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  • Pamela Brown, PhD

How to Give Advice Your Children Will Listen To and Follow

Carefully consider what you say and how you say it.

  • Parents naturally want to give their children advice about handling future situations or past actions.

  • Parents should consider whether their advice fits their children’s personality.

  • Short-term imperfection is to be expected when cultivating the longer term goals of autonomy and competency.

As parents, you will advise your children throughout their lives, and you will likely feel that certain advice is especially critical for your children to hear. But how can you ensure that your child will listen to your messages? What follows is context for understanding some of the factors that can affect your children's receptivity to guidance, as well as some suggestions about ways you can communicate to promote their listening.

One quality that constitutes good counsel is presenting your children with possible actions they might implement that fit their character or personality. Most of us have had the opportunity to witness peers or colleagues handle situations in ways we admire but that feel foreign to us. When you present solutions to your children, consider the temperamental or maturational differences between you and them that might make your suggestions difficult to enact. While you want to stretch your children's capacity to try different problem-solving solutions, it’s important that the solutions you offer aren’t ones they will be unlikely to use.

You may also think there is one optimal way your children should respond in a given situation, especially if you believe that their responding any differently would encourage someone to mistreat them. Although you may be right, remember that you are in this for the long haul. You are not just trying to give the best advice in the moment, but cultivating in your children the necessary skills to make good decisions down the road when you might not be around to influence their actions. To encourage reasonable and healthy risk-taking, it is important to communicate that their minor missteps are not tragedies. Help them know that your goal for them is autonomous, thoughtful problem-solving that they reflect upon and revise accordingly.

How advice is delivered often determines the likelihood that it will be used. Because most of us don't want to hear what we're doing wrong, the manner in which our flaws are pointed out to us is critical. For many, hearing implications that there was no possibility of a positive outcome due to their actions leaves them feeling ashamed or put down. Even great advice will likely be ignored if it is delivered with overtones of shaming, contempt, or derision. Some people are more sensitive than others to feedback when the delivery is perceived to be harsh. Think whether, in offering your children advice, you are intimating something fixed about their character that will shift their focus from the corrective action you want them to take and make them focus instead on what a disappointment they think they are to you. You don't want your child's attention divided between taking and implementing your present advice and defending their past actions. Are you a parent who communicates your judgment of others openly? If so, your children will quickly learn the criteria for your praise and criticism. They will also grow to know what you think about their actions. It will not matter if you openly express your opinions or not. This is called vicarious learning, and parents frequently teach in this way, though often unknowingly. For example, if your children watch you dismiss or think little of people you believe are lazy, they will know, when you casually suggest that they don’t seem very goal-directed or as interested in doing well, that your words are code for “lazy” and that laziness disgusts you. How best, then, to present your feedback?

For starters, try to avoid words like “always” or “never” —they are extreme and absolute, and there are usually exceptions that make such statements untrue. As I have recommended in earlier posts, it’s helpful to begin with a soft start-up that does not place blame. Start with expressions like “You may not have realized it,” “I wonder if,” and “Do you think things would have turned out differently if…?”

Also, if you know reasons that would make your child less likely to take your advice, it’s a good idea to address those reasons from the outset. For example, if they fear you are undercutting their autonomy, then be clear that that is not your intention. This helps dispel any misperceptions about why you are offering your guidance.

If you would like your children to consider other options than the ones they seem inclined to pursue, consider gentle reflecting questions like these: “What's your goal?” “What are you hoping will happen?” “Is there something that you're hoping for in the other person’s response?” “Do you think they will be receptive?” “Have you thought of how you will feel if they're not receptive?” “Will it bother you?”

As your child gets older, you can be more explicit with them about your intentions and ask them directly about the best ways for you to offer advice. For example, “You know that my wish as a parent is to help you navigate tricky situations with more ease and success than I did. But I also realize that I may not always offer advice in ways you like. Can you give me an idea of what approach works best for you?” Any of these scripts are drafts that you can change to sound truer to your own voice. And just as I am suggesting that your children may not come up with the perfect solution for any given situation, you may not either in terms of how you offer them advice. And remember to check in with your children later to see how things worked out. Besides asking them whether their strategy was successful, you can also ask if there is something more you could have done or said to be supportive. You, too, will get better at this with time.

Pamela Brown, PhD, Website


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