Dealing with an angry parent
March 11, 2012
Recent media reports have highlighted high levels of parent anger and, at times threats and even violence, towards principals and teachers.
Understanding and dealing with anger is critical in helping all stakeholders whether they are parents, principals, teachers, administrative staff or students to calm themselves and think clearly rather than resorting to threats or violence. The ultimate goals are to assist all involved to manage and regulate emotions, look after personal wellbeing, improve problem solving, and reduce the incidence of threats and physical violence towards staff in Australian schools.
There are 12 key strategies teachers and principals can consider when dealing with angry parents. These include:
1. Know your parent’s background, if possible. Is this person usually angry about a range of issues or is it confined to a specific issue? Most parents are not angry 24/7. Perhaps there is an explanation for their anger, such as their young child being bullied by an older student; a trigger, such as a major family stressor; or the anger may be a personality trait, involving poor reasoning, unresolved personal issues or unclear thinking. Understanding as much as possible about the parent, prior to a meeting, can help you to remain calm, de-escalate their anger and offer a framework for helpful discussion.
2. Understand anger. Most angry parents believe they are entitled to be angry. Anger serves a number of purposes such as energising a person into ‘action’ or getting people what they want. Unfortunately angry people can also temporarily lose the ability to think clearly. Showing undivided attention, speaking in a soft tone, validating emotions (I can see this is a distressing issue), empathising to help regulate emotions (I understand that this would be frustrating and distressing), listening, and using clarifying questions are techniques that can help to de-escalate anger.
3. Deal with emotions first and use language wisely. De-escalate anger by welcoming parents with supportive, assertive statements such as the ‘happy/glad, sorry/sad, sure/certain’ approach. ‘I am glad you are here. I am sorry about what happened to (use the child’s first name) yesterday. I am sure we can sort things out.’ Note: If the child has been hurt physically or emotionally always enquire how the child is. ‘How is (name) doing today?’ Secondly, use language wisely. Saying to an angry parent, ‘We’re doing the best we can here, but you could find another school’ can inflame anger as the parent concentrates on the latter part of the statement – ‘ You just said you don’t want us here!’
The remaining strategies are included in the Psych4Schools ebooklet, ‘Working with parents who are angry’.
4. Assess levels of anger and risk
5. Use seating and standing wisely
6. Beware of non-verbal communication
7. Consider whether you may need to apologise
8. Move to a quiet secure location
9. Offer a framework for discussion
10. Let the parent vent without anger escalating
11. Move parents into a problem-solving mode
12. Use exit strategies and debriefing
Understand that angry and irrational parents can become aggressive and make personal attacks that require a whole-school management plan.
Other relevant Psych4School resources to assist in successfully working with parents include:
Communicating with parents
- Create great working relationships with parents
- Negotiation and assertiveness techniques to use with parents
- When is support needed at a meeting
Working with challenging parents
Creating effective working relationships
The above resources are available to Psych4Schools members.
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Zoe Ganim, Psychologist Psyc4Schools