsibility to make their own decisions. It's important for them to know that they DO have a choice. Otherwise they practice too much acceptance and when they become adults they maybe be prone to being abused by their spouses because they are used to the idea of being told what to do.

Jill Nagle, cofounder of Awakeparent.com
Jill Nagle, cofounder of Awakeparent.com

Ahhh, nice gem, thank you, Jim! So often I've been in a situation where I *wish* I had talked to my son ahead of time about what was to happen...and yes, I agree, the modeling (which Shelly discusses in other blogs) probably did help. Do you remember, Shelly? :-)

Jim
Jim

Sometimes, with older children, it's possible to anticipate uncomfortable situations and work out a solution ahead of time with your child.

When I was dating Shelly's mom, it was uncomfortable for both of us when someone speaking to Shelly referred to me as her father. So we discussed it and decided that the best way to handle the situation would be for me to step in and tell the person that I wasn't actually her father but a friend of her mother.

Of course, the next time the situation arose she handled it on her own before I could open my mouth. Even though she handled it differently than we discussed, I'm sure our conversation is what empowered her to speak up for herself.

Mindy
Mindy

I appreciate this post Jill and learned a lot. Thanks.

Tricia Mitchell
Tricia Mitchell

I love this post! I agree about--in the short term--throwing a lifeline to my kids when someone is going too far. I also try to teach them--in the longer term--ways to politely create distance and end conversations. In general, I try to model a certain amount of tolerance and resilience to my kids when dealing with people. Hence, we often have conversations, afterward, where I say, "Yeah, she was a little pushy," or "Yeah, I don't know either, I felt confused by what she said. Oh well!" My kids can't always be tolerant and/or resilient, but I have hope that it will sink in over time.

Jill, cofounder of Awakeparent.com
Jill, cofounder of Awakeparent.com

I'm wondering about your relationship with Rob. Is it one that might support or grow with a conversation in which you approach him and guess at his feelings and needs? Something like, Rob, do you sometimes feel frustrated /sad when you reach out to (son's name) and he doesn't receive you in a way that feels welcoming? And then just listen--with no agenda (he'd sense that) to see what's going on with him.

I don't think there's any "right" answer or approach here, and, I'm also guessing that Rob may have some hurts around reaching out and feeling received that he may be expressing when he approaches your son. Maybe some compassion toward him could soften that dynamic. Just a guess! Other thoughts?

Rachelle
Rachelle

I use this approach with my children and it works very well. But a tough example situation is when my mother's boyfriend is being overly (and inauthentically) affectionate (it weirds me out!) with my son. It looks terribly invasive and my son looks unsure. I feel my whole body tighten up and I have to re-center before speaking so that I don't ooze my discomfort/perspective on to my son : "Are you feeling okay with Rob's touching right now?" and initially he'd immediately say "no", but lately, sometimes he says "yes", and I am surprised. When he says no, Rob usually pretends to "have his feelings hurt", and says inauthentically "Oh, you don't want the hugs and kisses?? Are you sure???" (my son shakes his head) "Awwww!" says Rob in a disappointed (inauthentic and exaggerated) voice and fake pouty lip, trying to pressure/guilt him into being "okay" with it. This really bothers me since I think this is why my son now says "yes" to feeling okay with it because he is being lured into an inauthentic and very confusing game - a game I really don't want him exposed to at this point.

Such a tough situation and I don't know where to go from here other than talking to my son about it when when Rob isn't around. Explaining/helping to integrate these confusing games involving inauthenticity and baggage is a challenge for a 5-year-old. It's even harder for my 22 month old, who picks up the same vibe but isn't able to integrate it.

But overall, this approach works in most situations, so long as the child is accustomed to an authentic environment that doesn't involve manipulation into giving the "right" answer (the answer the adult WANTS to hear). Luckily, this is the way in our home so our son almost always feels comfortable stating how he truly feels and doesn't "look to us" for the "right" answer.

Lovingly,
Rachelle

Jill, cofounder of Awakeparent.com
Jill, cofounder of Awakeparent.com

It occurred to me that if something happens really quickly, or for whatever reason, you just don't manage to intervene, we can always have conversations with our children later where we listen to what it was like for them, and allow them to unload whatever feelingss they may be holding. We can also tell them if it was hard for us to watch, if we were wondering if it were okay with them, and that we feel sad about not having been able to intervene the way we might have liked to. We could even facilitate a conversation between our child and the adult later.

I know a young woman in her early 20s. I also know her mom. When the young one was six, she told me that when adults pinched her cheeks without asking, her mom lifted her up to the adult's level so she could pinch their cheeks, too. Wish I could have seen the adult's expression on tape!

T
T

I always find this situation very difficult, especially in handling grandparents. Because I am a single mother, men especially brothers, grandfathers tend to try to "toughen up my son" by teasing him or pushing him to do this or that. Or my brother will call my children by other names, derivatives and such, that they don't like but don't want to be rude and say so.....It annoys me and I never know how to address it. Now I have a new tool. Let the child decide what they are OK with. Nice.

Jill, cofounder of Awakeparent.com
Jill, cofounder of Awakeparent.com

Andrea, yes, sometimes so much is going on it's hard to know what to do. And at nine months, I'm guessing, as brilliant as I'm sure he is, he may not have been able to articulate his needs. I hope he enjoyed it as much as the young woman apparently did.

Andrea
Andrea

I once was in a situation were I regretted that I didn't act right away...even though it felt kind of OK at the moment. I was in a health food store with my son (about 9 months old) sitting in the stroller. All in a sudden a mentally retarded girl (about 14 yrs) approached him with big smiles and hugs. I didn't had the feeling that she was in any way dangerous, but she got so excited to be close to a baby that she hugged him again and again. It all happened so quick..I wanted her to have a joy-able experience with my son...but then it was just getting too much. When I was about to say something her mom was dragging her away...without saying anything. I felt bad afterward, because I had the feeling I didn't protected my son. What can I say...it was a strange situation.

Jill, cofounder of Awakeparent.com
Jill, cofounder of Awakeparent.com

Glad to contribute :-). I'd love to hear real-life examples of these kinds of interchanges--what was said, how it felt, etcetera. Shelly, now you'll have a chance! But for now--rest up. You'll need every ounce of energy.

Christee
Christee

Nice post, Jill! This is a difficult situation and you've given us tools to deal with it honestly and more effectively. Thanks!

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