How to help a friend when you think they are over protecting their child?

Talking to a friend or family member about concerns you have about their parenting (or indeed any relationship) is a fraught arena.

People are happy to hear their friend’s ideas about external things – professionals to go to, new family activities, and extracurricular offerings, holiday destinations – BUT none of us like to hear input that sounds like advice or criticism of how we are managing ourselves with people we care about. As a result we tend to approach such conversations awkwardly which adds to the probable angst. When we are tense we tend to listen less and speak with excessive intensity.

Often it’s best to pay attention to our own management of relationships before venturing into giving a friend feedback. There are however times when I think one can be a genuine resource to another in sharing a systems way of thinking about parenting. The following is a de-identified* discussion I had with someone grappling with whether to talk honestly with her friend about parenting concerns:

The situation she described for her long term friend was: a shy, teenage son who was especially close to his mother. He had always been a sensitive child and during his younger years had regularly come into his parent’s bed to settle night fears. Two other children appeared to be more confident. The pattern of parenting being observed was of doing what the children wanted and not holding boundaries on any things that resulted in a child’s distress. The parents were devoted and generous to their 3 children. They enabled them to do what extra curricula activities they wanted and to promptly give them up if they no longer enjoyed them. It was becoming evident that the son was increasingly struggling to cope with school and peer activities. The mother was progressively adjusting her schedule to attend events with him. Recently the boy was missing school and showing increased signs of anxiety. He was reporting problems with being teased by friends. The parents were looking at both medical intervention and a change of schools.

What is described above is such a tricky family scenario – what looks like loving, devoted parenting can so easily cross the line into an over focus on a child – in particular reacting in ways to reduce a child’s distress. The more a parent supports – the more the young person comes to depend on the support and acts in ways to invite more of it. The child’s development of resilience in the face of stress is impaired due to too much protective intervention – this renders a young person much more vulnerable to emotional symptoms because they have less internal stress management capacity. They struggle to steady them self in even ‘normal’ challenging moments and gradually become highly relationally dependent and sensitive.

The close friend of this mother knew a bit about ways that an increasing focus on a child can, over time, amplify a child’s dependence and impair their growth of internal resilience. The friend had addressed some of her own tendencies as a mother to put her children’s happiness ahead of their learning to tolerate and manage life’s stressors. She wanted to share her concerns and her own lessons with her friend but had previously experienced defensiveness when discussing parenting. She was fearful of offending her and sounding like she thought she was the ‘perfect’ parent.

How was she going to navigate being helpful to this close friend when it seemed to be a ‘no-go’ conversation zone? Many parents – especially conscientious ones – are very sensitive to criticism and blame. There is a pervasive view in society that generosity of parental love equates with happy, healthy children. Such a mindset isn’t easy to question.

The following are some principles (not directives) we discussed for raising such concerns in a friendship. These might provide helpful food for thought – This isn’t intended as a template to fit all situations:

1: Questions are so important – that show a care and concern and a desire to understand what each parent is going through- Creating a platform of coming alongside with curious empathy, not judgement.

2: It’s helpful to not get caught in the content of decision making – IE changing schools. While shifting schools may well reinforce a pattern of ‘over rescuing’ it may also provide a circuit breaker.

3. Questions about relationship patterns are more useful for generating possible insight than questions about the individual child and decisions about his life and possible treatment. What have you been trying to do to help? How has than gone? How has your son responded? What seems to be helping to build his resilience what doesn’t seem to help?

4. Ensure that questions aren’t used to disguise your opinion – this is always picked up on at some level – it is actually dishonest.

If you see a genuine opening for sharing your thinking and concern:

1: Show that you have been listening well and have heard some of the challenging detail of what they are up against as parents with an increasingly needy child.

2: Ask if it would be helpful to feed back some thoughts you have had from listening to them that may or may not be useful to them?

3: If they are open, share from your own experience and from the details they have shared with you. This shows you have listened attentively. From what you’ve been through and what you’ve heard, you wonder that there might be a pattern of loving their son in such a way that could be inadvertently reducing his resilience and increasing his dependency. Ask if that is something they have considered?

4: Rather than give direct advice, share a scenario from either your own struggle or from examples you have heard from another (or read about). This can provide food for thought without being directly challenging.

5: If they don’t want you to share, it probably indicates that there is some reactivity already present – this can enable an acknowledgement that perhaps past interactions on parenting have not been experienced as gracious – ask if this the case? Follow up asking: How can I help to repair this – given our friendship is so important to me?

It is part of healthy relationships to be a resource to our friends and family at challenging times. Avoiding topics because of fear of tension is not helpful. Nor is the converse of judging and attempting to direct their life. Listening well and being prepared to share our own experiences can be a gift to a relationship. At the same time it is useful to ask: Am I valuing the wisdom I can gain from my friend’s experiences and vantage points?   This ensures that the friendship is balanced with support going both ways. In this way neither feels superior or in a one down position.

* The facts of the above scenario have been changed for confidentiality

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