Advocating With Family Members for Your Kids

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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Parents often approach Kidpower for coaching and support when they have concerns about the behavior of family members or close friends around their children. Speaking up for our kids is important – and, although we can’t control how others respond, making thoughtful choices about HOW we speak up can increase the chances that the communication will be more positive and productive.

Here are a few typical stories describing how parents have advocated for their kids with family members or prepared their children to take charge of the problem themselves. A few details have been changed to protect privacy, but the stories are true.

“My grandmother smokes, and I just couldn’t let her do this near our baby.  Even though her feelings were hurt, I said that we would need to visit in a room that was not smelling of smoke. It was inconvenient, but I found a place nearby where we could get together, and where she could smoke in another room if she needed to.”

“My father-in-law kept threatening to spank my four-year-old daughter, even though he knows we don’t hit kids in our family. It was very upsetting. Finally, I gathered my courage and, with my husband standing next to me, told my father-in-law that I know he loves his grandchildren very much and means well, but that it is not okay to threaten to hit our kids or to tell us that we should be spanking them. My husband told his father that he agreed with me. At first, my father-in-law was angry, but he did change his behavior, and we are much less stressed during visits.”

“We have long-time friends who are like family to us. When we get together, their six-year-old daughter is always trying to play with our three-year-old daughter alone. Our daughter, who adores this older girl, told us that her friend wanted to play doctor, tried to take off her clothes, and said she should keep it a secret. My friends say that this is just normal play for kids, but I said that we need to keep the children with us and supervise until we’re confident they won’t keep touch a secret or ask each other to keep touch a secret. Our friends are deeply offended.”

“My sister’s pre-teen daughter kept teasing my five-year old son at our family gatherings, poking fun at him until he was in tears. My sister says kids should just work things out themselves. After worrying for days, I told my sister that I wanted a “no unkind teasing” rule at family events. She told me I was over-sensitive and making my son into a ‘sissy’, but I insisted. Eventually, she agreed to talk with her daughter.”

“At the dinner table, my brother-in-law suddenly started knuckling my ten-year-old son’s head in a way that was painful. I’ve given my son permission to get up from the table and move to a different chair if his uncle tries to do this again. I said if anyone got upset, his father and I would back him up.”

“I have two aunts who kept giving my teenagers the inquisition about what they are doing in school or how much they eat or weigh until they were unhappy about going to any family gathering. Finally, I gave my teens permission to change the subject and not answer questions or continue unpleasant conversations by saying in a polite voice, ‘Excuse me. I want to talk about something else.’ I told them they could then start talking about a neutral topic like a favorite movie. We practiced, and, although they had to do it over and over, this approach worked like a charm at the next holiday dinner.”

“My husband’s nephew is 15 years old. He’s a sweet kid, but I feel uncomfortable about how he is treating my five-year-old daughter. He wants to cuddle with her for a long time, whisper to her almost like a girl friend, and go off with her alone. I know my sister-in-law would have a fit if I implied that anything inappropriate might be going on. I am going to make sure that I keep my daughter in sight whenever he visits and explain that she needs to Check First with me before leaving the room.”

Our children’s job is to get out of difficult situations as best they can and to tell us when they have problems. As adults, our job is to stay aware of what our kids are doing, to be advocates for them when they need it, to teach them skills, and to create safe environments for them.  Even if we can’t make a situation better right away, our children need to know that we take them seriously and that we are doing whatever we can to fix the problem.

Staying calm, firm, respectful, and persistent when speaking up to family members can be challenging especially because they know how to push all our buttons. Personally, I don’t like being told what to do or that I did something wrong and have to work hard not to react poorly if someone says I am doing something wrong.

In our workshops, we use the following role-play to demonstrate how to persist in the face of common negative reactions. We set the stage by explaining that this is a discussion between one of four-year-old Monique’s parents and her or his parent, who often takes care of the granddaughter Monique. The negative reactions and positive responses are in bold.

Parent: “Dad (or Mom), I want to talk with you about Monique.”

Grandpa: “Wonderful! I love that kid!”

Parent: “She loves you too, and I really appreciate how much you’re helping me out by taking care of her. There’s just one problem.”

Grandpa: “Oh, really? What is it?”

Make a bridge … I feel…when you…would you please. Parent: “I know that you mean well, and I feel concerned that Monique is starting to feel badly about herself when you tease her so much. Please try not to call her names.”

Denial. Grandpa: “What are you talking about? I never do that!”

Giving a specific example. Parent: “It’s possible you don’t notice, but it happens. Just yesterday you called her “butterfingers” when she spilled her juice.”

Minimizing. Grandpa: “Oh that. That’s just a game. She likes it.”

Acknowledge his reality, explain why his behavior is a problem, restate boundary. Parent: “I understand that it’s a game to you, but she’s starting to think of herself as clumsy. Please stop calling Monique names.”

Emotional coercion. Grandpa: “How can you talk to me like this? You’re making a big deal out of nothing, as usual.”

Calmly and kindly acknowledge feelings. Parent: “You sound upset.”

More guilt. Grandpa: “You bet I’m upset! Hey, I know what this is about! You feel jealous because I get to spend more time with her than you do!“

Keep acknowledging. Parent: “I realize this is upsetting for you, and I’m sorry this is hard. I appreciate your talking with me.”

Violating the boundary. Grandpa: “I know what I’m doing. After all, I raised you. You turned out just fine. (At this point, half the people in the room are often gritting their teeth and thinking, “Yeah, and she’s spent years in therapy recovering!”)  I’m her grandfather! I’ll do whatever I want when I’m with her.”

Acknowledge feelings, explain importance, and state a consequence. Parent: “I’m sorry this is so upsetting for you, but the way the world is nowadays, children have to know that their feelings will be respected by the people they most love. Unless you can agree to try to stop calling her names, I can’t let Monique stay so much with you.”

Shutting down. Grandpa: (head down, turning away) “I can’t talk about this anymore.”

Express caring. Parent: “I’m sorry this is so hard for you, Dad. I really hope we can work this out.”

Stays shut down. Grandpa: “I don’t know. I’ll talk it over with your Mom.”

Hopefully, after getting some perspective, Grandpa will make an effort to respect his adult child’s wishes about avoiding teasing his granddaughter experiences as hurtful.

As this story shows, speaking up often doesn’t work out easily right away. Most people don’t like to be told that they have to change. Here are some guidelines that can help these difficult conversations go as well as possible.

  1. Do not use text, email, or any other form of messaging. A caring and respectful tone of voice and an interactive conversation are essential in preventing unnecessary problems. Communicating boundaries in a way that does not involve face-to-face or direct voice communication is likely to make problems worse, not better.
  2. Prepare, so that you know exactly what you want to say and the specific changes you want to see. Write down what you want to say, what you think the negative reactions are likely to be, and how you plan to persist in a powerful and respectful way instead of getting upset.
  3. Arrange a quiet time and private place for the conversation by saying, “I have a concern I want you to talk about.”
  4. Be together with your partner, if possible, if you are communicating boundaries to your partner’s family member. Plan with your partner so that, ideally, your partner will be prepared to back you up.
  5. Acknowledge the other person’s good intentions or perspective by starting with a bridge such as, “I know you want the best.” Or, “I know how busy you are.”
  6. Set the boundary in non-attacking terms. State your feelings, what the specific behavior is that concerns you, and what you want to see change.
  7. Don’t get defensive or hooked into talking about side issues if the other person is negative. Just acknowledge any upset feelings and restate your boundary. Stay focused on what you want to see change rather than getting distracted by attacking remarks or behavior.
  8. Be prepared to state a consequence, if need be, if the behavior doesn’t change.
  9. Don’t insist on immediate resolution or agreement, unless it is an emergency,. Allow the other person some time to save face and think things over unless doing so will directly affect someone’s safety.
  10. Have a plan about what you will do if the other person doesn’t change his or her behavior, including restricting access or, in serious situations, even disengaging from the relationship.
  11. If you wish you had done something differently, apologize sincerely for this piece of what you said or did, even if the other person said or did something much worse. However, don’t retract your boundaries about what needs to change.
  12. Congratulate yourself on having the courage to speak up. Remember our Kidpower saying that you do not have to be perfect to be GREAT!

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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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