Very angry people often have a reduced capacity to think rationally.
Unless carefully planned, meetings with parents who are angry can lead to a situation of escalating anger, verbal threats or violence. In all instances, it is important to attempt to de-escalate or contain the anger and understand the basis of the parent’s emotional state.
Understanding and managing another person’s anger is critical in helping them to calm themselves and think clearly. The ultimate goals are to assist all involved to regulate emotions, look after everyone’s personal wellbeing, improve problem solving, and avoid threats and physical violence towards staff and others in schools.
Genuine parent concerns
While a parent’s anger may arise from a legitimate concern, at other times, a parent’s anger might relate to a misunderstanding.
All valid parental concerns should be addressed. Such concerns can include a child’s medical condition, bullying, safety or other wellbeing issues, learning difficulties or disorders, issues of family stress or loss, or parental diagnosis of an illness.
It is reasonable for parents to expect that perceived learning difficulties and social competency issues such as bullying and other concerns about the child’s safety are investigated and followed up by the school. Schools that have clear discipline and student management procedures, dedicated welfare or special education staff, focused and appropriate learning expectations, and parenting resources are usually well placed to assist.
Why do some parents behave angrily?
Most parents are not angry all the time. Different circumstances may underpin angry behaviour such as:
- Situation specific. The parent believes that their rights, or their child’s rights, have been unfairly dealt with, neglected or violated. In some cases their anger will have a legitimate basis, such as their child being bullied, but in other cases the anger will be less rational or an overreaction, such as wanting to sue the school because their child was accidentally kicked in the ankle (with no ongoing injury) during a soccer match.
- Inflamed by certain triggers. The parent is emotionally vulnerable due to other life stressors such as illness, family stress, major loss, anxiety or another medical condition.
- Unrealistic expectations. The parent holds unrealistic or unreasonable standards. For example, a parent who does not accept their child’s diagnosis of intellectual disability may be angry because they believe teachers should be teaching their child at a higher level than the child can reasonably cope with developmentally.
- Personality trait. Some parents present as angry more frequently than others, and sometimes in ‘waves’. These people display characteristics such as moodiness or irritability, and tend to focus on negatives. They can be inclined to be belligerent, hostile or aggressive. When anger is suppressed, a person may appear moody. Unfortunately, suppressed anger can be expressed or directed at someone who may have little or nothing to do with the perceived problem.
- Culturally sanctioned. A small number of adults believe that some people deserve to be the recipient of their angry reactions. For example, the angry parent may think or say to themselves, ‘This person is an idiot and deserves to be yelled at or punched.’
- Learned behaviour. Some adults have learnt that getting angry, shouting, making threats, and physically intimidating others can get them what they want. These people will often have poor problem-solving skills and will use anger as their first solution to a problem.
You should always meet an angry parent with a colleague. Never meet with a parent who is displaying aggressive or violent behaviour. If a parent becomes aggressive or violent, contact a senior staff member immediately and direct all students away from the area. In some cases it may be necessary to call the police. The police may need to be called for example, if a parent is intoxicated, unwilling to calm down and leave the school, or wants to fight with a staff member.
Schools should consult relevant policy and guidelines for handling parent complaints provided by their education department or governing authority.
In cases of alleged student sexual assault
Follow your department or governing authority guidelines. Most education departments and governing authorities have procedures regarding allegations of sexual assault in schools. The principal, in partnership with their governing authority, usually has the primary responsibility for managing the school response to allegations of student sexual assault. It is generally stated that school staff are not to investigate allegations of sexual assault, as it is a police matter to investigate allegations of crime, particularly where the alleged perpetrator is ten years of age or older. For example, in Victoria, the principal is required to consult the Education Department’s Manager, Student Critical Incident Advisory Unit and the Regional Director (See the Responding to allegations of student sexual assault: Procedures for Victorian schoolsdocument).
Strategies to assist you to work with an angry parent
It is important to remember that people who are very angry will temporarily lose the ability to think clearly and act rationally. How you respond can help to either escalate or deescalate their anger. A parent will be unable to work with you effectively until they have calmed down and are in control of their behaviours.
REMEMBER: You should never try and work with a parent who is displaying violent aggressive behaviour. If a parent becomes violent or aggressive contact a senior staff member immediately and direct all children from the area. The police may need to be called. See below for more information.
General guidelines to de-escalate anger
- Show undivided attention, speak in a soft, calm tone, and validate emotions. Do not raise your voice. ‘I can see this is a distressing issue.’ Empathise to help regulate emotions. ‘I understand this would be distressing and I was very cross when the teasing was brought to my attention.’ Listen carefully, and respond using supportive language, ‘I have spoken with (child’s name) several times and he was clearly upset about being teased.’
- Remain calm and in control. The following techniques may help you to remain composed:
- Breathe deeply and slowly.
- Separate yourself from the parent’s anger. This can be challenging. The parent may make statements such as, ‘You’re the worst teacher on this Earth’. If they do, ask yourself, ‘Is this true?’ The answer is no.
- Remember, in most cases the anger is not about you. It typically stems from elsewhere.
- Consider why the parent is so angry. Is something stressful happening in their lives that leads them to react this way? How would you respond if you believed your child was being treated unfairly? You don’t need to have answers, but knowing something about what the parent is going through may help you to feel less confronted by the verbal attack and better able to work calmly with the parent.
Copyright © Murray Evely and Zoe Ganim 2012
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This article is an excerpt from the ebooklet Parents who are angry.
Download the complete ebooklet for full access to strategies and resources, including:
- General guidelines to de-escalate anger
- Guidelines for meeting with angry parents including how to:
- plan and prepare
- assess the risk to you and others
- what to do if the parent’s anger escalates
- move the parent into problem-solving mode (if possible)
- seek additional help from outside the school, if necessary
- school planning