Judgemental Family Members (or friends): How to Deal

Most of us have them. Certain members of our family or certain friends who don’t believe our children have the diagnoses they have. Or they don’t believe those diagnoses even exist. Or they are certain your child could be fixed with the right parenting – parenting that you’re obviously NOT doing. Or they downplay the difficult realities of your child’s life. Maybe they think babywearing is ridiculous, or homeschooling will ruin your children. Maybe they restrain themselves to nonverbal judginess – snorts, scoffs, eyerolls. Maybe they even undermine you directly to your child.

In short, they’re a real joy to be around.

Every family is different. Every situation is different. I’m not here to give you a step by step, sure-fire way to fix your judgy family members and friends. What I can do is offer you some tips that have worked for us and that have worked for others I know. The goal here isn’t to win, it isn’t to score points. It’s to at least attempt to win the person over, to get them on your team, or to at least get them to shut their mouths. Try one, try them all, and share what worked for you in the comments!

A woman with dark hair looks very mean and disapproving

First, Do They Know What’s Going On?

You can’t expect understanding if you haven’t been upfront with your child’s struggles. Don’t just tell family and friends that your child has ADHD, or your child has autism, or your child has heart failure. Too many people don’t know what those terms actually mean – and, worse, they think they do.

You’ll want to name the diagnosis (or diagnoses), explain how it/they impact your child, and give an action step or two.

“Johnny has combined type ADHD. Contrary to what many people believe, this means that his brain is actually UNDER stimulated. His brain subconsciously seeks stimulation that more typical brains get from normal body chemicals. What this looks like to us is sometimes what appears to be naughty behavior – but is often just seeking stimulation or input. You can actually watch it happening if you’re observant sometimes – after a period of quiet, his brain starts seeking stimulation. It knows from past experience that hitting a sibling gives it LOTS of exciting stimulation. Then Johnny’s much lowered ability to stop and think – his impulsiveness – means that there’s no pause between the thought entering his head and his body doing it. BAM. And his brain’s happy because the sibling has yelled and mom’s mad and there’s so much EXCITEMENT going on. It isn’t caused by poor discipline – it’s actually an imbalance of brain chemicals and structural differences in the way the brain works. It’s really quite fascinating. Johnny’s working with a therapist to strengthen his skills in managing his behavior, and you can help, too, by stepping in with a calm voice when you start to notice he’s getting too squirreley. Often, he just needs a change of pace to get himself back under control.”

“Elizabeth has a primary immunodeficiency called NK Cell Dysfunction. This means her body’s NK cells – part of her immune system – don’t work very well. NK Cells help your body fight viruses – her body just doesn’t do this very well, which is why she’s often sick. When she’s sick, she has to miss school, and it’s hard to keep up with her peers, even though she’s very smart, because she misses so much school. You can help by being sure to let us know if you’re sick when we’ve planned to get together.”

This is an important first step. You’re never going to get the buy-in if your family doesn’t know what’s going on.

“Well,” you might think. “It’s really none of their business.” And yes, I agree to some extent. There are a few things we’ve decided are just not anyone else’s business – either forever, or for right now. But then I can’t expect others to be understanding about the effects of those things, because they don’t know. For example, if my child must take medication that makes him ragey, but I don’t tell anyone, I can’t be surprised when they respond to him like he’s just being a really naughty child. Because they don’t know what’s going on.

Second, do you have a safe place to vent?

Most of the time, people can handle tense situations so much easier if they have a sympathetic ear to complain to. Find that person. Use them. Preferably not in front of your kids.

The Techniques

Ignore it

The simplest way to deal with judginess is to just ignore it. Like, really really ignore it. That eyeroll you noticed when you brought food for your kid that they can/will eat? Pretend you didn’t see it. The not-very-quiet comment about your child’s behavior made to another family member? Pretend you didn’t hear it. Ignore, ignore, ignore. I find it’s helpful to repeat to myself “don’t engage, don’t engage, don’t engage.” Just don’t see the things. Don’t hear the things. I like this for situations that are short-term with people I don’t see often, or for a situation where it wouldn’t be appropriate to address the issue. It lets me save my energy for things that actually matter, and keeps whatever event I’m at pleasant. It’s often not really worth the energy to address judginess from people or situations that you won’t encounter very often, and it isn’t often worth the unpleasantness to have it out with Aunt Martha in the middle of a funeral.

“You don’t say”

This strategy involves, not exactly ignoring entirely, but MOSTLY ignoring. This works best with people who want to give you advice, tell you what you’re doing wrong, etc., but who you don’t see often enough to really worry about, or for situations where you just don’t want to actually confront the person for whatever reason. Let them say whatever they’re going to say. At the earliest polite opportunity, say something polite but dismissive. “Huh, you don’t say.” Then walk away, start talking to someone else, or change the subject. “If you let him get hungry enough, he’ll eat. Children don’t let themselves starve.” “Oh, ok. Hey, have you read Ted Chiang’s latest book?” If they persist, you can try simply letting them go on for as long as they will with no encouragement from you. (Be polite, but don’t engage with head nodding, eye contact, or verbalizations.) When they finally stop, go back to Plan A: Dismiss+move on. “We’ll have to think about that. Oh! That reminds me, I wanted to ask Aunt Barb about her cats.” This is also called the “pass the bean dip” technique. “I think your child just needs firmer discipline.” “oh, ok. Hey, could you pass the bean dip?”

Humor or Light Sarcasm

I used to do this with breastfeeding. “How long are you going to keep nursing that baby?” “Well, we figure if he takes classes at the local college, he can come home between classes for a snack…” Depending on the reaction, plan to wrap this one up like You Don’t Say – change the subject or find something else to do and somewhere else to be. We’re still mostly practicing avoidance here.

“Have you tried ?” “No, but we did try waving a dead chicken over him. Didn’t work. Oh, looks like I’m needed in the kitchen!”

If you can’t think of anything humorous to say, sometimes it works to just pretend that whatever the other person said was funny. “Kids won’t let themselves starve.” “ha! That’s a good one!” or “haha! Yeah, that’s what we thought, too. hahahhaha.” Walk away.

Eliminate the Middleman

Don’t allow other family members to tattle to you. I’ve taken the stance that I don’t actually care what is said behind my back. I have a decent idea of what is said, and I just can’t bring myself to care. I really only care about what’s said to or in front of me or my children. Therefore, I don’t allow others to gossip to me about what they heard Aunt Judy said to Cousin Bob last week. I only care if I heard it directly from Aunt Judy. You may feel differently here, but I just don’t think anyone’s best interests are served when we run on gossip.

A man and a woman talk sitting in chairs

Educate Informally

Correct incorrect assumptions or statements made by the person in question, casually and gently, as they come up. “Kids won’t let themselves starve!” “You are right, most kids won’t, that’s true. But for some kids, the wiring that connects their body’s ‘I’m hungry’ messages with their brain’s ‘need to eat’ messages just isn’t working right. In Little Janey’s case, (whatever). So she uses a feeding tube until her brain can sort that out – we’re so glad we have that available as an option for her, so she can grow healthy and strong! Thanks for your interest in her feeding tube! I can show you how it works the next time I get ready to feed her if you want to watch.”

Try to work in a positive thing to say at the start and the end. Start by affirming that they’re actually RIGHT, or at least partially so, or by complimenting their excellent observation skills, or by using words like “interesting.” “That’s interesting that you say that.” End with another compliment, or by thanking them for the conversation, or by thanking them for their understanding, or for listening, or for accepting what you told them – even if they didn’t really.

And, if possible, invite them to be part of your experience. I’ll show you how tube feeding works. I have an excellent link that gives you a bit of an idea of what it’s like to experience the world with a sensory processing disorder. There’s an event next week at the library called “Experiencing Dyslexia” that you might be interested in. Do you want to come along with us to his next dialysis appointment so you can see how it works?

Again, the goal isn’t to get in a good zinger. Those are fine if we’re talking about a stranger in the grocery store who you’ll never see again, but this strategy is for people who you see regularly. The goal is to maintain the relationship and get them on board with you, rather than fighting you. You’re playing the long game.

Educate More Formally, Part A

So what if you have a person who you see often, you wish to maintain a relationship with, you’ve told them the situation, you’ve done some informal education along the way, and they still make judgy comments?

Enter into a conversation. In this case, you’re being a bit more active – rather than waiting for the other person to say something to you, you’re bringing it up. Either because you overheard a comment, you saw the eyeroll, or you just saw an opening.

Use your “I” statements that you learned about in middle school. (or was that just me?) “I noticed you have frequently commented on Mikey’s behavior when we’re at mom’s house. You might remember he has autism. In Mikey, that often manifests itself in an inability to roll with the punches or deal with rules or expectations that suddenly change. For example, earlier to night, he had been looking forward to playing baseball after lunch – and that had been the plan. But then after lunch, everyone decided to watch a movie instead. Most kids his age can just roll with that, but he cannot. His brain isn’t made that way. I know it can be difficult to understand when you don’t have a kid with autism, but it isn’t poor behavior – it’s him trying to deal with a world that’s very hard for him to navigate. Usually, it helps to (whatever). I’m not asking everyone to change to suit him – it’s perfectly fine that everyone’s watching a movie instead. But it would be ideal if we could all just give Mikey the time and space he needs to deal with his frustration (or whatever).”

Educate More Formally, Part B

This can be used in conjunction with the above Part A, or on its own. Simply put, send or bring the person some educational information. Sometimes people won’t believe you, for whatever reason. Anything you say is dismissed. But sometimes they’ll believe doctors, researchers, or the staff of Good Morning America.

But don’t just fire off an email, “Hey, you need to read this.” Enter into a conversation. Either stick it onto the end of the conversation above (“I have some excellent resources that might help you understand. I’ll email you one and I’d love it if you could read it.”) or start a whole new, shorter conversation (in person or via electronics). “You might remember that Matilda has hypotonia. In the event you’ve forgotten what this means for Matilda, I’m attaching a short article about what hypotonia is and how it impacts kids – I’d love it if you could read it as a refresher. Thanks!”

Then, follow up. Next time you see them, ask if they had a chance to read the information and if they have any questions. Ask nicely, not like you’re challenging them. “Hey, have you had a chance to read that article? I’d love to answer any questions you have.”

Ask for Understanding

Here’s where we start to get a little more blunt. At this point, you’re no longer trying for buy-in. You’ve given up on that. You’re just trying to stop the comments.

Use your sandwich technique (start and end with compliments or something positive). Say something positive, name the thing that you want changed, ask for their help or understanding, end with something positive.

“Aunt Jan, I can tell how much you care about my Janie, and I love that you love her so much! I know that you think that the feeding tube is a mistake and we should just force her to eat with her mouth. I have explained to you why that isn’t an option and why it wasn’t successful in the past. This is not a decision that’s up for discussion. This is now an off-limits topic. If you want to learn more or ask legitimate questions about feeding tubes, I’m always open to that conversation, but I will not entertain criticism on this topic any longer. I value our friendship and I love spending time with you, let’s not spoil it by arguing over this same topic every time, OK?”

“Mom. It’s obvious how much you care for my kids. And I know that our decision to homeschool them really bothers you.

Draw and Enforce Boundaries

We’re still going for polite. We’re still trying to maintain the relationship. But we’re getting serious. You need to explicitly name the unacceptable behavior and name the consequence for the behavior. Yes, yes, just like you would if you were talking to your children.

“The last time we spoke about this, I asked if you could please stop criticizing our choice to use medications to help Max with his ADHD. Yet you continue to bring it up. This is not acceptable. It must stop. If you can’t restrain yourself from criticizing our parenting choices in the future, we’ll need to reduce the amount of time we spend together.”

But it cannot end there. If the person respects the boundary, consider whether it would be appropriate to offer a thank you. Maybe after a few visits where the named behavior doesn’t occur, you might text them after and just say, “hey, thanks for following through on not bringing up x. I really appreciate not having to feel defensive every time we’re together.”

But what if they don’t? Do not establish a boundary you’re not prepared to enforce. If they do the named behavior, you do the named consequence. You’ll need to thoughtfully consider the person and the situation to determine exactly how to follow through, but maybe you get up and leave in the middle of a gathering as soon as the named behavior occurs. Maybe you grin and bear it, but turn down the next event and explain why. But you cannot just ignore it. Just like with children, if you name a consequence and do not follow it, it’s harder to be taken seriously the next time.

Reduce Contact

Of course, you can just reduce contact without all of the above bluntness. Maybe bluntness isn’t your thing, or maybe you have reasons to believe all the bluntness in the world won’t help. Just simply start seeing the person less. Show up for gatherings less often. Don’t initiate phone calls or texts. Unfriend or unfollow the person on Facebook and change your settings so they no longer see your updates. Take whatever steps you can on the other social media places that all you young’uns are using these days.

End the Relationship

I put this one last because it’s the most extreme, but shouldn’t be eliminated. Especially if the person in question is undermining you to your kids, ending the relationship is a step that deserves consideration. And it should be done, if possible, in a way that doesn’t pull the whole family into drama. The disagreement is between you and the one other person – everyone else doesn’t need to know the details. However, be warned that if you decide to stop talking to Grandma, probably many, many others in your family are suddenly going to make it their business.

Practice Makes Comfortable

I personally find that practicing potential responses to potential things people might say helps me to feel more comfortable going in to any event, and helps things go more smoothly during the event. It helps me keep my responses upbeat, positive, and less flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants. You can practice with someone else, or you can just practice in your head.

Analyze Your Own Situation

Now that you’ve read through the list of potential ways to handle the situation, you need to decide what might work best for you. Before you can do this, you first need to analyze your situation. Think about the family member(s) or friend(s) that led you to this post. What is your relationship with them? What you do WANT your relationship to be? Is what you want realistic?

If the person is someone you don’t see often and you don’t have deep feelings about, ignoring it is probably the best choice.

If the person is someone you see often and you wish to maintain the relationship, you’ll need to decide what you think will work best with that individual person that still maintains a good – but honest – relationship.

But it is also a good idea to really, honestly consider if what you wish for a relationship with the person is actually realistic. Sometimes we want to have a “normal” parent, for example, instead of the parent we actually have. (We want a parent who is loving and supportive of our choices, rather than one who reacts as though we are still small children, for example, or who has more typical reactions to situations instead of extreme reactions that come from their own past trauma.) Look honestly at the person you’re reading this post for – are you being realistic about the type of person they are and the type of relationship you can have? If not, the FIRST step to managing the relationship and dealing with the judgementalism is to change your expectations of the relationship. I’m going to very sincerely suggest that it might help to get a therapist on board if you suspect that your expectations for a relationship with a close family member may not be realistic for that person.

So, I hope these ideas are helpful. Got something that’s worked well for you? Let us know in the comments!


Author: wallypop

I'm a Work At Home, Homeschooling, Special Needs Mom! I'm so blessed to be able to stay home with my kiddos and sew fun things like diapers, baby carriers, and special/medical needs goodies for my customers. I hope you enjoy reading my blog!

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