NYT Blog: How to Talk to Parent about their Children's Behaviors

Stop It Now! Helpline Coordinator Jenny Coleman offered advice on how to speak with parents about their children's worrisome behaviors in a comment on the  Motherlode: Adventures in Parenting blog in the New York Times.  In Quandary Considered: A Child's Disturbing Games, blogger K. J. Dell'Antonia described a situation sent in by a reader and asked for input on having conversations with parents about their children's behavior. 

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Helpline Response -- How to Talk to Parents about their Children's Behaviors

As the director of Stop It Now!’s Helpline, I read your column, “Parenting Quandary: A Child’s Disturbing Games”” and its subsequent “Quandary Considered: A Child’s Disturbing Games” with great interest. The commenters thoughts were insightful and it was good to read so many adults who feel that a child’s well-being is a priority; worth even risking a good friendship.
Stop It Now!’s Helpline (www.stopitnow.org) serves all adults with questions and concerns about preventing child sexual abuse. While S. does not reference any suspicion of child sexual abuse, the question of whether to talk to the parents of a child who demonstrates concerning behaviors is often a question many of the adults who contact us ask. As we specialize in helping adults think through their options for acting when they have a concern about the safety of a child, we help folks practice difficult conversations with people they love and care about.
It is difficult to know whether a child’s behavior is “play” or potential warning signs that require further attention and possible assessment. It is important that children not get labeled for their differences in play, personality, interests, etc. At Stop It Now!, we often emphasize that when an adult is concerned about a child’s behaviors, it is important to not let a single warning sign of a child in possible distress to become the “proof” that a child is at-risk. However, when there are several warning signs of a child in distress, it is important for adults to step up and actively attend to that child and his or her environment. In this case, S. has identified several warning signs that indicate that her friend’s child may need attention and possibly some specialized supports.
I was pleased that so many of the commenters shared their thoughts that S. should continue to try and talk to her friend about the concerning behaviors. Parents are naturally protective of their children and indeed, it can be very upsetting to have someone tell them that something may be wrong with their child. However, these conversations can really be an offering of support and understanding and not an accusatory or blaming chat.
We know that the way this type of conversation begins can set the tone for the rest of the talk. When a conversation can be started with the words, “I care about and love you and your daughter”, the foundation of caring and support is begun. A tip I often share is that when you want to give feedback or information to another adult that you’re worried may be received in an angry or defensive way, it can be helpful to first ask the person how they would like to receive feedback from you that may include some difficult information. Perhaps using language like, “If I have a concern about your daughter, how would you like to hear about it” may be a good way to start.  In this way, you’ve shown respect for this person’s feelings and wants,  you’ve given them a “heads up” that a difficult conversation may be in front of them and you’ve also begun a process to get “buy in “ from this adult to stay for a difficult conversation. 
When S. speaks with her friend, it will be really helpful to stay focused on the behaviors she’s observed and experienced with her friend’s daughter. Stay away from making a diagnosis or theory about what may be prompting the worrisome behaviors unless there is concrete knowledge about what may be the precipitant.
S. should remain prepared that her friend may need to hear from her more than once. Sometimes scary and difficult information is best delivered in shorter time periods, and if someone is too upset to take in much information, it’s better to take a break and return to the conversation at a later time. However, it is important to return to it.
It sounds like it is important for adults to very vigilant in their supervision whenever S’s friend’s little girl is playing with any other children. It’s wonderful that other adults are willing to step it to help redirect her behaviors, and it sounds like she could benefit from ongoing modeling of safe boundaries, respectful and safe behaviors and positive  healthy relationships. Overall, all families can benefit from safety planning for all situations that includes guidelines and rules about boundaries, communication and healthy relationships.
It’s really great to see so many adults taking active interest in children’s safety. It’s these kinds of discussions that help adults continue to actively contribute in keeping children healthy and safe.