Family Engagement

Navigating Confrontations With Parents

Like their children, parents may carry negative life experiences—taking these into account may help teachers foster strong relationships.

May 21, 2018
A mother smiling and holding her young daughter in her arms while talking to her daughter's teacher
©Shutterstock/Diego Cervo

Human brains are social organs—they’re neurobiologically wired for connection. But just as our students’ brains can be adversely affected by negative dispositions, adversities, and behaviors, so can their parents’ brains, affecting relationships with teachers.

What feels oppositional and hurtful from a parent could be an exhausted brain, one that is trying to survive and so is defending itself and paying close attention to experiences or relationships that may feel threatening or unsafe.

There are times when we may feel bullied by a parent, and because emotions are contagious, we too can fire off harsh words if we’re feeling misunderstood and angry. Healthy boundaries are necessary. We may also unintentionally escalate a conflict while moving farther away from collaboration and solutions. A dysregulated educator cannot help a dysregulated parent.

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I myself have been misunderstood and blamed—in my case it was for our oldest son’s disruptive behaviors at a time when he was in an emotional crisis. Eleven years ago, when Andrew began his freshman year in high school, the anxiety, depression, and anger masking the fear he felt almost overwhelmed our family. We felt helpless and often hopeless with regard to the rapid and unexpected changes he underwent. He was struggling emotionally and exhibiting troubling behaviors.

In the midst of this scary and chaotic time, I received an email from Andrew’s Spanish teacher. The subject line was “Andrew in action.” My heart pounded as I opened it. Here is what I read:

Dear Dr. Desautels,

I wanted you to know that Andrew finished his project today and had a smile on his face. He helped other groups and I just wanted to share that with you.

Please let me know how I may serve you in the days and weeks to come.

Mr. Pickett

Learning as a Parent, Learning as an Educator

This email changed everything for me as a mom and as an educator. It helped our family experience a bit of hope and inspiration. Andrew worked hard for Mr. Pickett that semester and ended with an A. He failed most of his other classes, but because of the connection this teacher created with Andrew, he felt heard, seen, and appreciated. He learned. We learned. And to this day, we are grateful.

One thing I’ve learned is that I must regulate my own brain state before I interact with parents. I can only control my own emotional state and model what I need from those around me. Just as we incorporate routines, procedures, and safe boundaries and cultures for our students, I think we can create the same infrastructure when we communicate with parents.

Mr. Pickett’s email led me to develop three questions that I use to begin to calm students and parents who are angry and confrontational:

  1. What do you need?
  2. How can I help?
  3. What can we do to make this better?

In addition to asking questions like these, there are a few other things teachers can do to build positive relationships with parents, and they don’t need to take a huge amount of time.

Ideas for Building Relationships With Parents

At the beginning of a school year, semester, or grading period, we can write letters to parents, sharing what we have noticed about their children, especially their strengths. Sharing our interest in this way builds bridges.

We often celebrate students of the week or month, but what if we celebrated parents of the week or month? Even if we have to dig deep for an affirmation, such celebrations could propel a parent to collaborate with us.

We know positive calls home can be effective, but we can also bring the home into our classes by having a family section in our class newsletters or website where families share celebrations such as new babies or siblings, new homes, new pets, or shout-outs for specific academic skills students have mastered. A family shout-out could be something like, “Thank you for bringing David in early this week as we really got a chance to work on his math skills.” Try having a special recognition highlighting an entire family once a week to celebrate the cultures and composition of each unique family.

Parent-teacher conferences can feel intimidating and critical for caregivers. At the initial conference, we could share a talisman of connection and collaboration—this could be a stone, a photograph, a poem, an affirmation, or a note of hope and encouragement.

And there are additional questions we could ask parents in order to forge stronger relationships:

  • Please share how I can work with you this year to help make third grade a positive and exciting experience for your child.
  • Please share your favorite memories of your child. What makes him or her smile and laugh?
  • What do you need from me that would be helpful for everyone?
  • What are two changes would you’d like to see in our classroom or school?
  • Are there any changes at home that would be helpful for me to know?
  • Is there anything you’d like to teach or share with our class this year?

Mr. Pickett’s effort to foster a positive relationship with my family and my son has had a powerful impact on my work as an educator, showing me a way to support both students and their parents.