George Lucas Educational Foundation
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:

Ms. Parent, you sound very upset about what I did, and I would like an opportunity to explain. But before I do, I must tell you how lucky your child is to have a parent who cares as deeply as you do about her to be as angry at me as you are today. It tells me that you will accept and expect nothing less than the best from me, and if you have similarly high expectations of your child, I feel certain that we can find the best solution for her.

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:

My belief is that this was the best solution for your child. Did I or did I not miss the boat with your child? Can you suggest better ways to help your child improve?

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:

Trevor can be a delight in class especially when he participates in class discussions. He often has important things to say, and my challenge is trying to figure out how to best work with him when he doesn't get his way. I am hoping that you can help me with this.

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:

Parent: I think he's bored! He says he hates school and you pick on him a lot.
Teacher: I'm sorry to hear that, and I'd like to fix that if I can. It is always my goal to have every one of my students feel good about being here, and if either you or he has any ideas about how I can make things work better for him, I'd like to know.

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:

As much as I wish I could, here's why I couldn't (or wouldn't) be able to do that in the classroom.

Conclude by re-establishing limits. For example:

Whether Trever is bored or not, I am sure you agree that we need to help him find better ways to express himself so that he will be more successful in school, and will be seen by others as the really good person we both know he can be.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Professional Learning
  • Family Engagement
  • Teaching Strategies

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • pinterest icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use

George Lucas Educational Foundation

Edutopia is a free source of information, inspiration, and practical strategies for learning and teaching in preK-12 education. We are published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.
Edutopia® and Lucas Education Research™ are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.