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I love my extended family and we’re all pretty close with each other. They are very opinionated and direct and will sometimes correct my son. He’s a good kid, but sometimes he can do things that bug other people and doesn’t always know when enough is enough. He’s a sensitive kid and doesn’t respond well, even to me. I feel like they make my job harder when they step in and parent him. I know he can be hard, so I don’t blame them for needing to say something. My only concern is that they do it in a way that makes things worse for me and my husband dealing with his reaction to them. Any suggestions for how I can talk with them without creating more stress in our family?
Your family is having an honest reaction to your son’s behaviors, which isn’t always easy to accept. You are familiar with your son and know what works best for him in your family, so it’s hard to see how other people experience him. While there may be some ways to refine their approach to him, I want to encourage you to stay open to what’s happening with your son in the larger family as he has essential experiences that will help prepare him for life.
My guess is that it’s harder on you to watch other parents redirect your son than it is on him. You might be feeling ashamed or embarrassed that your son is behaving this way. It’s common to feel like our children’s behavior is a reflection of our competency as parents. This is where it’s good to check your own responses and not interfere with a process that can actually be good for your son.
We all need help raising our children and the involvement of extended family brings both opportunities and frustrations. As long as your family members aren’t being abusive or cruel to your son, I encourage you to allow them to influence and redirect him. I think it’s critical that children learn how to respond to other adults who do things differently than mom or dad.
They will provide an honest mirror about specific behaviors that may be socially inappropriate or uncomfortable. You might not agree with some of the finer points of how they interact with him, but my guess is that most of the time you will agree with the behavior they’re redirecting. Chances are, they’re the same behaviors you’re trying to redirect. See these other adults as an ally in your efforts to socialize your son. One redirection from someone else can have more influence on your son than a thousand requests from you.
For example, some time ago, one of my children was banging on a table at a family gathering and making a racket. I was busy with another child and didn’t even notice it was happening. I looked up when I heard one of my family members sharply telling my child to stop banging on the table. It’s not how I would have said it, but my child immediately stopped and didn’t do it again the rest of the night. I wondered how my child would handle the redirection, but saw that they moved on and played with other cousins as if nothing had happened.
Obviously, if they’re publicly shaming him or belittling him, then you have to step in and ask them to be respectful. This is a delicate balance, but I encourage you to err on the side of letting them redirect him in their own way. He has to learn how to respond to other people. This is an essential developmental task you don’t want to sabotage with your own anxiety.
Pay close attention to what actually gets worse for you and your husband after someone redirects him. If they are humiliating him, then that will make things worse and you’ll need to step in and talk with the other adult. You can let them know that you support them redirecting your son, but that you request basic respect in the treatment of your son. All of us deserve basic respect from others, even if we’re out of line. On the other hand, if your son is simply getting defensive and dramatic about being redirected, this is a good opportunity to back up the other adult and work with your son to take responsibility for his actions. Again, these other adults can help you with your goal to socialize your son. They’re establishing the social order and you don’t want to get in the way.
We can’t protect our children from the variety of responses they’ll get from others throughout their lives. Now is a good time for them to begin learning that people aren’t going to always be sensitive and diplomatic when interacting with them. If someone’s response to his behavior bothers him, then you can help him work through the experience. However, chances are that it won’t even be necessary. These are the very experiences that will help prepare them for life in the workplace, church, and the community.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.