Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
My husband and I have four children, two of whom are biological brothers we adopted at ages one and two. One of our adopted sons has severe behavior issues at school and at home. He is now fifteen years old and due to safety issues—wandering around in the middle of the night and threatening us and teachers—has spent much of the past two years in mental health/residential placements outside our house.
My husband’s family frequently questions our actions concerning our son. “Why are we sending him into placement?” “Why is he on medication?” “What are we doing to set our son off?” Although they don’t realize it, they also undermine our authority with our son. For example, he calls them sometimes to intervene when he is not getting his way. We’ve tried to explain to them how destructive this intervention is to our relationship with our son. They see it as trying to help him.
We’re expecting our son to come back home in a couple months and we’re not sure how to approach the situation with my husband’s family. We’ve tried having discussions with them, but our conversations always seem to turn into arguments about our course of action with our son.
Back Seat Parenting
I admire you for making the decision to adopt and deferring to the needs of two brothers who would want to grow up together. I also know a little about your pain. I had to make a decision to remove a child from my home as well. I’ve never cried or agonized more in my life. I can’t think of a role in life where you have to make more profound decisions with more imperfect understanding than that of a parent in your situation. I appreciate the depth of your dilemma and the difficulty of making any kind of decision and then living in peace with it afterward.
I also know what it’s like to have others criticize that decision. When our children were young, I would sometimes sit in smug judgment of neighbors whose children wandered. I was sure that our enlightened approach to parenting could never produce such results. I saw clearly the errors in others’ actions. Then, my kids became teenagers.
Here are some reflections from the wrinkles and gray hair I earned through those years.
Be sure you absorb useful feedback. While others might be dead wrong in their judgments and could be offering pabulum when you need wisdom, it never hurts to look for truth in what they say.
Involve them in the story. If you want to help judgmental family members feel more supportive of your approach, give them a vicarious experience of it. Don’t be defensive. Don’t give them your “answer.” Don’t try to convince them you’ve done the right thing. Just tell them a story about a typical crisis you’ve faced in all its glorious complexity. Then say, “We don’t know if we’ve made the right decision. What would you do?”
It’s easy to judge when you’re defending a single value rather than trading off multiple ones that are inevitably in conflict in your situation. For example, your in-laws might say, “You should be more patient with him!” Patience is a virtue and it’s impossible to argue against the need to be patient, but they may be less likely to be so simplistic if you non-defensively lay out the full story for them. Help them see that it’s not just about patience—it’s about balancing compassion for one child with safety for the others. You have two values to address, not just one.
For example, you might say: “I know we should be more patient. Perhaps you could help me think this through. I know I may not be handling things perfectly. Could I describe a situation I faced and ask for your counsel? On Monday, I walked into the living room and found Cliff with his little brother pinned to the floor with his hands around his throat. Jason’s eyes were wide and terrified. Since then, Jason has wet his bed every night and wakes up screaming most nights . . .”
You get the idea. In telling the story, you need to anticipate every simplistic off ramp they might take and be sure to share enough detail that they understand the fears, frustrations, and failed attempts you’ve been through. If you lay it out fully then pause humbly and ask for their help, you may change their confidence in their judgments. It’s possible this approach won’t eliminate their disagreements with your decisions, but it may soften them.
Get comfortable in your skin. As my wife and I made tough parenting decisions, family and friends judged us as well. Over time, I’ve learned to pause and look inward rather than outward when I feel misunderstood. If, rather than focusing on the injustice of their disapproval, I reexamine my own motives and deliberations, my resentment subsides. If I search my heart and conclude that I’ve made a reasonable judgment based on pure motives, I find my peace in that knowledge. Then I do my best to assume the truth will show itself over time, whether by helping me or them to be smarter, or both. In the meantime, I try to be comfortable that I live in a world where reasonable people can disagree.
Ask for explicit commitments to boundaries. Finally, I support your desire to have some clear “no-no”s for the in-laws. Be sure you and your husband are unified. Have him take the lead in laying out these boundaries. One should be, “Please never discuss concerns with our parenting with one of our children. When you do—even just by responding to his complaints behind our back—it does not change our decision. What it does do is bolster his decision to rebel, making things worse for him. I’m sure that’s not what you intend. But that has been the effect.”
Be sure to end this crucial conversation with a request for commitment and consent to confront noncompliance. “Do you understand why this is important to us even if we’re handling things differently than you think we should? Can we have your commitment to that rule?”
After gaining commitment, follow up with, “May we also call you to discuss it if we’re concerned this has happened? I just want to keep the air clear and be sure Cliff is not playing us against each other. Would that be okay?”
There are no easy answers here, and my advice may be ill informed as I lack some critical information about things you’ve already tried. If so, I am sorry. I truly wish for you the wisdom and peace to bless this young man as much as you can—and to find joy in doing so. You certainly have my love and respect.
P.S. Have you lost a loved one? I received a question from a reader whose husband recently passed away and she’s struggling to respond to insensitive comments about her husband’s death. Have you faced the same or similar problems? If so, what comments were more hurtful than helpful? What comments helped you cope with your grief? How did you respond when someone made a comment that was insensitive or hurtful?
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