Allying with Parents

I can’t tell you how often I hear parents, teachers, counselors, and coaches complain about managing parents. We are constantly around other people’s children. Whether we coach our child’s soccer team or lead a Girl Scout troop or chaperone on a field trip, we are interacting with children. We all know that parents love their children and want the best for them. What we sometimes forget is that parents express concern for their child’s welfare in many different ways. Some parents seem overbearing, telling us what to do. Others seem dismissive and uninvolved, even when we want them to be. And still others become defensive at the very mention of an “issue” with their child.

Of course, parents play an integral role in their child’s life and because they are experts on their own child, they can be a great resource for us. If you are a teacher or a counselor, you know that parents are able to reinforce critical concepts, skills, and lessons at home. When they are included, they can be your greatest ally. Unfortunately, sometimes, parents can be stress inducers rather than the stress relievers you’d like them to be.

Many of you know how to successfully engage parents as allies, however many of you struggle to talk to them in a constructive, positive way about their child. When a parent himself behaves badly, you may have even more difficulty communicating effectively. Talking to parents about a child’s misbehavior can be very challenging. How can you successfully offer productive feedback to a parent without worrying about a negative reaction? You may be apprehensive that Mom or Dad won’t respond well to your observations and questions. In your past experience, you might expect a parent to react in any of the following ways:

  • Become defensive
  • Be intrusive or demanding with their needs
  • Blame you or make excuses for their child’s challenging behavior
  • Be dismissive and minimize their child’s actions
  • Threaten and punish their child for his behavior

There are steps you can take to increase the odds that parents will be open to your feedback about their child. There are no guarantees, of course, because when it comes to their own children, even pragmatic parents can be emotional, or even irrational, in their reactions. But in most situations, the following methods will increase the likelihood that parents will be your allies rather than your foes.

Step One: Give a parent the benefit of the doubt.

If you believe that all parents love their children and want the best for them in life, you’ll be better able to communicate effectively with them. Keep this belief in mind at all times when you communicate to parents.

Being a parent is an enormous responsibility. Raising children is not only difficult, but it is pretty darn scary. I know, I have three of them. As much as I love and enjoy my kids, there is not a day that goes by that I am not concerned for their welfare.

In working with parents over the last 30 years, I know that most parents are just like me. They’re anxious about the welfare of their children, and they want them to grow up to be independent, happy adults. When I’m working with a parent who is angry, frustrated, or demanding, I remember that fact. Knowing what’s underneath their behavior helps me handle a parent in a much more caring and sensitive way.

Fundamental Beliefs about Parents

  • Parents love their children
  • Families have their strengths (You just need to find them)
  • Parents want the best for their children
  • Parents want you to like and appreciate their kids
  • Parents are committed to nurturing and developing their children’s personal growth
  • Parents want respect

Step Two: Listen! Listen! Listen!

Listen first, talk later. You can’t fully understand and appreciate another person’s point of view until you listen. Ask questions. Most parents want to tell you their perception of their child. As you listen, keep your mind open to new information. Parents share their concerns, but they also share what makes them proud of their child. Show parents through your body language and facial expressions that you are listening.

Ways to Show Parents You Are Listening

  • Look them in the eyes
  • Nod your head in agreement
  • Ask relevant questions
  • Stay neutral and calm

Step Three: Plan ahead.

Before you talk to a parent about anything important, make sure you think ahead of time about what you want to say and what you’re hoping to accomplish with the conversation. Let the parent know in advance what you’d like to talk about, and set a meeting time to discuss the subject. It’s not a good idea to talk to a parent when you don’t have enough time and there are distractions. For example, talking to a parent in the carpool line or on your way to your next class are not good times for these types of discussions. Instead, sit down with the parent, without their child present, so that you can calmly discuss a problem.

Step Four: Accentuate the positive.

Before offering a parent feedback, begin by making positive comments about their child whenever possible. Try highlighting the child’s constructive behaviors. For example, “Tyler comes to school prepared. He consistently has finished his homework and is in his seat with eyes on me before the bell rings in the morning. His behavior consistently shifts between his math class and art class that I’m not sure how to handle. I’m wondering if you can help.”

Step Five: Communicate your thoughts directly.

State your thoughts clearly, calmly, and succinctly. Whether you are giving parents feedback about their child’s behavior or about their own behavior, make sure you communicate directly what you observe and how you would like it to change. What do you say to the parent who is completing their child’s homework for them? Try saying this: “I can see that you are sitting with your child every day while he completes his homework. You are a huge support for him. I have noticed that his homework he turns in is at a different level of preparedness than his work in class. I want to do the best he can on his homework. In this way, I can see where he needs additional help from me.”

Step Six: Avoid defensiveness at all costs.

Even if you’re the most positive communicator, you may make a parent angry. When faced with inevitable criticism, maintain your sense of calm and a willingness to hear a parent out. Continue to watch your body language and facial expressions; your nonverbal behavior communicates just as loudly as your words.

Step Seven: Be careful of technology as a means to communicate.

Although text messages and emails can be a wonderful way to keep in touch, they can also be used in a way that promotes hostility rather than discussion. It’s easy to hide behind technology in communicating. At the click of the “Send” button, a powerful feeling is off your chest. Frequently, the reason we say things in texts that we would never say in person is because we are saying that’s not meant to be said. We have the tendency to shoot out emails and texts so quickly that we don’t think about the consequences. If you’re going to use technology as a means of communicating, make sure you read through all of your texts and emails carefully BEFORE you send them. If you have strong feelings, it may be wise to wait twenty-four hours and reread your message before sending it. If a parent begins an unproductive or hostile exchange via email or text, tell the parent you would feel more comfortable discussing the issue in person when you can gauge your tone and words more carefully.

In my experience, parents want to hear honest feedback about their child and are able to respond productively, even when the message is difficult to hear. It’s not what you say, but how you say it that counts.