Taming Tough Parents
TAGS: Brian MendlerTeacher Learning Center


View misguided parents as your best advocates. How we perceive people strongly influences our behavior towards them. For example, a person who doesn’t easily cooperate and follow rules can be viewed as “oppositional” or “independent-minded.” A child who won’t take “no” for an answer could be seen as “annoying” or “strong-willed.” We believe that generally an angry parent is better than an absent parent! While angry parents can be unpleasant and sometimes inappropriate, their anger conveys advocacy for their child. When we view complaints, anger and threats as misguided advocacy, it makes it possible for us to continue working with the parent because the only issue is our disagreement with what is being advocated and/or how it is being expressed. Virtually all parents, including most that act irrationally, will cooperate if they really believe that you care about their child achieving success and are helping their child become more responsible. I (BM) recall an angry parent calling to complain about the amount of homework I gave her son. She said, “It is ridiculous that my son is spending two hours on his math homework.” My response: “I had no idea it would take him two hours. You are right and I am sorry. That was not my goal. Thanks for letting me know. In the future I’ll try to give him a more appropriate assignment.” She was defused. If you make a mistake there is nothing better than saying you are sorry.

Seek the opinion of a difficult parent. Parents who are chronically difficult usually have a need to feel power and influence. Most feel that nobody listens or really cares what they think. It is not unusual for them to believe (sometimes correctly) that they have lost much of their influence with their own children. Getting angry and blaming the school can be a way to form an alliance with their children against a common “enemy.” It can be very effective to seek opinions from these parents before they complain. Invite them to come to school meetings when you know policy issues will be discussed. Seeking parental input about classroom rules or procedures can be quite helpful. The idea is to give them a voice before complaining so they feel heard and respected. Opinions about how their child might react to something you are planning can be solicited as well. For example, after the usual greetings, you might say to a difficult parent, “My goal is for each student in the class to learn more about responsibility at the playground. Do you have ideas that you think could be good for your child and perhaps other children as well?”