By Vanessa Bever
There are many ways to become the recipient of unsolicited advice.
You might be casually describing a frustrating situation you experienced with your child to a friend. Instead of being met with the empathy and understanding you’re expecting, you are met with unwanted advice. Or maybe you are just going about your business, caretaking for your child in a public setting–when out of nowhere, someone you’ve never met gives you “tips” you never asked for.
These are just examples of situations that we will all encounter at one time or another.
When we are put into socially awkward situations such as these, we can be mindful of what we will do, how we will think, and what we will take away from these experiences. I propose that the approaches I list below will bring about an effective change for parents caught in these faux pas. Our main goal is to attempt to better navigate these situations when they occur.
In breaking down the possible emotional reactions to unwanted parental advice, I identified two levels of response:
1. What we say and do after someone has just given us their “2 cents.”
2. The private feelings and thoughts that are evoked by that interaction.
#2 is an important step of self-reflection.
In that moment following the unsolicited advice, we can try and be aware of our emotions and thoughts. This can give us the opportunity to respond clearly, rationally, and calmly–despite the way we might feel (i.e., Bowen’s differentiated self… for those therapists reading out there).
I approach this topic with the mindset that, more often than not, all parties involved “want what’s best for the child.” A little understanding of human nature can go a long way in helping us respond to these situations. In a 2001 study, Edwards et al. reviewed Dr. Thoits‘ scholarship on the relationship between health and social support. They concluded that “a positive relationship exists between reported social inclusion and both physical and mental health… Perceived emotional support is related to better mental and physical health and can function as a buffer for significant life events.”
Simply put, support from others can protect and boost our physical and mental well-being.
What does this have to do with unsolicited advice? If we know that social support is beneficial, then we can reframe how we approach the advice giver. In other words, the way we view the person who is engaging in this unpleasant social exchange can forecast our reaction. If we respond to the individual while believing that he/she has good intentions and honest care, then this will improve the quality of our response. Therefore, we can assume that the presenter of the unsolicited advice has good intentions but has not found a refined/appropriate approach to provide that information.
The Advice Giver
We can think of the advice giver as having personal experiences, observational information, and knowledge that he/she is trying to relay to us, with the caveat that even the most well-meaning individual can be misinformed.
As we consider the source, we can look at these factors:
- How much contact do you have with this person? Is this person someone you encountered briefly (e.g., stranger, distant acquaintance) or someone that you will interact with in the foreseeable future?
- Is this someone you consider to be close?
- Is she/he someone you consider to have more experience as a parent?
As you think about these qualities of the advice giver, reflect on how each quality impacts the way in which you would react to the same comment. Does it feel less abrasive if it’s a stranger versus a dear friend?
What to Do
Do I sometimes just pretend I didn’t hear something or grin but keep walking?
Sometimes the circumstances just don’t allow me to be as honest as I want to be. Depending on the situation, you may have an easy exit. Take it. There also are other ways to react: you can physically leave, change the conversation by introducing a new subject, or acknowledge and confront. If you are not physically leaving (but would like to leave that conversation), this is how the formula goes:
1. Acknowledge: I hear you.
2. Reflective listening: Paraphrase the advice given to you (e.g. “So what you’re suggesting is cloth diapering instead of disposables.”).
3. Respond with your concise feedback.
4. Constructively reflect.
That concise feedback bundled with an exit is the perfect way out. The art of politely exiting a conversation is an important skill.
Some examples for a grand exit:
- “Thanks for that idea, I’ll look into it.”
- “Alright, I gotta get going.”
- “I’m grateful that you’re thinking of ways to help me.”
- “Okay, I’ll think about that.”
- “I’ll check with my (partner/pediatrician/childcare) about that.”
The process of constructive self-reflection requires that you spend your energy focusing on you and your family unit. You can leave a situation obsessing over what someone said, dissecting all the ways that they missed the mark, but you will benefit more by looking in at what caused your discomfort, and how you handled it all.
Let’s discuss that situation in which you get a piece of advice that causes you to struggle to control your facial expression. Check in with yourself and notice how you are feeling in that moment. If you have adequate control to respond or challenge the advice in a constructive way, do so. If not, find an exit–whether verbal or physical.
The Perfect Storm
You are in distress, your child is inconsolably crying and you are frustrated. A person intrudes in the height of this situation with unsolicited advice that only heightens your levels of stress. You have the urge to turn to that person and respond by “letting them have it” and unload your stress on them.
So you respond angrily toward the individual. You leave the situation feeling unsuccessful with dealing with your child, criticized, and guilty about the way you treated everyone. Of course there is no way to truly prevent this type of scenario, because it is a normal part of our lives. Our children will ragefully cry in public, and even though we deal with it calmly 90% of the time, there’s always that 10% when we won’t.
Perfect storms occur.
Remember to be kind to yourself if this has happened and reflect constructively.
Chronically Unwelcome Advice
When the advice has been chronically unwelcome from a fixed person in your life (and your previous attempts have not been successful), then a new approach is merited.
First, reflect on the situations that prompt the unsolicited advice. See if there’s a pattern. Maybe the person is responding to your expressed frustration. If that’s the case, then before you start talking with them about your experience, tell them upfront: “I’ve got some stuff going on and I was hoping you could hear me out and let me vent.”
Set time aside to have a sincere conversation with this person, informing them of the pattern that has developed. It’s helpful to let the person know ahead of time that you want to talk with him/her and set up a time when you are both available. Label your emotions and try to make as many “I” statements as possible. Provide them with concrete ways in which they can talk to you about their suggestions without imposing them on you. Be clear on how you both can move forward, be grateful for their willingness to listen, and see if there is a topic you both just need to shelf for a bit.
Don’t Do it Yourself
As tricky as it can be, we can all unintentionally fall into the behavior of being the offender. It’s normal that we see another person’s discomfort and want to relieve them of it. So if you experience the impulse to give advice after someone shares a struggle they are encountering, stop and think. You can choose to first empathize with their struggle “that sounds so stressful.” If you decide to embark on giving advice, be transparent and ask for permission.
Example: “Wow a lot of things are coming to my mind. Let me know if you’re interested in hearing some of the ways I dealt with that.”
The way we approach these kinds of situations will impact not only the people around us, but the way we feel about ourselves. Often times, we just want someone to empathize, normalize, and understand us.
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Vanessa Bever is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in family health, personal and child-development, parent-child relationships, and developmental disabilities. She graduated with her Bachelors in Psychology from California State University and her Masters of Arts in Counseling Psychology from National University, California. She has helped parents for years with tailored curriculums specific to the needs of their personal experience parenting — no two families are the same. Working with children and caregivers has shaped Vanessa’s views of the healing power of a supportive environment for the whole family. Born in Lima, Peru, Vanessa now resides in New York. She has enjoyed a deepened understanding of the parent-child unit through her own recent personal journey into motherhood.