Support vs. Advice

Recently a friend suggested to me that since building a supportive community is so high on the priority list of this blog, I should consider doing a piece on the differences between supporting someone and giving advice. After considering that for a few days, I presented the question to all my social media contacts:
"I am working on an article about "advice" and I would love to hear from all of you. What is the worst, most hurtful or insulting piece of "advice" you have ever gotten and were you looking for support when it was given?"
The resulting comments were overwhelming. It seems almost everyone had a comment about a stranger, neighbor, friend or family member who attempted to "advise" them or "support" them in a way that actually diminished them or made them feel criticized or dismissed. I took all of these situations and tried to find some larger patterns in the myriad of responses I received. (responses provided for this piece are listed after an * and are anonymous and mostly unedited )

First I noticed quickly that the majority of responses tended to revolve around three of the most stressful things in life: weddings, health care/medical issues, and pregnancy/parenthood. These topics appear  to bring out the know-it-alls more than any other. Also, I found that the offending comments fell into three basic categories:

1. The unsolicited advice. This is the advice that you get from others that was not predicated by any sort of request for input or support. This advice can be given by both well-meaning and judgmental people. Some of the examples I received were:

*My mother informed me that breastfeeding was selfish because no one else would get the opportunity to feed the baby. That I should bottle feed so that she could feed the baby too.

*The most hurtful was unsolicited, I posted a funny story to FB about my 2 year old naming my breasts while nursing. Someone told me she was way too old to nurse, I was damaging her both physically and mentally, and that I was probably only still nursing cause I enjoyed it and was a pedophile. It hurt even more how many people agreed with this person. 

*My older son has ADHD. Before he was diagnosed, I've had well meaning friends and family members hint or just straight out say that if we were more firm, meaning spanking him, that he'd be fine.

*"you have two kids and aren't married. I think you should get your tubes tied. don't you think things are hard enough now?"

*there is one lady in one of my moms groups who's always handing out medical advice for kids, telling people they don't need to go to the dr, and even has told people to ignore their dr. She has no medical degree.

*"Please don't take it the wrong way, but it sounds to me like [your daughter's] controlling the house. What she says goes. You need to be the parents and just lay down the law. She will adjust."

2. Pointed Insult or Passive Aggressive Statement framed as "Advice" or "Support".  This is perhaps the most insidious of the advice categories. These "suggestions" are framed as friendly but are really there to belittle or embarrass the recipient of them. Examples I received include:

*you know, I always keep my house clean because I never know when people are coming over and that way I never have to be embarrassed. " <---- says person without kids 

*(after a layoff) "What do you think you did to lose your job? Is there some way you can make better choices in the future?"

*(to a mother with an adult only child) "Well when I have children, I will never have just one because that is selfish. If you are only going to have one, then you might as well not have any"

*(an older man speaking to a friend of mine in church as her son sucked on his pacifier and mumbled, somewhat loudly, in his sleep) "Oh, my daughter was colicky when she was a baby too"
"He's not colicky, he is just a noisy sleeper?"
"Oh, well that noise he's making is murder on our hearing aids."

*I was talking to a family friend about how I was going to let my son decide when he was done nursing (he was 18 months old at the time). She said I needed to be firm with him and not let him be in control and "was I going to let him have the keys to the car when he was 16 too?"

3. "Helpful" advice (often given when advice or support is sought out ) This category is one that I am very guilty of falling into sometimes. In fact, I suspect everyone has fallen into this category at one time or another. When a friend is crying and upset, or frustrated and angry, it is a natural tendency to try and "fix" the situation with "helpful" suggestions. Often times, however, those suggestions end up leaving the individual, who initially sought help, feeling angry and frustrated because the "help" they receive ends up as an excuse to push an agenda (someone who thinks you are doing it wrong and sees your need for support as an excuse to bring this fact up) or seems dismissive or callus.

*After expressing my frustration and feelings of being overwhelmed with the kids over the summer, a relative said, "Well, you are the one who chose to have that many kids." Like somehow that negates my feelings of frustration or that I am not allowed to feel that way.

*Going through chemotherapy, I also had a bunch of well meaning people bash modern medicine saying "I needed this or that" and would be healed if I did this or that. If a prism could cure me, I would of eaten them by the handful. I needed support, at least in addition to a box of prisms.I also got a lot of "did you microwave plastic, sleep by a cell phone, eat x,y, z etc" which while well meaning wasn't helpful given I was already past any prevention methods. Being told 60 seconds in the microwave could of prevented this wasn't comforting. Keep the prevention tips for those not in current treatment or at least share it with a hug!

*I somewhat recently got this as my son was having an overload meltdown at a family dinner," just don't (go to him as he was crying uncontrollably), he plays you and you give in to him. So just don't. Stay away, he'll be fine. " then as he continued to escalate she went to him & got frustrated & started to scold him.

* (A friend's Facebook post in response to a post where a homeschool mom expressed the fact that she was struggling and was counseled to send her kids to school)
Cannot handle the advice given to overwhelmed homeschooling families that they should just put their kids in school. Trading one set of overwhelming circumstances for another.

*The most hurtful piece of advice I get is free legal "advice" about my non-custodial daughter. Most people tell me I should have just left with her -essentially kidnapping her and left the state and things would have been ok. I know they are well intended, but it wouldn't have worked. i would have been legally kidnapping her and could have ended up losing her forever and been in jail. It is so hard to hear because I want nothing more than to have her be with me, but you just can't break the law.

*I had a miscarriage when I was 15, my father and the paternal grandfather told me "it was for the best, I was too young to have a baby and I didn't need to be upset." When I got pregnant at 17, I didn't tell ether of them until a couple of weeks before I had my daughter.

We can choose to be supportive rather than hand out advice, no matter how well meaning.
All these types of advice given to people left the recipients feeling criticized, less supported, hurt, angry and frustrated. None of these situations and examples reflect what we truly need, which is not a "fix" but a helping hand and a patient ear. How much better would it be if, instead of responding to a homeschool mom, who admits she is struggling, with "advice" about an agenda that her life would be better if she just put her kids in school (read: where they belong), instead respond with a simple, "it sounds like you are overwhelmed, how can I help?" Offer to help clean, hold a baby, run an errand. Any of those things qualify as supporting someone who is struggling or faltering. Even if it isn't possible to help them because of distance, time or physical capability, an earnest "Wow, you sound really overwhelmed. What is it that you feel is weighing the most heavily on you?" and then really listening without "helpful" suggestions can do wonders.

That isn't to say you can't ever give out advice, or that your advice or support will always be well received even if it is requested, but we need to make sure that it isn't unsolicited, masking a dig or insult, or is pushing an agenda. Even I am guilty of trying to fix my friends problems because I don't want to see them stressed out, hurting or overwhelmed. But, I am vowing to move forward and try to be more aware of how my suggestions are being presented and received.

This blog is all about creating communities as a way of mitigating the struggles of combining income production with caregiving and in order to do that we need to truly support each other. So, the next time someone gives you a situation that feels tempting to "fix" or provide advice, try something different instead. The following interaction was related to me by a lady I spoke with yesterday. Her friend was struggling after leaving her job to become a stay at home mother and was seeking support from her sister in law;

Friend: "I am so tired and stressed out."
Sister in Law: "Maybe you just aren't cut out to be a stay at home mom."

A better response could have been, "Oh, I didn't realize. Do you miss working?" or "How can I help? What do you need?"
We need to make the people confiding in us feel listened to and valued. Implying the person could make a situation all better by changing tactics and doing something different is not only not supportive, but can be hurtful. It implies the person seeking support has made the wrong decision, or is ignorant because if only they had the right "advice" they would see the error of their ways and change. A home schooling mom might be struggling, but that is only because she is committed to homeschooling and wants to do it as best she can. Sometimes she may feel she falls short, but that doesn't mean we get the right to question her choices, even if we don't agree.

Lastly, we don't have to agree with someone to support them. We can chime in, if asked, in a loving and positive way. Or we could say "well, what worked for us was X, Y and Z." So next time someone asks you for your opinion or let's you know they are struggling, take a minute and assess how and what you say. I know I will. 

Thank you to all my contributors who chimed in and shared your stories. I appreciate you taking the time out of your day and trusting me with some very sensitive information. God bless you all