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Your friend’s child is a worry. You want to make a comment (“I don’t know how you put up with this!”) or give some free advice (“If this were my child…”). Maybe you have a guess about the sort of the problem that afflicts this child or maybe you think you know the solution. Maybe this child’s issues worry you – this might happen especially if the child is violent around your own child or if this child is a grandchild and not just the child of an acquaintance. You have things to say.

So how can you say what you want to say to this child’s parent without making things worse? According to Susan Silk and Barry Goldman, writing in the Los Angeles Times, you can’t. They’ve described a nifty tool to help you tell when you can complain or give advice and when you should say something completely different.

Silk and Goldman use as their example a person with a dangerous illness. But their plan works just as well for other situations. It certainly is worth trying out with the parents of the most troublesome child you know. Here’s how it works.

Imagine that your friends – the child’s parents – create a center point. Around this center point is the closest person or persons to these parents. These are likely their own parents – the child’s grandparents. These people make a ring around the parents’ center point. Outside this ring is another ring of people, those who are one more step away from the center. Maybe these are the family’s nanny or the parents’ best friends or their siblings. Each person in contact with the parents and the child has a place in a circle at some distance from the parents, depending on how close their relationship is to the family.

You are on one circle or another, at some distance from the center.

Now, say Silk and Goldman, to anyone nearer to the center of the circle than you are you may not complain, worry or give advice. You may only offer words of support and comfort. If you do need to complain, worry, or offer solutions you can do that, but only to someone who is in a more-distant ring than you are.

As Silk and Goldman say, “Comfort in, dump out.”

This means that the challenging child’s parents may complain to anyone who will listen. They are at the center point and if they need to unload, they may do that. But the person they complain to cannot offer advice or complain back. She can only sympathize and be a good listener.

At the same time, if you run into this child and his grandfather at the playground, you cannot complain about the child’s behavior to Grandpa or make suggestions you hope he carries home to the child’s parents. You may only sympathize and be a good listener.

What does this mean for us? It means that our own worry and struggle can be shared with others. We just have to choose wisely someone even more distant from the problem than we are.

And it means that always our first thought should be for the people who bear the responsibility and disappointment that can go with any sort of challenge. These people need support, not advice or thinly-veiled criticism.

Being supportive is always a good gift.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.