Interacting with difficult parents is something almost every teacher has to deal with at some point in their career. That’s right, you know who they are, you may try to avoid them throughout the school year, but often that is impossible to do, plus they should not be avoided. I am referring to the parents who many teachers may refer to as difficult. One thing that you need to remember though, the “difficult parent” you refer to may not be a difficult parent for one or more of your colleagues. However, that information does not help you deal with them. In this article we will talk about the word “difficult parents” and our experience turning those difficult situations into positive ones.
First, what is the definition of a difficult parent? It is not a parent who respectfully communicates with a teacher, and then makes a comment the teacher does not like. It is not a parent who is working hard to care for their children but cannot seem to find the time to appear at conferences or return phone calls. It is not a parent who has had little experience in the education system themselves, or who may have been raised in a household where education was not a priority.
Often, teachers immediately label some parents as difficult, when in fact, the difficult parents are usually those who are sincerely interested in their child’s education and will fight tooth and nail demanding the same interest level for their child from the school and from his or her teachers.
Of course, in our society today, it is difficult for an overcrowded school or overburdened teacher to give the same interest to every student in the school or classroom. Every teacher has a handful or more of students who demand a high percentage of their time versus a smaller percentage of time needed for most of the other students.
So, does this mean the difficult parent is a fallacy? Absolutely not. The definition of a difficult parent, however, is like the beauty and appreciation of art, it is in the eye of the beholder. A difficult parent for you may be an easy conversation for your colleague.
A difficult parent may be the demanding father, the loud-mouthed mother, or the parents you meet for the first time but have shown no interest in their child in the past. One thing they all have in common—you must interact with them. You must help make their experience as comfortable and meaningful as possible.
This does not mean you will say the things they may want to hear, or ignore those elephants in the room. The interaction cannot be perceived as a battle between right and wrong, or between success and failure. Your attitude and interaction must include three Cs: Cooperation, Caring, and Compassion.
Meet with parents at their convenience, and if necessary outside of the classroom or school in an environment where they will feel comfortable. If it is a difficult parent arriving to the school unannounced, take the effort to accommodate their request to meet with them. If it is impossible, politely and cooperatively arrange a time with them to meet later or the next day. If necessary, recruit a teacher to cover your class while you meet briefly with the parent, and you may include a colleague in the meeting with the parent. In every case, you will need to cooperate with them, and reciprocity may not take place.
A caring attitude is necessary with the difficult parent. How do you speak with them? Do you talk down to them? Do you try to brush them off because of their inevitable “difficulty”? Does your body language show, “Oh no, not her or him again.”? Become aware of your reactions to their interactions with you. Express that you truly care about the issues they are bringing to you, and you will address them, but never make an excuse for not addressing them. Such as saying, “I have 24 other students who need my attention.” “You are not the only parent with concerns.” Those comments only exasperate the situation. Sometimes, from a difficult parent’s perspective, their child is the only one you need to care about. You do not need to remind them of the other students in the classroom, they are already aware of that fact. With the difficult parent, demonstrate your care for their child the best way you can through your words and body language as you interact with them.
This might be the most difficult to demonstrate, but the difficult parents are most likely difficult for reasons you may never understand. This goes back to what was mentioned earlier regarding the overworked, inexperienced, or the possible over-caring parent. Compassion, according to dictionary.com, is a sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. Some of the synonyms include empathy, care, concern, sensitivity, kindness and many others. To combat the difficult parent, you must show compassion. How do you do this in the heat of the moment? How do you do this with the parent who seems to have everything together and seemingly has no excuse for the difficulty they demonstrate?
You may not know the whole story or what they are contending with in their lives. The difficult parent may not be used to speaking with an authority figure and they have learned louder is better. There are many reasons a parent may be difficult, and you may never learn those reasons. However, the practice of showing compassion has no conditions attached to it and there are no downsides to caring about the person.
Once you are have embraced the three C’s—cooperation, caring, and compassion, there are two basic questions to immediately use when faced with a difficult parent, whether in the middle of a hallway at school or at the start of a parent-teacher conference:
What could I do to make this (the situation or issue) better for you and your child (son/daughter)?
What can I do right at this very moment to alleviate the problem (or issue)?
You may not like the answer(s) you receive, but the dialogue and conversation has immediately become focused on their situation or issue and nothing else. Most of the time, these two questions will show a parent not only that you care about the child, but you care about the role the parent has in their child’s life.
These two questions may not work in every situation, but they are a start to lessening the difficult-parent dilemma teachers are faced with throughout a school year.
Finally, if you find yourself with more difficult-parent situations than your colleagues, you may need to self-reflect and meet with one of your peers and determine if it is something you are doing that might be turning well-meaning parents into “difficult parents”.
How have you dealt with difficult parents at your school? What have you done to embrace the 3 C’s?