Last week I had a long chat with a friend I’m going to call George.

He was very distressed because his son and partner have hinted that their toddler, George’s granddaughter, has mobility problems and may have mild cerebral palsy.

Obviously, this news is a shock but what is worse for him, is that the child’s parents don’t want to discuss it at the moment or allow him to help.

George is a retired journalist. Genuinely, one of life’s good guys and the sort of person who get things done.

So, he’s now read up on cerebral palsy, been in touch with the support group Scope and is raring to get started on involving the whole family in regular exercise therapy sessions for the little girl.

As you can imagine, he’s frustrated that so far his suggestions are being ignored.

Now, many of us know what it feels like when our adult children won’t listen to our advice. It’s upsetting as well as annoying because we older people want to share our hard-won knowledge and experiences, and be useful.

So, I really sympathise with George. At the same time, I know that when young parents discover they have produced a child with long-term health problems, it’s common for them to suffer a huge range of painful emotions including guilt, shame, anger and fear, and to avoid contact with others.

The truth is that, usually, they need time and privacy to accept what’s happening to their family, and to come to terms with the infant they actually have, as opposed to the one they had expected to bring up.

During our conversation, George and I agreed that the parents will probably want help eventually, but that at the moment, hard though it is, he’d be wise to back off till they are ready to talk.

So, what can he do? We discussed various possibilities and he came up with the idea of a one-off, brief letter in which he could write about how much he loves them all, how much he wants to help but that he understands they need time and space first.

As it happens, George and I had a colleague at Anglia TV whose son was born profoundly disabled.

She and her husband immediately joined an appropriate local support group. That way they surrounded themselves with people who knew exactly what they were going through; people who were also happy to offer advice or a listening ear around the clock.

The members of that group became their friends, and everyone looked out for each other. To my mind, this is the sensible way for parents to go. Quite apart from everything else, it ensures they’re not locked away in their own loneliness and sorrow. But the fact is, not everyone will involve themselves in organisations of this kind and you can’t make them.

It’s not just grandchildren we want to help. Lots of us are keen to offer advice to friends and family when they’re bereaved, or going through a divorce, unemployment, or illness. But whatever the problem, we need to remember to go at the pace of the person we want to support.

You may, for example have a depressed relative whom you believe would benefit from getting more exercise. But you’re likely to get a negative response if you say: ‘You need a good, long walk. It’ll cheer you up.’ On the other hand, if you sit down over a cuppa and listen to what your relation wants to tell you about their feelings, you might then find an opportunity to say: ‘Would it help if we looked at some possible ways of boosting your mood?’.

This kind of approach is more likely to get you somewhere.

I remember soon after I was widowed, a woman I knew sent me an email which read: ‘It’s important that you talk. Speak to me. I’m a good listener.’ This may have been kindly meant but it felt intrusive and bossy. And I haven’t been in touch with her since.

Actually, one of the most important things I’ve learned as a therapist is that direct and unsolicited advice of that kind is rarely listened to.

But if you work collaboratively with someone to come up with some viable ways forward, and they then, in their own time, choose an option to try, they feel more in control and better about themselves. They’re also more likely to make progress.

So, avoid telling people what to do. Instead, gently urge them to share their thoughts about what might improve the situation and encourage them to select a way forward. Most of all, don’t assume you know what they need. Instead, ask what help they’d like. The answers may surprise you.

Like George, many of us have to learn how to be of use, and part of that process is waiting in the wings till our nearest and dearest are ready for the help we’re desperate to give them.