Professional Learning

Rethinking Difficult Parents

April 26, 2013
Image credit: iStockphoto

"Jack tells me that lots of kids are doing way worse things, but you ignore them and pick on him."

"Are you saying Mandy is a liar?"

"As far as I know, three kids did the same thing, yet Ben was the only one punished! Is that fair!"

"Really? We have no problems with her at home."

In my seminars with educators on Handling Difficult Parents (the title of my book on this topic), I often begin by asking participants to call out words that come to mind which best describe parents who are difficult. There is no shortage, and none are positive: annoying, complaining, enabling, angry, unreasonable, disagreeable, offensive, aggressive, time-consuming and exhausting are among the most popular. I next ask them to consider how these very same characteristics can be viewed as positive and beneficial. After a few perplexing moments of reflection, these same parents are identified as assertive, strong-willed, resolute, spirited, persistent and determined. We then proceed to talk about how changing your thinking can turn some of your most difficult parents into your strongest allies. Here's how.

View Difficult Parents as Misguided Advocates

Keep in mind that even an angry parent is better than an absent parent! While they can be very unpleasant, their anger often conveys advocacy. Virtually all parents, including most whose actions border on irrational, will cooperate if they really believe you care about their child, have their child's interests at heart and respect them. One way to convey this is to say:

View Difficult Parents as Having Something to Teach You

I remember Mrs. Skinner, whose presence and complaints made teachers of her developmentally disabled and learning impaired son roll their eyes upon seeing her. She was ornery, sarcastic and caustic. She always found the cloud in every silver lining, yet once I got past her abrasive manner, I was able to learn a lot about how to help Davey. Among other things, she explained how he was much better able to remember things when she sang rather than told him directions. Her input was instrumental in getting me to realize how powerful music could be in teaching content. Perhaps even more important was coming to realize how demanding and stressful life was for her in trying to provide for her very needy child.

Keep the Focus on Their Child

If parents complain about unfair treatment towards their child and offer examples to support their conclusion, acknowledge that you often do different things with different students because you want to help each become more successful or learn more about responsibility. Then turn the focus back where it belongs. For example:

Share Honey Before Vinegar

It is a lot easier to get parents to become part of the solution when you express how their child is an asset in class. For example:

Genuinely Acknowledge Concern -- Listen!

If a parent puts the blame on you, hear it as an expression of their concern and agree that there may a basis for it. For example:

Appreciate Suggestions and Re-establish Limits

If suggestions are offered that you consider viable, let the parent know you plan to try them. If not, let them know why not:

Conclude by re-establishing limits. For example:

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  • Family Engagement
  • Teaching Strategies

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