My very kind friend has a kid who acts cruelly toward her littler sibling. My friend knows that is a problem but seems to minimize the issue when I see some pretty concerned empathy gaps. I know that no one wants to think that there is something wrong with their child but how can I let her know I think the problem is serious and she needs to get her child professional help.
Offering unsolicited parenting advice is tricky, especially if you aren’t a parent yourself. Many (most?) of us either were not given or have not sought out the tools to help us deal with perceived criticism in a healthy way. When you say something to your friend — even in the best way possible — she might not recognize your concern as a demonstration of how much you care about both of her children.
Instead, she might cycle through a few options in her mind. Is she a horrible parent? Is her child a monster? Are you (the person saying these things) a judgmental jerk who doesn’t understand shit? It’s unlikely that her first instinct will be to say “Thank you. You’re so right. Do you have a good child therapist you could recommend?”
That doesn’t mean, however, that you should just let it go. You’re an adult in a position to possibly help out both the little sibling (who doesn’t deserve to be treated poorly) and the older sibling (who will suffer in life if she doesn’t develop some empathy), so it is appropriate to speak up. The key is to pick the right time and place, and be ready to listen more than talk.
Time and place
Only broach this conversation when you both have some time to talk, the kids are not around, and you’re not likely to run into other people who will overhear your conversation. So don’t, for example, decide to casually mention your concern as she’s picking her kid up from a a birthday party. Set up a time to get caught up, and bring the topic up only after you’ve chatted about other things.
Where You’re Coming From Matters
If you aren’t a parent, I suggest you take the ‘how are things going with your girls’ approach. Use your ignorance of all things parenting to ask some pointed questions and see if you can get your friend to open up. She might really be concerned about the older child’s behavior but not feel like she can share that with her parent friends because she’s worried they’ll judge her. Make it clear that you are not interested in judging her parenting choices, but that you care for her kids and you want to support them — and her — in more ways than just coming along on trips to the zoo.
If you are a parent of one kid, you still can’t directly relate, so you should acknowledge that. Be up front about how you know parenting two (or more) children is different than raising one. Also be clear that you know parents can be overly critical of other parents and you are not here for that. You’re here for her and her two kids because you care about them all. You want to be honest about what you see, just as you’d want her to be honest if she had concerns about your child.
(Which, let’s take a moment and pause: how would YOU want someone to approach you about something similar with your child? Let’s say, for example, your child was bullying other kids at school, and you were aware but perhaps didn’t think it was as big of a deal as others. What would you want to hear from a friend? Even if you and your friend are very different people, if you can put yourself in her position as you’re talking, you should be able to pick up on how to go about it.)
If you’re a parent of siblings, you’ll likely have a bit more credibility with your friend on this subject. She still isn’t likely to just say “you’re right, what should I do?” But she might, because she knows that you’ve experienced siblings and have had your own challenges. Share what some of those are, and what you’ve been doing about them. Reiterate that you know you are not in her shoes, but that you want to support her.
Your Experiences Matter, Too
If you’ve been a sibling, you can play that up, possibly talking about things your own parents did that helped you and your siblings. If you went to therapy as a kid and feel comfortable sharing your experience with it, you can help her see that therapy can work and helped you to be the person she is friends with today.
Just Say It
The thing is, this all boils down to the fact that this is your friend. You know her, and you clearly want good things for her and her children. So, as uncomfortable as it is, and with as many preambles and acknowledgments and caveats as I’ve laid out above, at some point you need to just tell her that you’re concerned about what you’ve seen (not about what you’ve heard, because that’s easily explained away) and that you want to have an honest and safe conversation with her about it. She’ll either be open to that or she’ll tell you to fuck off and mind your own business. If it’s the former, awesome. If it’s the latter, keep an eye on things so that you can try another approach if the situation escalates.
One last thing. A reader kindly pointed out I forgot a very important caveat to all of this: only even consider such a conversation if this person is a close friend of yours. Not just a parent you see at pick up and drop off, not the wife of your partner’s colleague who you see a few times a year. I’m talking about someone who you text in the middle of the workday. Someone who you hang out with regularly one-on-one. Otherwise, let their closer friends be the ones to raise the questions, because they will know more about the situation (and the steps the parents have already taken) than you do.