How to respond when someone else disciplines your child harshly

These Ideas Will Help You Respond When Someone Else Disciplines Your Child And Sets Harsh Limits

If you’ve been parenting with connection, you might find a stark contrast between your approach to discipline and what those around you expect. 

It’s tough when well-meaning family, friends or members of your community intervene around discipline issues and bring harsh limits to behaviour they feel is disrespectful.

If this is your experience you are not alone. In this article we’ll set out seven ideas that can help. 

  1. Why Listening Time is vital to becoming an ally for our children 
  2. Hold onto the goodness of others
  3. Planning ahead makes the way smoother
  4. Boundaries and warm limits matter 
  5. Unannounced Listening Time for those around us can build relationships and ease tensions
  6. Getting playful is the fastest way through hard moments
  7. Loving leadership in hard moments is the aim 

Discipline difficulties: These ideas help you respond when others step in and set harsh limits with your child


Listening Time is vital to becoming an ally for our children 

If we are facing criticism in any area it can be hard to respond in ways we feel good about—and parenting is a space where this is particularly difficult. 

Listening Partnerships provide the perfect space for our feelings, allowing us to deal more gracefully with the big feelings of those around us (both adults and children!).  

Bring your thoughts about discipline and misbehaviour to your Listening Time.

Working through how it was for us as children when we ‘misbehaved’ with a good dose of warm attention from a listener can help us be less reactive to our children’s behaviour. 

It can also help us to stand firm in our values in front of others.  

Speaking up when we see ‘adultism’ or harshness can be difficult—Listening Partnerships can give us the confidence to do so. 

A good way to work through these old feelings is to use Listening Time to stand up to the adults who disrespected us as children. For example, you might try saying, ‘How dare you?’ or ‘You will respect me!’ or ‘I didn’t deserve to be treated that way!’ 

Repeating these phrases gives us a chance to shed our difficult feelings by crying, laughing, trembling, perspiring or raging. In this way we can grow in our ability to navigate difficult moments while remaining firm allies for our children. 

Bring these questions to your Listening Time and see where they take you:

  • If I had behaved the way my child is behaving, what would have happened to me? 
  • How do I wish those around me would be/think/act when my child is off track? 
  • What does my body do when I have an audience and my child is off track? Where do I feel the tension?

Hold on to the goodness of others

When we witness negative behaviour from our family or community towards children it hurts! And yet we do best by everyone if we can hold onto their goodness and their love for our children. 

For example, when hard moments happen around discipline we could explain to our children that this person has been hurt, and that's why they acted how they did. “I’m sorry Aunty was angry and told you to stop crying. Maybe when Aunty was young no-one listened to her big feelings so she finds it hard to hear yours”. 

Providing good chunks of Staylistening for our children is also vital—a fair amount of listening when they've had any bumpy moments with other adults builds a child’s resilience and ability to connect well again. 

Plan when and how you want to spend time 

It might be that you need to think carefully about ways to limit your time with those whose discipline style is particularly harsh or judgmental. 

Perhaps, if visiting overnight, you can choose to stay in a hotel rather than with them in their home. Or you might arrange for a breakfast meet up if your children are at their best in the mornings, rather than an evening meeting when everyone is already tired. 

Minimising the time you spend together and getting a good chunk of Listening Time prior to being with them helps you show up with clarity, boundaries and warm acceptance of their good qualities. 

Planning in this way can really help things go more smoothly. 

Eliminate discipline issues by showing adults the best of your children

Being clear on boundaries around how your child is spoken to or treated is also very important. 

For example, you may need to warmly and firmly say something like:

  • No hitting my kids, ever'  
  • ‘Please don’t call him names, that’s not ok’ 

This is a hard dance because these are often folk who love our children to the ends of the earth yet they may be very rigid in their opinions about discipline and what is appropriate behaviour from children. Sometimes they may be unintentionally thoughtless about how they treat children. 

A simple strategy may be to arrange logistics so that these adults get the best of our children. If your little ones argue a lot when together, allow them to spend more one-on-one time with grandma. 

If your child loves being outdoors rather than at a café where he’s expected to sit still for long periods, search out a café with a playground attached. 

Fewer opportunities for things to get murky, combined with more Listening Time, means we can get clear about our boundaries and set them with warmth. 

Unannounced Listening Time builds warmth and eases tensions

Our family and friends are often full with their own feelings and your warm listening can help them, even if they aren’t aware of it in the moment. 

To begin, try asking how the week has been, and then just listen intently. Or check in about a pressing issue and give them that time and space to offload. Hold onto that feeling that they are doing their best with what they have, even (especially!) if your viewpoint differs from theirs. 

This will do much to warm the tone during your time together.

They may still react harshly when they see our children displaying behaviours they’d describe as defiant or disrespectful. In those moments, remembering that they bring their own emotional backpack and early experiences to the table can be helpful. Recalling how much they love our children and want the best for them also helps. 

Respond directly to their doubts about how you discipline

Responding to their fears and worries can help lift the rigid or stressed feelings that drive their harsh responses. 

Acknowledging difficulties openly and honestly gives the friend or family member a chance to offload their own worries and tensions. After a brief rant, cry or simply a chance to be heard, it is likely that this person could be more accepting. 

For example, if they witness your child hitting you, you could try saying one of the following:   

  • “I’m sorry, I know that was hard to see’ 
  • ‘I appreciate you allowing me to handle that situation”  
  • “I know it is hard when they fight physically”’ 
  • ‘I know you think I should give a consequence in that situation, I realise it might be hard to see me dealing with it differently.’  

Read more: What to do when your child tantrums in public? This post shares strategies to help.

With enough time, they may even become an ally to you, but at the very least, your relationship will become closer if you listen well to them.  

Getting playful is the fastest way through hard moments

Play and a light approach effectively signals to others that we have things in hand. Being playful when our children are off track sends a clear message that we are dealing with the situation. It can also be a wonderful way to connect.

For example: 

“Oh goodness, Grandma, did you hear that shocking word! I think Polly has an attack of the sweary bugs! I’ll get them!” as we move in for a vigorous snuggle


“Don’t worry everyone, I know just what to do with a boy who uses that tone of voice. It’s time for a… hugby tackle” (and then we hug the child, grasp after him as he escapes, and generally follow his giggles).  

We can also connect with adults and even relieve others of any feelings of responsibility they may have about discipline by keeping our view of the situation light. Just take care not to shame or belittle your children in the process. 

To do this, connect with the genuine need behind your child’s behavior. For instance, if your child screams, there’s likely an attention bid happening. As we scoop up our screeching three year old, you answer that bid, but to the Uncle who is looking aghast at this display, you keep things light: ’Oh dear, that was loud. I bet Uncle Joe wants to scream sometimes too… maybe Polly and I can head out to the back yard for a scream-athon, want to join us Uncle Joe? No, well, we’ll be back soon!’

Loving leadership in hard moments is our aim 

Our aim is to get to a point where we can lead with love in hard moments.

If others know we are taking the leadership role, they may not like what we are doing but they won't feel they have to step up and ‘parent' our kids. There will be no need for them to offer discipline.

Sending a message of ‘I've got this' when other adults might be tempted to intervene and set limits harshly is important. 

As they see the beautiful connection with our children grow, and as they see our child’s behaviours become less rigid, they may also find that our approach is something they are curious about!

How do you do this?

Gently setting a limit with them AND with our child brings a tone of loving confidence and gives everyone involved the respect they deserve with the limits they need. 

This is not something most of us can do easily, or overnight, but with enough Listening Time it is absolutely possible. 

I promise.

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