Aussie mums confess: What to do if you think your friend is a 'bad' parent

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

It's an awkward situation when you're hanging out with friends and their parenting leaves you cold in some way.

They might be overly strict, or they might let their little snowflake run amok, causing havoc in your house. Or they may even be treating their child in a way that gives you cause for real concern.

Most of us have been up against this at some point and wondered: should I say something? 

Brisbane mum of two Jen* says she has struggled with her oldest friend whom she met in primary school since they both had children.

"Beth* and I were so excited when we found out we were pregnant within a few months of each other," she says. 

"And the first year or two were fine – we'd meet up once or twice a week and go for a walk with our babies in their prams, and maybe grab a coffee."

It wasn't until the children were toddlers that Jen started to notice the differences in her and Beth's parenting.

"It really started to irritate me that she would 'ask' her toddler to stop doing things, like touching expensive things in my home or even hitting my son, but he didn't listen, and she'd never do anything about it. 

"He was a big boy for his age, and he could do a lot of damage. One day he threw a toy into my TV and broke it, and Beth just laughed awkwardly. 


"After that, I just stopped inviting her over. I really miss her, but I don't miss that kid." 

Jodie* says she became good friends with her neighbour Melissa*, who had two children aged four and seven, before starting to suspect the children were being neglected, and possibly abused.

"The kids started turning up at 5am asking if they could have breakfast because they were hungry and hadn't had any dinner," she says. "I let them in, fed them some porridge and put them to sleep on my couch. Then I went over to let their mum know where they were, but she was passed out from drinking or drugs – I wasn't sure which."

Jodie called her neighbour's father, who advised her to report the situation, which she did. 

"Nothing happened [as a result of the report], and we moved away soon after," she says. "I always thought the kids were dirty and bruised from playing but now I think it was more sinister than that.

"My soul was crushed seeing them like this."

There's a big difference, of course, between friends parenting in a way that's different to you, and a parent who is neglecting or endangering their child.

What should I do? 

Pyschotherapist Julie Sweet says when it comes to a mere difference in parenting approach, it's important to know when to speak up and when to keep your lip firmly zipped.

"Before we begin to comment, it's imperative we ask ourselves, is our opinion being sought?" she says. "Have we been asked to lend our thoughts on a topic?

"If not, then unless you have a solid trusting relationship with the other person, it's best to suspend the need to comment on others' parenting. 

"If however you've been invited to share your feelings, do so openly with compassion, honesty, mindfulness and empathy."

But if we think a child is in danger, Sweet says it's time to get over any awkwardness and say something.

"If a child is in danger it is extremely important to speak up," she says. "Child safety is everyone's issue."

And if you do decide to say something, Sweet recommends treading carefully and sensitively.

"If it's a lifelong friend, be transparent and tell your friend what's coming up for you, what emotions you're experiencing and in turn welcome their input and feedback," she says. 

"If it's a distant friend or one that isn't very close, it's best to tread carefully as they may object to you even passing on your observation. 

"It comes back to intention. If your intention is good and centred around the best interest of the child, then speak from your heart."

Three-step process

Sweet says a three-step process – delivered with kindness and without judgement – can help:

1. Express how you feel. 

2. Add a specific example. 

3. Respectfully suggest an alternative that could perhaps result in a different outcome (and that may benefit both the parent and child).

Sweet says she says some of her clients who are parents have shared that they are feeling additional pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic, and she says it's important for everyone to have a reliable network of support now, more than ever. 

"[Many parents] have noticed the impact this has had upon their parenting style and have reached out for support," she says. 

"Seeking therapy, gaining additional resources and asking for help cannot be underestimated."