How to Deal With Difficult Parents

W. Stephen Parker
W. Stephen Parker
Middle/High School Principal; M.A. in Educational Leadership
Parent with her two sons talking to a teacher in a library.

Dealing with difficult parents at school in a way that is beneficial to everyone involved can be a tricky endeavor. However, difficult or not, our students do have parents and some of them can be problematic from time to time. It is imperative that we find ways to work with parents that are difficult. The child of those parents deserves for us to find common ground and always work for their best interest.

Always Find Something Positive to Say

One of the best ways to calm a difficult parent is to mention something positive about their child. Everyone wants to hear positive things about their children. Starting a conversation with a parent on a positive note often sets the tone for a frank and real conversation about the situation at hand. By giving parents positive feedback, a parent is usually much more open to dealing with a situation that is not so positive and would normally cause the parent to be distraught.

We Must Listen to Our Parents

One common mistake we often make with parents is forgetting that they have a stake in their child’s education. So often we tend to think we have all the answers and the parent should just listen to us and take our recommendations without question. The parent might seem difficult and yes, maybe even headstrong in their approach. We must listen to our parents and seek to achieve common ground. Often by taking the time to listen, we can gain valuable insights about their child that can give us valuable tools to help the students reach their educational goals.

Incorporate Parents Ideas

Our parents are educators in many ways, and their ideas are often as important as the lesson plans that we use. When a difficult parent is venting about a situation, one strategy is to ask the parent to share their ideas on what next steps should be. By listening to their ideas, we are giving credibility to the parents and we can find ourselves working together for the student. Even if the parents’ ideas are not feasible, maybe we can seek to incorporate something from what they offered. The key here is to make the parent feel like they are part of the solution process.

Stay Calm and Breathe

A difficult or truly upset parent can challenge us and cause us to act or speak out with emotion. We must remain calm regardless of how irate the parent might be. We must remember that usually the parent is mostly distraught about the situation at hand and not personally toward us. When we allow ourselves to become emotionally involved, we lose our professional edge and the voice of reason often can be hard to find. No matter the conversation, stay calm, breathe, and as we said earlier, listen.

Be Willing to Reschedule

In dealing with difficult parents, sometimes the situation can become intense. Should the conference become too intense, do not be afraid to terminate the meeting to allow calmer heads to prevail. There are situations where a little distance and time allows the voice of reason and cooperation to return to the conversation. At no time should you ever allow yourself to be threatened or demeaned in any way. If at any time you feel the conversation is getting out of hand, just remember tomorrow is another day. Should you terminate a meeting, offer to reschedule. If the parent is too upset to talk about rescheduling, then give it some time and call them later to set up the meeting.

Be Honest and Open with Parents

It is imperative in dealing with difficult parents that we are honest no matter what the situation is. Honest is the only way to ensure successful, productive parent-teacher communication. Should a parent call in to question something that we have done wrong, we must be honest, open, and own the mistake. If the parent is being difficult and we are honest and open, we stand a great chance of opening positive dialog to fix the situation. If the situation is serious, we must assure the parent that it will be handled within the parameters of the school and strive to earn their trust by following through. If the parent or student is the reason for the problem, we must be open and honest about that as well. However, we must do so compassionately and without any malice. It is important to remember that regardless of the situation, we are all stakeholders in the child’s education.

Don’t Make the Parent Feel like an Outsider

As we discussed earlier, our parents are extremely valuable stakeholders in our children’s education. As a stakeholder, we must always ensure that our parents feel like part of the team. When the student or the parent is wrong, it is easy to point the finger and expect them to simply hang their heads and do better next time. This is not the way to win parents and influence students. Always make parent meetings small and as comfortable as possible. Parents that come to a meeting alone and find five or six professional educators sitting around the table waiting for them can easily be intimidated. We never want our parents to feel this way. In fact, the smaller the meeting, the more opportunity to gain valuable ground in the area being discussed. We should, however, remember that we are the professional educators and as such we value our parents and what they bring to the meeting.

Whether a parent is a total team player or difficult most of the time, they are still our parents. We should respect what parents bring to us even if sometimes it is difficult. Remember, sometimes new ideas can come from difficulty. All of our parents have value, and they all bring something very important to us every day: their child! With this thought, we should always strive to make our parents feel like part of the team. Why? Because they are!

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