Ask the Expert: How to deal with unwanted family advice
Q I’m a mother for the first time, to a beautiful daughter who is now six months old. My problem is that I’m being constantly bombarded by advice from my family. My mother and father, my husband’s mother, and my sisters all pitch in with advice about how to raise my daughter.
It’s driving me crazy, as much of what they say is contradictory. I feel that I don’t know my own mind about how to look after her. Also I worry that everything I do is monitored by them and commented on behind my back.
My husband says I should just tell them all to back off and keep their noses out of our business. But I don’t want to offend anyone and really do value their support sometimes. What can I do?
A When you have your first baby, you can easily be overwhelmed by family advice and suggestions about how to manage.
Though people are well meaning, more advice is often the last thing you need when trying to cope with the many challenges of caring for a new baby (when you might prefer more practical help or simply emotional support).
The situation is made all the more confusing by the fact that much of the advice is contradictory and varies from person to person. Frequently, experienced parents have strong, though diametrically opposed, views about how to parent.
The situation is made no clearer by the many parenting experts in the field who seem to propose different parenting theories about the best way to bring up a small baby.
On the one hand, you have attachment- based parenting models, which propose that you respond on demand to your baby’s needs, and which endorse taking your baby into your bed at night; on the other hand, you have routine-based models, which propose responding to a baby’s demands only within a preordained routine and encouraging early independent sleeping. Indeed there are many other models between these two poles.
Discovering the way you want to parent
The truth is that there is no “one right way” to bring up a baby. What matters most is each new parent discovering what way works best for them and their baby.
When working with new parents, I try to provide them with time and space to discover the specific needs of their unique baby and to understand their own needs as parents and what type of parents they want to be.
My goal is to help parents strike an appropriate balance between attachment- and routine-based parenting that works for them and their new baby.
In being successful as a parent, the first step is to decide what type of parent you want to be and what is most important to you in parenting.
Take a few minutes with your husband to think about what you enjoy most about having the baby; then consider what you need as parents to survive and to manage the stress of looking after a small baby.
Involving your extended family
There is an ancient African proverb that it takes a “village to raise a child” – meaning that everyone needs support from extended family and friends in order to thrive as parents. So you are right to involve and rely on your extended family, though you need to do this in a way that works for you and your husband.
Take a moment to think of the support you might need from each of your extended family members.
Frequently, practical support is what new parents value most, whether this is someone popping over to mind the baby for an hour to let you catch up on sleep, to babysit and let you go out socially, or even to tidy the house or cook a meal and save you having to do this.
It could also be the social contact of visiting family members or sharing some activities to break the isolation of being a new parent.
Try to think of a plan as how to involve all your family members who are willing to help. There may also be some family members you can confide in more and whose advice seems to match your own parenting style more: you might more naturally select these people to confide in when you have a parenting dilemma or question.
Be positive and ask
for what you want
Try to ask directly for what you want from your family. Rather than focusing on what you don’t want them to do, focus instead on how you want them to support you
For example, rather than saying, “Don’t call over tomorrow as it interrupts my routine,” which might cause offence, instead say something like “Could I walk over with the baby and visit you as this would fit a lot better with my routine?”
Rather than criticising things you don’t like, praise any examples of support you get that works – “I really appreciate getting out and visiting people,” or “Thanks for tidying up/ making the dinner, that really helped,” and so on.
Plan strategies with your husband as to how you might deal with unwanted advice in a way that is polite and does not cause offence.
Sometimes being assertive works. For example, “Thanks for your advice, but I actually find the reverse works better for me,” or “I’m trying out the opposite system.” The key is having a calm and polite tone. Sometimes a light upbeat approach works, or using a bit of gentle humour can redirect a conversation and move things on.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and founder of the Parents Plus Charity. His next course on parenting preschoolers and young children starts in February.