"He's very clingy” - What to say to grown-ups who make negative comments and how to protect your kid’s mental health

Protecting children's mental health can cause a generational divide - here's how to be your child's advocate with easy-to-remember replies

Mum and grandmother having disagreement
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Whether you’re parenting a neurodiverse child or trying to adopt a gentler approach to parenting, you’re likely to come up against some resistance, especially from older generations. 

The most common time for this is when family members old and young spend time together. What you imagine to be a blissful time of imparted wisdom and Werther’s Original moments turns out to be one firefighting exercise after another. Older relatives chide your children for what they deem rude or obnoxious behaviour while telling you in no uncertain terms how you’re getting it all wrong. 

These comments, even if unintentional, can be hurtful. Relatives might make casual remarks without realising their negative impact on your child’s mental health. They’ve never heard of mindfulness for kids or how acts of kindness can support your child’s well-being.

Mum-of-one, and GoodToKnow's family editor, Stephanie Lowe tells us; "I remember hearing my aunty tell my five-year-old that only good boys get pudding. And he looked up at me confused, because this wasn't how we did things. All kids are good kids, just that sometimes they have tricky times and make bad decisions - just like we do as adults. I'm still working on speaking up and being my son's advocate as I am an inherent people pleaser so find it very hard to do. On this occasion, I replied to my aunty, 'Ted is good through and through. His pudding is part of his dinner as a whole, not an 'only if you'. So, moving on to his pudding is his choice'. She looked baffled."

In this article, we share tips on how to bat off hurtful remarks and comments, and how to interpret your kid's behaviour more generously - all of which will help to support your child's mental health.

What is the 'most generous interpretation' approach?

When kids misbehave, parents often assume the worst - that they're being disrespectful or trying to get their own way. However, clinical psychologist and bestselling author Dr Becky Kennedy suggests we should instead try to interpret their behaviour in the most positive, empathetic way instead.  

For example, if a child eats forbidden sweets, they may simply be hungry or having trouble controlling urges, not deliberately defying you. It can be hard to be generous in the heat of the moment, so Dr Becky suggests writing down kind interpretations to remind yourself later. 

The goal is to give your child the same benefit of the doubt you would give yourself if you broke a rule. Instead of thinking your child is being malicious, assume they lack the skills or knowledge to do the right thing.  

Another way to look at it is to approach your children with empathy by positively reframing their behaviour, according to ADHD family coach Simone Machell. "Stop looking for the negatives in their behaviour so that you can start to focus on their strengths and notice their positive intentions."

"It’s so easy to get drawn into a negative mindset where we snap at our children for behaviour that they just can’t help," says Simone. "Once you train your brain to positively reframe instead, you’ll naturally start doing this ALL of the time."

Simone Machell
Simone Machell

Simone Machell is an ADHD parenting coach and behaviour expert, with 12 years' experience in education. As a parent of a child with ADHD and autism, she supports parents so their ADHD children can grow up without associated mental health problems.

This 'most generous interpretation' approach focuses on understanding kids' internal states that lead to misbehaviour and helps you change your own approach to helping them avoid the behaviour.

"This approach really works for me and my kids," says Jules, accountant and mum of two boys aged 11 and 9. "I try to be as open and curious as I can about their behaviour and give them enough space to explain themselves. It gives me a beat to step back and calm down, and it lets me put myself in their position for a moment or two, which really helps me understand where they're coming from."

Examples of negative comments, and what to say

They say: "Your child is so hyperactive."

You think: They think my child is unruly or out of control. Maybe I'm not doing enough to discipline them.

What to say: "Yes, they are full of energy and curiosity. We're working on finding positive outlets for that energy, like sports and creative activities."

They say: "He’s very talkative, isn’t he?"

You think: They're suggesting my child is annoying. Am I not teaching him proper social behaviour?

What to say: "Yes, he loves to share his thoughts and experiences. It's great to see him developing his communication skills."

They say: "She's a picky eater isn’t she?"

You think: They're suggesting my child is difficult or that I'm not providing a balanced diet. Am I failing as a parent in terms of nutrition?

What to say: "Yes, she has certain foods she prefers. We're trying to introduce new foods gradually and make mealtime a positive experience instead of pressuring her to eat things she doesn't want to eat."

Mum and grandmother

(Image credit: Getty Images)

They say: "They’re so loud!"

You think: They believe my child is disruptive. Maybe I'm not instilling proper manners in them.

What to say: "They do have a vibrant personality. We're teaching them about appropriate volumes in different settings."

They say: "She's very clingy, isn't she?"

You think: They might be implying that my child is overly dependent. Am I not fostering independence in the right way?

What to say: "Yep, she loves being close. We're encouraging independence while making sure she feels secure."

They say: "He doesn’t share very well, does he?"

You think: They think my child is selfish. Am I not teaching him the value of sharing properly?

What to say: "We're working on sharing and taking turns. It's a process, and we're helping him understand the importance of cooperation."

"I've had comments from my own mum on how much I craft with my kids," says Hannah, mum of three. "She loves to say things like 'In my day we didn't have time to do colouring in/play dough/ hide-and-seek with our kids'. To be honest, I think it comes from a place of envy, so actually, I'm giving her the most generous interpretation and assuming that she's a bit sad she didn't get to do it with me. I usually say something like, 'Oh, that's a shame for you guys, but Isabella loves spending time with her favourite grown-ups,' and leave it at that!"

How to be an advocate for your child

Being your child’s advocate is key to protecting their well-being and helping them thrive. Advocating simply means standing up for your kid’s rights and needs in all kinds of situations. It's also a great opportunity for you to model how to use your voice in front of your child.

"It's crucial to stand up for your child when they face unwarranted criticism," says Danielle Baron, parent and neurodiversity pre-assessment consultant. "Firstly, because they need someone to support them, and secondly, it teaches them how to handle criticism in a mature and emotionally intelligent manner by addressing the person who is unjustly criticising them."

"For kids, taking responsibility personally can be a real challenge, says Dr Susan Wilkinson, Educational Psychologist and mum. "Young people are more likely to take responsibility for their actions if they have high self-esteem, so it's important to build this through positive attention."

Being an advocate isn't just how you respond to criticism of your child, according to Dr Wilkinson. It's also important to be calm, curious and consistent in how you respond to their behaviour yourself. "For example, responding to your little one's 'negative' behaviour by saying out loud, 'I wonder if you're feeling cranky/sad/upset/angry,' helps your child name that feeling in their tummy, which goes on to help them regulate big emotions by recognising feelings and remembering how they coped with that feeling previously."

Dr Wilkinson says building a secure relationship with your child, in other words, 'having their back' helps them face fears and anxieties in everyday life, too. "If adults in your child's life are predictable and safe, the child learns to take risks and try new things because they know they have that safe attachment to come back to."

Danielle Baron
Danielle Baron

Danielle Baron ensures exceptional education and well-being for children and adolescents while empowering women. She's a pioneering neurodiversity pre-assessment consultant, bridging education and parents, and an author driving empowerment, education, and innovative products.

Dr Susan Wilkinson
Dr Susan Wilkinson

Dr Susan Wilkinson is a Specialist Senior Educational Psychologist at the Child and Educational Psychology Practice in Norfolk. She is also a lecturer and tutor on Educational Psychology at the University of East Anglia.

Here’s how to be an advocate for your child in tricky social situations:

  • If you know that your child might struggle in a social situation, like a birthday party, speak to the host in advance to let them know. You'll be less flustered if your child gets upset or shy because you've already acknowledged it might happen. 
  • If someone makes an insensitive comment about your child's behaviour, gently redirect the conversation back to your child's talents or interests instead.
  • Give your child the freedom and permission to take a break from social situations instead of forcing them to power on through when they're struggling. 
  • Try to put your own emotions aside if a relative or friend says something that sounds mean or hurtful about your child.  Assume their comment comes from a place of misunderstanding or ignorance, and let them know why your child behaves like that and how they can be supportive instead of critical.

The message for kids when parents advocate for them is simple: You deserve to be heard and understood. You are worth fighting for so you can thrive just as you are. That’s worth a lot.

Discover more ways to support your child's well-being, from NY resolutions for calmer parenting in 2024 and how to start a conversation about mental health with your kids, to spotting the signs of bullying

Joanne Lewsley

Joanne Lewsley is a freelance copywriter and editor who creates parenting, health and lifestyle content for evidence-based websites, including BabyCentre, Live Science, Medical News Today and more.