This week’s question is from Janetta,
“I have two kids, one has been diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety. He struggles with regulating his behavior and can be quite difficult to manage at times. My partner and I have been learning a lot from you and others about how to understand what’s going on with him and to support him better, but I feel like other people in our life just don’t get it. For example, my in-laws refuse to acknowledge that our child has challenges. They don’t believe in the diagnosis or any of the treatment or supports we have been pursuing. They almost seem ashamed of it. They blame our parenting and continue doing and saying things that aren’t helpful, even though those things are not working well. Do you have any advice on how we can address this? I want to have them in our kids’ lives, but it’s just so stressful for all of us.”
In this episode, I will address when extended family members, especially your own parents, seem unwilling to accept your child’s challenges, differences, or needs. These different opinions in parenting among extended family can be extremely stressful, but let’s first understand the potential underlying reasons for their lack of acknowledgment or support. That understanding then gives you a framework for considering how to communicate and navigate through the differences of opinion and any uncomfortable family dynamics.
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Listener’s Question … 00:00:56
Not a 1-Size-Fits-All Approach to Parenting … 00:02:55
Understand Your Family’s Lack of Acceptance … 00:05:07
Recognizing the Source of Their Underlying Discomfort … 00:07:21
Having Empathy for Them is Helpful for You … 00:13:30
Tangible Strategies Starting with Education … 00:17:10
Clear, Open, and Honest Communication … 00:19:58
When to Give Explanations and What to Include … 00:24:10
Be Patient, You Don’t Need Them to Agree with You … 00:25:10
Who Needs to Take the Lead in Addressing Among Family … 00:28:12
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Hi everyone, welcome to the show. I’m Dr. Nicole, and today I’m answering a question from one of you about extended family members, especially your own parents who seem unwilling to accept your child’s challenges, differences or needs. I know this is something that lots of you can relate to, so hopefully, I can give you some good things to think about here. And the specific question today comes from Janetta, who writes: “I have two kids, one has been diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety. He struggles with regulating his behavior and can be quite difficult to manage at times. My partner and I have been learning a lot from you and others about how to understand what’s going on with him and to support him better, but I feel like other people in our life just don’t get it. For example, my in-laws refuse to acknowledge that our child has challenges. They don’t believe in the diagnosis or any of the treatment or supports we have been pursuing. They almost seem ashamed of it. They blame our parenting and continue doing and saying things that aren’t helpful, even though those things are not working well. Do you have any advice on how we can address this? I want to have them in our kids’ lives, but it’s just so stressful for all of us.”
Oh, I hear all of the emotions in this. This is tough. And if you are dealing with this yourself, whether it’s with your own parents, your partner’s parents, other extended family members, even friends, it’s a tough thing. And especially when it’s family, especially when it’s your own parents, because there’s so much wrapped up in the family dynamics of that. Our family of origin has a lot, a lot, a lot, that it carries with it into our current day relationships, a lot of the dynamics of how things were for us growing up, between us and our parents, how our parents parented us, the relationship they had with their parents, all of these pieces, and it just becomes this really complicated web that can show up in lots of different ways, especially when it comes to how we then parent and raise our own kids. So I just want to first just have us appreciate the many dynamics here. And I don’t think that there’s any one-size-fits-all way of approaching this, but I hope to give you some things to at least consider.
The first and biggest thing is to recognize that when this is going on, when an extended family member or anyone in your life is not accepting of your child, is not accepting of the way that you’re parenting your child, is constantly telling you that you are doing things wrong, or telling you that they don’t believe in diagnosis, or treatment, or any of these things, understand that it’s actually not about your child at all. It’s not about you. It’s not even anything related to the specifics of what you and your child are dealing with. This is actually about this other person and their issues. This is about them feeling uncomfortable feelings for whatever reason, and we will unpack some of those in a minute. This is about them not knowing how to manage their own uncomfortable emotions about what’s going on. And many times, people in these situations aren’t even aware of all of the feelings that they’re having around this because many people go through their entire adult life walling themselves off from those feelings, denying, deflecting, avoiding, using whatever means necessary to avoid feeling the uncomfortable things they’re feeling. And so I think it’s just important to recognize, because so often I meet with parents who personalize this, who take the comments and behaviors of the in-laws, of their own parents, of other people in the family, they take it personally, and they make it about them and about their parenting and who they are as a parent, or they make it about their child and what’s going on with their child. But actually, it’s not about any of that at all. This is about what’s going on for the other person. And when you can anchor yourself in that, it really helps you approach this whole thing in a way that’s going to be healthier for you and your child, and potentially helpful for the person that you are dealing with.
So let’s look at what are some of the issues, the feelings, the things that can be coming up in this other person that may manifest then as these kinds of behaviors of refusing to accept that your child has challenges, refusing to accept your feedback about what’s going to be more helpful strategy-wise with them, all of those things. Let’s look at what might be going on for them, in this case, Janetta’s in-laws.
I think that parents, especially, so in this case, the child’s grandparents, often struggle to acknowledge or accept that their grandchild is having challenges, even challenges that rise to the level of a clinical diagnosis because it pains them to see both you and their grandchild struggle. I find that a significant portion of the time, that’s what’s going on when a grandparent is particularly difficult to deal with around these kinds of things, when they’re really in denial, when they refuse to accept, when it feels like they’re blaming you, as the parent. Really, what’s going on within them is that they are in pain, they feel like it’s so hard for them to see you struggling as a parent and having to go through this. It’s so hard for them to see their grandchild struggling. And instead of acknowledging and leaning into that pain and that discomfort and letting themselves feel it, they deal with it by trying to avoid it all together or deny that there’s a problem in the first place. “Oh, you are just making it up/Oh, if you would just spank him more/Oh all of these psychobabble things/None of that’s real/Oh he’ll grow out of it/Oh, it’s not a big deal”, whatever it might be. That’s all their attempt to soothe their own pain that they’re feeling at seeing their child and their grandchild struggling with something that they can’t instantly fix. So I find that that is a big factor going on in a lot of these situations.
Now it may also be that they are feeling really anxious about the situation and the future for their grandchild and for you, as this child’s parent. They may be feeling anxious about what’s going to happen to my grandchild? What’s going to happen to my son or daughter who is having to raise this child? It may be anxiety that’s driving this kind of dismissive, or reactive, or hostile behavior towards you.
Another factor that I see come up quite often is that they are feeling incompetent. They maybe haven’t needed to manage or handle a child with these kinds of challenges before, and they may be thrown off by that. They may feel like “I don’t know what to do with this, I feel incompetent, I feel like I can’t handle it, I don’t know what to do.” And out of that sense of incompetence and not feeling capable, then, comes this defensiveness, this argumentativeness, this blaming, all of that. So that’s a big one. Another factor that may be in play for them is that they may be concerned and caught up in worries about judgment from other people. And you know, if you grew up with a parent like this who was always, even when you were growing up, was very concerned about what everyone else was thinking, that’s probably happening here with their grandchild too. So they’re having all these big, uncomfortable feelings about what other people are thinking about the child, about you as a parent, about them as the grandparent, and they may be caught up in a whole spiral of thoughts about what other people will think about them, about the entire family, and particularly when we are talking about mental health types of diagnoses. So anything that falls in the realm of behavioral health, mental health, there we have a long history of serious stigma, societally, about these kinds of conditions. I think in the last two generations, that’s shifting somewhat, and certainly I see that shifting now more than ever, but if we are talking about grandparents we are talking about a couple generations ago, and what they grew up with, and the stigma around these kinds of things, and still what older generations think about these kinds of conditions, what they mean, and just struggling to maybe shift into a mode of more acceptance, and being very concerned about what other people are going to think. So that may be driving their behavior.
It may also be that your in-laws are really stressed out with a whole bunch of their own stuff. Whatever it is that’s going on in their life, and certainly you would know that better than me, but if they’ve got a whole lot of their own stuff going on, and they’re barely keeping it together in general with all of the overwhelm that they feel about their own lives, probably not in a very good place to be more empathic, understanding about what’s going on with your child or with your family. Now, I’m not excusing that, but we are talking about potential explanations of what’s going on on their side of things. “I just can’t handle one more thing. And now this kid and what’s going on is one more thing, and I can’t handle it, so I’m just going to shut down to it.”
Another thing that I can see triggered, again, particularly in grandparents, is that they may be feeling regret, distress or whatever else about how they parented you. Oftentimes when a child goes on to have their own children, and so now, this grandparent is watching their child parent their grandkids, that brings up all kinds of thoughts and feelings for them around how they parented, mistakes they feel they made, regrets that they have — it can trigger all of that. And they may be taking that out on you and your parenting. But it actually has nothing to do with you, it has to do with them needing to come to terms with and process and deal with their thoughts about how they parented, but that can come out in a way that is blaming or dismissive towards you.
And the other big thing that I see come up, that could be playing a role here is simply just a lack of knowledge and information, or maybe even outdated ideas or information about child development, about parenting strategies, about diagnoses, about things like autism, ADHD, anxiety, depression, whatever it might be. So it may be truly a lack of information or having wrong information and outdated ideas. And that may be a piece of it as well. And the other piece of that, in terms of not having information, is they may not have all of the information about what’s really going on, they may not see a lot of the struggles or the successes or the things that are going on in your day-to-day life and your child’s day to day life. They may just see the snapshots at family events or when the child is at their house. They’re seeing these bits and pieces, but they probably aren’t seeing the whole big picture. And so that lack of information and lack of seeing the big picture can be an issue too.
So those are the things that I find most common are the underlying things that are happening when a grandparent or another extended family member or a friend is behaving in this way, is being dismissive, is refusing to accept what’s happening for a child, is not utilizing helpful approaches, is not willing to discuss this stuff. It’s all of these things going on, on their side of it, one or more of these things that they’re struggling with and that they really need to work through. So whatever the reason might be, it’s really helpful to understand what may be going on under the surface, because it allows us to have some empathy. And empathy is important here. Yes, it’s helpful to the grandparent or to the other person, but actually being able to have empathy is helpful for you in this situation, because having empathy shifts you out of this angry defensive mode, and into a mode of saying, “Oh, yeah, I can see actually, that this is about you, and I can see what you might be struggling with here.” It just helps us to take a stance that’s just more productive, even for ourselves.
And I want to be clear, that while I think it’s helpful to have empathy, and I’m encouraging you to maybe think about what might be going on underneath the surface for them, I want you to empathize with that, but that does not excuse their behavior. So I’m going to come back to something that you have heard me say often in relation to kids: All feelings are welcome, all behaviors are not. Does that sound familiar? Yeah. That’s what we are talking about here. I’m encouraging you to understand the uncomfortable feelings and the emotional experience that your parents, your in-laws, whoever may be having here and to empathize with that, but that does not mean that you need to accept their behavior. You shouldn’t. We can understand what’s going on, and that can help us to address it in a more helpful way, but it doesn’t excuse their behavior.
So let’s talk about some tangible things you can do: First of all, you want to start with providing some specific, accurate, helpful information, if you haven’t done that already. It sounds like Janetta has done some of that, but I think in general, we want to make sure that people have good, accurate information. It may just be that they need more education, that they need more updated information. For some people, that means they need specific statistics, they need to understand the current level of these kinds of disabilities or challenges in kids, for some of them, it would be helpful for them to delve more into the specifics of how this diagnosis came about, what are the symptoms, what are the commonly recommended treatments, whatever it is, giving them information. Now, that may be an FAQ page that you find online that’s helpful to them. That may be a handout that a professional that you are working with has, it may be a book recommendation, it may be a podcast recommendation. I get so many messages on a weekly basis about how many of you send these podcast episodes to grandparents or their family members, whoever, to help them understand better. So that’s a great strategy, and there are so many great podcasts beyond mine that you can use in that way. So think about what’s the learning style of this person? Are they likely to listen to something? To watch a video? To read something? And then try to provide them with some knowledge and information. If nothing else, that can get a conversation started. The other thing that I would encourage is if you are working with a professional or a team of professionals around support and intervention for your child, ask them for advice and resources. Many of them are willing to have an appointment with extended family members to explain, to provide information, to answer questions. I’ve done that many times over the years with grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, whoever it might be. And so sometimes that can be helpful if you feel like this information would be better received coming from a professional or coming from a third party that isn’t you. So that can be great, too. In whatever way you are going to do that, start by providing information. Now, even if you think that information is going to be dismissed, it is still important to provide it so that you know that you have done your job of giving them good information, so that you know that they’re not acting out of a lack of education or understanding.
Okay, alright. Second thing: Focus on open, honest communication. Easier said than done with family members, especially parents and in-laws, I totally get it. But clear, calm communication is going to be really important here. Letting them know exactly what your concerns are, and how you are feeling about it, and clearly laying that out. They may not be aware. You may feel like it’s obvious, and it may not be to them. I think that starting the conversation with something like “I know you love and care about Johnny very, very much.” That can go a long way because it automatically starts out with something that you both agree on and can rally around, right? “I know you love and care about my child very much, you care about your grandchild so much, you love him so much. And so do we. We love him so much too.” And starting from there can be a really helpful entry point then for having what might be a bit of a challenging conversation. But starting out with what to be true, and something positive about them, right? I know you love him, I know that. And then you get into communicating that you understand that it can be hard to accept and to really get what’s happening with this child. You can empathize with them around that. You can say “I’ve dealt with that myself as his mom or as his dad, I get it, this can be hard. This has been a process for me, for us to come to terms with what’s happening here and to really understand it.” And again, you are sort of partnering with them and you are saying “I see why this is hard for you.” And then you move into communicating about how you are feeling and maybe about how they’re feeling. If they’re not people who are used to talking about feelings, you can throw some things out there. You can say “I get it, if you are feeling really anxious about what’s going on with him, I understand that. Boy, I feel that way too sometimes.” Or “If you are really feeling like you have no idea what to do with him or how to respond to him when he says or does these things, man, I get that. I deal with him every day, and sometimes I still have those moments.” So again, you are finding sort of these places for shared common ground of acknowledging these underlying feelings and empathizing with them. And then you want to get into being clear about what you are seeing and experiencing with them that’s concerning or that’s unhelpful, or that, quite frankly, just needs to change and be different. So you want to be clear, maybe there was an incident that happened and you want to target that. “I really want to talk about what happened at your house the other day when we came over for lunch.” And you just be clear about what it is that happened there, and what needed to be different, or what helped and what didn’t help and why, and walk through that, being very clear about that. That might be things that were said or done that were unhelpful for your child, but also for you. Saying “It’s unhelpful, and it’s actually hurtful when you yell at him and threaten to send him out of the room if he doesn’t stop doing X, Y, or Z. And actually, that makes me feel very uncomfortable, and I feel like you are questioning the way that I’m parenting, but I know that the way I’m handling these things is the right way to handle it for him.” Lots of different ways to talk about these things, but I’m just sort of giving you some ideas of how you can approach that. I think that using some specific examples can be helpful for people to understand exactly what you are talking about, and so pick one or two recent ones that you can lay out and really be clear and calm in describing what that’s like for you, what that’s like for your child, and what would work better.
Now, I think it can be helpful, if the people you are dealing with are open to it, for you to give some explanation of why you handle things in the way that you do, if they’re open to it. I also want to caution that you do not need to jump through a million hoops of justifying or explaining why you parent the way that you parent. That’s not helpful, either. Because then you just get into this thing of like, “I feel like I have to justify, and I feel like I need to get you to agree with me.” No. So you can give a brief explanation of why you are doing the things you are doing, and you can say “If you are interested in understanding more about that or hearing more about why I’m doing that, or what the research shows about that, or whatever, I’ve got some resources I’d like to share with you. There’s this great podcast episode or there’s this great blog post or social media post”, or whatever it is, and you can offer that and see if they kind of are interested in exploring that further.
I think a really important thing to remember here, a couple things. First is: This is very unlikely to be a one and done conversation. This is one of those things that probably is going to continue to unfold and progress over time. So you are going to start the dialogue and you are going to need to continue to revisit it as your child grows, changes, as new situations come up. So, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, this is unlikely to be a one time and then we never have to talk about it again thing. And the other big thing is to remember that you don’t need them to agree with you. They may not, and this is my caution around you don’t need to jump through a million hoops justifying and explaining. No. You don’t actually need them to agree with you. They may not agree with you. That’s okay. They do need to be willing to accept your choices about how you are raising and parenting your kids, even if you disagree about it. And if they can’t be supportive of the way that you are handling things or of the needs that your child has, they at least need to not act in opposition to those things. So you can be clear about this, like “Look, this may be an agreed to disagree situation. I get it. You have a different way that you would approach this, that’s fine. But you are not this child’s parent. I am. And this is how I’m going to handle it until and unless I find information or a different way of doing it. So we are going to need to agree to disagree, but I need you to be willing to accept this and to not actively oppose this when we are around you, and to not criticize and to not manage this child in ways that I have told you are not appropriate or are not in alignment with what we feel is the way to be handling these things.” And in my experience in the vast majority of the cases, grandparents and others are generally willing to do that. If they are not, and unfortunately this happens sometimes, then it’s a situation where you are probably going to need to set some clear uncomfortable boundaries about contact they have with this child, with you, with your family. You are going to need to carefully pick and choose what you do with them, how you do things with them, what kinds of situations you allow your child in with them. You need to make some decisions about that, because ultimately, you can’t control how they’re going to be with this child. And so you may need to, on your own time, figure out what those boundaries need to be, you and your partner figure that out, come to an agreement and then implement those boundaries, and that may be difficult, and that can sometimes create some discomfort and things within the family, but ultimately, you need to do what’s best for you, and you need to do what’s best for your kids.
This reminds me, there’s one other thing I wanted to throw into the mix for you to think about here, and that is Janetta raised that this is her partner’s family; the in-laws. When we are talking about issues with one set of grandparents or one side of the family, then the partner who is in that family really needs to take the lead with addressing this issue with them. And I have seen it happen where sort of the default assumption or position is that the mom is going to handle it, even if it’s the in-laws, even if it’s the other partner’s family, and that really isn’t fair. So whoever’s family it is that is having the issue with this, it’s your family. You really need to take the lead with addressing it with them. It’s not fair to default to having your partner deal with that if it’s your parents, or your brothers and sisters, or whatever it might be. Ideally, you can do that together. Sometimes that’s not appropriate. Sometimes you need to address it more one on one. But speaking to moms, dads, and whoever else here, if it’s someone on your side of the extended family that’s creating the issue, you really need to take the ball and run with it as far as addressing this with them.
So we covered a lot of ground there. I hope that it gives you some helpful things to think about if you are in this situation. Janetta, I hope this gives you a framework for considering this and having some strategies and for all the rest of you who are trying to figure out how to communicate these things, how to resolve these, what can be really challenging differences of opinion and family dynamics. Remember, if you have a question you’d like to hear answered on a future show, email it to support at drbeurkens.com. Thank you, as always recognize for listening and I’ll catch you back here next time.