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10 best strategies for dealing with difficult parents

Most of us in education have had the misfortune of dealing with a difficult parent or family, had a conflict with a parent or student, or have been ambushed by an upset person in school.  Here are 10 strategies, tried and true, that will alleviate a majority* of problems with problem parents:

  1. First and foremost, remember that the parent loves the child. If they did not, they would not care to interact with you. The child might not even be in school. We may not understand the relationship, but remember that most parents love and advocate for their children as best they can. As Todd Whittaker says, they send us the best kids they have.
  2. Be careful the language used when communicating with parents. It is unrealistic to believe that it is possible to shame a parent into getting more involved without the parent getting defensive. Instead ask questions like “How much time do you think Sarah could realistically be working on school work at home? Are you comfortable helping Bobby with this subject? Would it be better if Jo stopped in earlier and got help from me?” Parents are often overwhelmed, and never feel like they are doing enough, or are doing the right things to help their child. Many parents dread conferences because they feel as if it is a parental audit. Help them know that their role is to work with the school to find a best strategy, not bear the weight themselves.
  3. If confronted by a parent who is upset, angry, or aggressive, NEVER react. Ask them what the nature of the problem is, and let them know that you will need to call them back or schedule a meeting so that they can get your full attention, and so you can gather some information, if necessary. Involve others (administration, colleagues).  If they persist, politely explain that you have students coming in and that you must go. If cornered in a room, leave. NEVER engage the parent at that time. They are all fired up and you are at a disadvantage.
  4. When the time comes to meet with an upset parent (or call them back), have a pen and paper ready. Ask them to explain what they are upset about so you can get all of the information. Chances are, if they realize it is being recorded, the conversation will be more civil and less intense.  Make sure they know you are taking notes, and make sure you DON’T INTERRUPT! If you do, they will start all over again. :)  In a meeting situation, an impartial observer may be a good idea, then they can take notes while you discuss.
  5. Take a non-adversarial stance. Staring at someone face-to-face, sitting or standing, can be adversarial. Instead, take a walk together, or sit next to one another looking at something on the desktop.
  6. Be proactive. Be the first story home. Call before they hear the issue from the student or other faculty. Get your story straight, and welcome them to discuss it and let you know how you can help.
  7. Offer your time. Time is the only commodity that can be offered as an olive branch that does not look like a buy-off or a reward for bad behavior. Offer to make it right by staying late with the student, by dropping a paper off at home, or by volunteering the time somewhere else. It is a goodwill gesture that may not even be seized upon, yet solidifies honest intent.
  8. Make a paper trail. For this I prefer email interactions, because there is a built-in document trail associated with it. For verbal or telephone conversations, take notes. In addition to agenda and meeting notes as suggested above, take a few notes after the fact as to where things were left. Key phrases all of the parties said, and some specifics that could aid in further situations. This is required, for good reason, in many schools.
  9. Remember that it may not actually be personal. Some people are just abrasive, argumentative, or difficult. They are like this with the person at the deli counter, with the person at the post office, and with people they work with. They may even be like that with family members. It stands to reason, then that they would not deviate from this approach dealing with teachers or school leaders. Try to focus on factual information, and let the behavior slide off unnoticed. In other cases, the conversation might really be about divorce, unemployment, alcoholism, or mid-life crisis. Again, the conversation in the school setting needs to be solution and fact based. We can never know where people are really coming from when we interact with them.
  10. Kill them with kindness! Pretend not to hear the insults. Interact with difficult parents often, and make them know that they will get a smile and a pleasant demeanor every time, regardless of how difficult they have been. In fact, seek them out when possible. It makes parents uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of that sort of attention sometimes. Stay with it.

*There are cases where none of these will work. Please make sure to involve administration, law enforcement, or union representatives when dealing with anyone who is overtly abusive, irrational, or who may create a danger to you or others.  Above all, be safe!

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11 Comments

  1. Thanks – I’ll be sharing this with my staff!

  2. Michael

    A bunch of bull. These people meaning most adults who are difficult, toxic and anti- social to begin with do not care about other people including other people’s rights and feelings, and often very frequently show and express no consideration, respect or regard for other people and are difficult or toxic because they are selfish and self centered, they also will never change or take responsibility it is everyone elses fault. They are deceptive, dishonest, untrustworthy, abusive, manipulative, power hungry, unrighteous, imature, uncaring and unconcerned about other people’s wellbeing and feelings. They have a character defect lacking in any good moral values and standards. They are your typical bully and the cause of most social problems and unhealthy conflicts and tension in relationships, the typical abuser and troublemaker. The kill them with kindness does not work with these people because they do not care about other people and do not think they have a problem it is the other person’s fault for their bad behavior, mistreatment and abuse of others. They have no healthy consience. Try responding to someone who is anti-social and is considered a sicopath and see how far you will get killing them with kindess. Try ingoring them and their behavior and they will get worse. Trust me I tried those two techniques and they do not work in the real world with people who have those issues. The best techinque that seems to work is the confrontational technique and the unplug technique in which you either walk away from the situation either temporary or for good.

  3. John\

    It is unfortunate but Michael is now more right these days… and it does depend on the demographics. The lower the class the bigger the amount of crass. I disagree with point 3 and 10. Why should we volunteers or professionals be victims of parental bully tactics…it is best you prepare yourself with a very short statement and state that you do not appreciate the lack of respect which will get you no where in this meeting, maybe you can schedule another meeting when you are more sincere to have an exchange of ideas, and then walk away.

  4. Anonymous

    AGREED with Michael, in reality, there is no way to deal with some difficult people, just walking away or ignoring them may help you get out of the unpleasant situation.

  5. Mia

    Agree that much of this expects too much from the teacher in response to bullying from parents. “Drop a paper off at home”? ” Offer your time”. What? Like with kids throwing temper tantrums, much of the advice in this article will only teach the difficult parent that their unreasonable behavior pays off. I don’t care how much a parent ‘loves’ their child; bullying and aggression is NOT EVER acceptable. A clear message to unreasonable parents needs to be enforced: simply: ‘you must be polite and reasonable if you expect interaction with staff’. They need to understand that polite, reasonable behavior is also in the best interests of their child.

  6. Dbeeding

    Why should those people get off the hook for how they treat or talk to others? Shouldn’t they have the same respect toward us as we do toward them? Why should teachers have to bite their lips and parents can rage on? It is so frustrating to take it and take it from parents. Teachers aren’t out to get a child, we are just trying to get a job done.

  7. Professionals never stoop to inappropriate behavior. This article doesn’t excuse nor does it condone bullying behavior by parents. The point it, we work for the kid, not the parent. We need to keep the best interests of the learner in mind, despite the behavior of the parents. Good judgment needs to be exercised by at least one side of a disagreement, and I hope it would be the educator. If someone needs to be put in their place, it must be done with professionalism, not personal vitriol. If we lash back, we make them right, and they will share with anyone who will listen about how the teachers at the school are B’s and A’s, and the cycle will continue. If teachers see it as laying down to be walked on, my guess is that they don’t stand tall enough. Confident professionals don’t get walked over by parents, nor do they get drawn into battles. They perform their jobs admirably and professionally.

  8. Anonymous

    I am trying to deal with an abusive parent at the moment. I have been kind and approachable, I have offered more time, and I have been bullied more in return. I have invited this parent to discuss positive ways to manage her child’s behaviour. I have made a behaviour chart just for him, with his favourite cartoon character … This parent was allowed to shout at me and humiliate me in a whole school assembly – in front of parents, teachers and governors – simply because I stopped their child from damaging a piece of art that my class had made by removing it from their possession. I’m having trouble seeing how I am valued as a staff member at the moment. I would like to think I perform my job ‘admirably’ and ‘professionally’, yet I am still treated in an appalling way. I am a HUMAN BEING. I care for the children in my class, and yet I am treated with nothing but contempt by this parent, and I’m sad to say this is not the first time!

    When is it time to say ‘enough’?

    • These suggestions do not delve into criminally abusive behavior. There will be cases that stray beyond the run of the mill hothead or difficult parent. These folks need to be reported to the appropriate authorities. It may be criminally negligent for school administration not to help you do so. Let’s just use common sense out there, folks. Be safe, but stay professional. I wish you well!

  9. Well written piece as an administrator who often deals with upset and/or difficult parents, I use many of these techniques and see positive results.

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  1. Difficult people, sometimes you don’t have a choice?

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