How do you deal with angry parents?
It’s a tough one. The first really angry parent I ever encountered was in my first year of teaching. It was after school and I was sat marking some books when in barged Mr F who couldn’t wait to download his feelings.
He claimed his son was being picked on and I wasn’t doing anything about it. I stood up to speak with him and he unleashed various expletives and got a bit too close for comfort. By this time he was shouting in my face – his face being only cm away from mine.
It crossed my mind that he could possibly headbutt me or hit me as his anger was raging. I also suspected he was worse for wear as his breath reeked of alcohol and my mind was thinking more about safeguarding. Somehow I kept my cool but then working as a part-time football referee certainly helped – I was used to the splurge of emotion.
Dealing with parents like this has been rare for me as generally speaking most of them have been hugely supportive. But verbally aggressive and hostile parents are not unusual because people bring their lives into school and not everyone is blessed with a trouble-free life where everything is perfect. Not all parents are understanding, happy people, and sometimes they can truly test our patience and communication skills.
Teachers can make ideal scapegoats and targets for matters completely unrelated. If someone is having a bad day then the teacher might just be the next victim.
Why do parents become ‘angry’?
Parents become challenging, difficult, uncooperative or aggressive for a number of reasons:
- legitimate concerns that things aren’t been addressed
- unrealistic expectations
- previous poor experience of a teacher/ ‘the school’
- fear, anxiety, distress
- being unwell .
- alcohol/substance misuse
- communication or language difficulties
Teachers have an obligation to be respectful and professional but that doesn’t mean we get it back. So what do we do?
Dealing with an angry parent requires a fair amount of nerve and thinking on your feet involving care, judgement and self-control. If possible, try to involve another colleague as a support.
- Remain calm, listen to what they are saying, ask open-ended questions
- Try to remain ‘neutral’ and seek to smooth over the situation
- Speak softly and refrain from having a judgmental attitude
- Try to demonstrate control of the situation without becoming demanding or authoritative
- Reassure them and acknowledge their grievances
- Provide them with an opportunity to explain what has angered them. Understanding the source of their frustration may help you find a solution
- Maintain eye contact but not intense!
- Keep an adequate distance from the patient – invite them to sit down.
Getting past the abusive noise is a must and being able to appreciate and empathise with someone is crucial. Silence is golden – let someone say what they want to say – let them download and say their piece.
It might seem odd to apologise but this can work. If you say, “I’m sorry I have done something to upset you; that wasn’t my intention” can work. Back this up with “Thank you for bringing this to my attention; I will see what I can do about it.”
Focus on using positive language, to deescalate and defuse a situation, and give the parent no opportunity to overreact.
You might choose to validate the parent’s experience and say “You have every reason to be angry and so I’d like to try and help” or “It seems you have a different viewpoint on this situation. Let me explain the school’s position”.
Make sure these sound sincere and not sarcastic!
It’s critical that you find a point of agreement, show concern and diffuse the situation. You could try to distract by commenting on something in the immediate environment: “Have you seen J’s work on the wall? We did this last week – it looks brilliant doesn’t it?!”
Use reflective statements, such as “I can understand why you feel that way,” and try to discuss possible solutions with them.
I’m not aware that Teacher Training covers dealing with challenging parents – surely this needs to be part of every course? The individual skills, knowledge and competencies required to successfully navigate verbal abuse can’t be left to ‘when it happens’.
All teachers need strategies for when things do happen. Unfortunately, its bitter experiences that help you build a thick skin and the skills you need to manage people.
If things go pear-shaped and these tactics don’t work then you need to be firmer. One book I have read for helping teachers deal with challenging parents is embedded in Survival Skills for the Principalship by John Blaydes.
He offers the advice:
1. Assert your right to be treated respectfully
Make declarative statements such as:
“I have been respectful of you, now you need to be respectful of me.”
“I didn’t interrupt you when you were speaking, now you need to let me finish.”
2. Warn parents their behaviour is unacceptable
Say things such as:
“There’s no need to use profanity.”
“Threatening me won’t help resolve the situation.”
3. Warn that the conversation will need to be terminated
“If you continue to shout and swear, I’ll have to hang up the phone.”
4. Terminate the conversation if things don’t improve
Be firm and say:
“I’m sorry you’re unable to stop swearing but this meeting is over and you need to leave.”
Easier said than done but it is important to calmly recognise your own feelings when dealing with an angry parent and not let emotions overwhelm you – be professional at all times. It won’t be the first time someone has been videoed on a phone.
Someone who is acting angry may simply be frightened, defensive or resistant so it is important to take a step back and ask yourself if there is anything deeper at work and what is really going on.
Encountering a parent who is angry, manipulative, demanding, or downright rude and aggressive can really upend your day and make you question why you became a teacher in the first place.
If this happens, always seek help from your line manager, deputy or head and don’t feel like you have to do this by yourself. It’s important to express your feelings too.