Here’s how you can give your kids advice that they’ll actually listen to and not just roll their eyes at and ignore

Growing up, children need direction on everything from social behavior to study — and how you give it is key to them following through on it.

It can often be one of the more nuanced dilemmas that parents face. Part of growing up is learning and developing and often children can’t do that unless they get instruction or direction from peers or adults.

For example, you can see that your child, or more complicatedly, your teenager, is going off-track in some way (interactions with friends, approaches to schoolwork, eating habits and so on) and you feel a responsibility to get them back on track with wiser or healthier behaviour. So, you give them some advice and direction about what they need to do and they don’t do it. In fact, they get angry and give out to you for interfering.

Or, your son or daughter comes to you to tell you about a problem they are having, and when you give them some advice that might solve the problem, they seem cross, resistant and reluctant to take your advice, even though they came to you.

Or, even when they have explicitly asked for your advice, which you then generously and considerately give, they don’t follow that advice, or they only partially implement what you have suggested. While they may be very satisfied with the advice you gave, you end up then frustrated or cross that you went to a lot of bother to help, and they don’t seem to value it enough to actually do what you suggest.

There are a few factors involved in advice-giving that are worth holding in mind, and which make the process much more fruitful and satisfying, for the advice-giver and receiver. I’ll start with what I believe to be a life-truism: unasked for advice is almost always unwelcome.

In my experience of living and working with children and teenagers, the times when I have given unsolicited advice have been the times of greatest frustration, for me and the child. Even in my clinical practice this has been the case. Adults almost always come across as overbearing or interfering when we see problems a child may have and then try to “fix” them.

‘Unasked for advice is almost always unwelcome’

This means that when you spot that your child seems to be making a mistake, your first task may be to help them spot that they are making that mistake. So rather than saying, for example, “You need to stop bossing your friends around so much, or they won’t want to play with you”, you might make an observation, “Your friends often look upset when you tell them what to do, and then you seem cross when they want to play something different to what you are insisting on. I wonder if there’s a different way that you could organise your play with them.”

This kind of observation helps your child to spot what might be a problem and in time it might spark them to wonder what else they could do to make the playtime more satisfying, at which point they may be more open to suggestions about what to do.

Which brings us to the second scenario. Imagine the same daughter comes to you and says, “I hate it when my friends come over and they want to pick the games. It’s my house and so I should get to pick. It’s not fair that they insist on choosing.” If you are to avoid slipping into ‘fix it’ mode, you have to first spot that this isn’t an invitation to give them advice. It is simply the sharing of a problem. The best response is to acknowledge the problem and their feelings about it. Something like, “That does sound frustrating. It can be hard to decide what to play and to agree about who even makes that decision.”

There is an opportunity, though, for you to check if your daughter would like some advice, as well as the empathy you have just shown. You could then ask, “I have some ideas about how you could make it easier, would you like to hear them?”. This is an open invitation that she can either choose to take you up on, or not. If she wants to hear your thoughts, then great, you share them. If she doesn’t, then you stop at that point.

In the final scenario, when your daughter has asked for your help, and you give it, you also have to remember that your only responsibility was to give the advice you were asked for. You don’t have responsibility for implementing that advice. You haven’t been invited to be a collaborator in fixing the problem. You give the advice that you would implement yourself, but once given you then have to let it go, as it is up to your daughter to choose what bits of that advice feel like they would work for her.

It is only when we bear these factors in mind that advice-giving becomes easier and more productive.