Parents as Allies

I can’t tell you how often I hear parents, teachers, counselors, and coaches alike 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 you what to do.  Others seem dismissive and uninvolved, even when you want them to be. And still others become defensive at the very mention of an “issue” with their child.

Parents play an integral role in their child’s life.  Because they are experts on their own child, they can be a great resource for you.  If you are a teacher, for example, parents are able to reinforce 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 parents in a constructive, positive way about their child.  When a parent himself behaves badly, you may have even more difficulty communicating effectively.  For instance, if a parent yells directions from the sidelines while you are trying to coach, you may become frustrated and not know how to approach this type of situation without fear of offending the parent and causing an angry scene.

Similarly, talking to parents about a child’s misbehavior can be very challenging for you.  How can you successfully offer productive feedback to a parent without worrying about a negative reaction?  You may be apprehensive that Mom or Dad may not 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.  When it comes to their own children, even pragmatic parents can be emotional, even irrational in their reactions. But for 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 will be much more likely to communicate effectively with them.  Keep these beliefs 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 don’t worry about them.  In working with parents over the last 20 years, I know that most parents are just like me.  They are 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.  Knowing what’s underneath the 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 of import, 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 just before or after a game 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 so that you are able to address any questions or concerns that might arise.

Step Four:  Accentuate the positive.

Before offering feedback, begin by making positive comments about their child whenever possible.  Try highlighting constructive behaviors that their child demonstrates.  For example, “Whenever Tyler comes over to play, he and Felipe play for hours together without fighting.  They have so much fun together.  There is something that happens between them 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 feedback to parents about their child’s behavior or about their own behavior, make sure you communicate directly what you observe and how you would like for it to be different. So what do you say to the spectator parent who is giving coaching directions to their child from the sidelines?  Try saying this: “I can see that you are out on the field every single game to support your son.  You are his biggest fan out there.  In your excitement, I’m not sure if you notice, but you are giving coaching directions to Sam at the same time that the coach is.  He is looking pretty confused out there.  I am asking that you stop coaching from the sidelines so that Sam and the other kids can hear the coach’s directions.”

Step Six:  Avoid defensiveness at all costs.

Even when you are the most positive communicator, you may make a parent angry.  When faced with inevitable criticism, maintain your sense of calmness 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 what we are saying is 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 of our messages.  If you are 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 until morning before rereading a message you are planning to send off.  If a parent begins a dialogue in an email that is unproductive or hostile, 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 to it, even when the message is difficult to hear. It’s not what you say, but how you say it that counts.

Cathi Cohen, LCSW, CGP – In Step Director