At a glance
Relatives who make negative comments may not understand your child’s challenges.
How you respond depends partly on where you are and who you’re with.
You may be able to use the moment to turn your relative into a supporter, not a critic.
At family gatherings, relatives who don’t understand learning and thinking differences may make negative comments about your child. These remarks can sting, even if they’re not intended to. Sometimes, relatives make comments that they don’t even realize are negative.
So, what’s the best way to respond to judgments or criticism from family members? It depends on what they say, who they say it to, where you are, who else is there, and what the spirit behind the comment is.
Negative things relatives might say
Family members who don’t understand can be critical of all sorts of behaviors they notice. For example, they might remark that a child:
- Talks a lot
- Is exhausting to be around
- Doesn’t listen
- Won’t sit still
- Takes a long time to do something
- Is disrespectful
- Doesn’t try hard enough
- Is messy
- Is a picky eater
- Is too sensitive
While your relatives may not use the words, you might interpret what they’re saying as:
- Your child is lazy.
- Your child just wants attention.
- Your child is annoying or rude.
- You have poor parenting skills.
Relatives may also say things about not believing that learning and thinking differences are real. Or they may doubt that your child has these challenges.
How to respond to negative comments
It’s natural to feel hurt or angry when people criticize your child (or you). Negative comments can be especially upsetting when they come from people you expect to be supportive.
But unless you know your family member is being intentionally hurtful, try to put your emotions aside in the moment. The ideal outcome is for your relative to understand more about your child’s challenges and become a supporter, not a critic.
When others are around
A key thing to consider before you respond is where you are at that moment and who else is there. If you’re at the dinner table or talking in a group, you might want to keep it short: “You must not understand my child’s challenges. I’d like to talk with you about it at a better time.”
Even this brief response is a way of advocating for your child. But don’t let it drop. Be sure to follow up and help this relative understand your child’s behavior — and how their comment came across. You can also tell your relative what they might do or say to be supportive.
When it’s just you and the relative
When you’re not in a crowd, you might want to set the relative straight. Explain exactly how the behavior is related to your child’s learning and thinking differences, and how you felt about the comment: “My child’s language disorder makes it hard for her to follow directions. She’s not just disobeying or ignoring what people say.”
“What you said was upsetting to me. My child is working hard to improve those skills, and you may not be aware of how hard it is for her. One way you can help is to break down any directions you give into steps. And if you have a question, I’m happy to answer it — just not at a social event.”
When the relative is being mean on purpose
People often make negative comments because they’re misinformed or don’t think before they speak. But there are people who say things knowing they’re mean. In this case, call them out — no matter where you are.
Do that especially if your child is around. Mean comments are a form of bullying, and your child needs to see you stand up to that. You might say, “What you just said is disrespectful, and I won’t put up with it. My child has ADHD and struggles to complete tasks — and you called her lazy. If you can’t be supportive, please don’t say anything.”
Negative comments or criticism from relatives can be very difficult to take. But they also create an opportunity to advocate for your child, try to help family members understand the challenges, and get support for both you and your child.
If the comment isn’t meant to be hurtful, try to put your emotions aside in the moment.
If relatives are being purposefully mean, call them out on it.
Negative comments can be opportunities to advocate for your child.
About the author
About the author
Gail Belsky is executive editor at Understood. She has written and edited for major media outlets, specializing in parenting, health, and career content.
Andrew Kahn, PsyD is a licensed psychologist who specializesing in working with people who think and learn differently. In his role as Understood’s associate director of behavior change and expertise, Dr. Kahn focuses on ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, anxiety, general learning and behavioral challenges, and learning and social-emotional functioning. Executive function and emotional regulation have been at the core of his work for over two decades. His work has been featured in Forbes, NPR, Business Inside and Emotional Intelligence.