Ever been yelled at by a parent?
You’re not on your own. According to a 2017 survey, a third of teachers in the UK report being abused by parents.
And these figures are on the rise – both for face-to-face confrontation and online abuse.
Meeting an angry parent can be intimidating and stressful – however experienced you are.
So it’s important to handle these situations well.
Quick story, told in bullet points:
- Henry gets into trouble for swearing at other children at lunchtime
- At the end of the day, he complains to his mother (Mrs. Smith) that the other boys were picking on him
- She marches to the classroom door and demands to know why her son is being singled out
- His teacher (Mr. Jones) tries to explain what happened…
- …but after a few moments, Mrs. Smith cuts Mr. Jones off, shouts at him in front of all the other parents and pupils, and storms off
Under that kind of pressure, it’s easy to say or do the wrong thing. Somehow, poor Mr. Jones accidentally poured gasoline on the flames.
But here’s the good news: there’s a proven formula for managing these kinds of challenging situations… and I’m about to share it with you.
To get it right, all you have to do is flip your understanding of what’s driving the confrontation from Mrs. Smith’s perspective.
The problem: emotion vs logic/language
Let’s look at how Mr. Jones handled the situation.
Henry’s mother was upset because she felt that her son was being treated unfairly by the school.
Note the use of felt in the previous sentence: it’s to highlight Mrs. Smith was having an emotional reaction. Not a logical one.
In fact, she was reacting as if her son were under physical attack.
Her brain had entered fight-or-flight mode. This is a primitive, biological reaction that’s designed to fire up our bodies in times of a life-or-death threat.
In this case, there was no physical danger to Henry. But Mrs. Smith was reacting as if there were.
Her biology was telling her: protect your son at all costs.
(Want to know what causes fight-or-flight in your students? Check out our article, Why do young people get angry?)
Entering fight-or-flight has a couple of interesting side effects:
- Your brain stops using logic – and runs on pure emotion
- Your ability to use and understand language is significantly reduced
And this is at the heart of what went wrong.
- Mrs. Smith’s found out her son had been in trouble and had an emotional reaction
- But Mr. Jones replied in a logical way – using lots of language…
- …without realising fight-or-flight was reducing her ability to process logic and language
- Which only fuelled Mrs. Smith’s frustrations and runaway emotions
A more successful formula
Our formula for managing angry parents successfully follows from this question: what did Mrs. Smith need in this story?
It wasn’t language. And it wasn’t logic. She was in a fight-or-flight state, so a reply that needed access those areas of her brain was never going to work.
Instead, she needed to vent, and have someone show they understood her raw feelings.
She wanted Mr. Jones to respond emotionally. To say, “I understand how you feel!”
With that in mind, here’s a breakdown of exactly what to say or do when confronted by an angry parent.
Make them wait
Ask the parent to come inside and sit on a chair away from the other students and parents.
This removes the audience (an audience always makes any confrontation more difficult to manage).
Now make the parent sit and wait for a good 10 minutes. Explain you want to give them your full attention, but you need to discharge your duties to the children first.
Those 10 minutes are important. Make up an emergency phone call if you need to – but never rush onto the next step ahead of time.
Waiting is a key step in the process.
Why? Because it’s harder to remain in a fight-or-flight state when you’re sitting down. It’s a biological fact.
10 minutes sitting away from the other parents will leave Mrs. Smith in a more calm and reasonable state, ready for when Mr. Jones is ready to talk to her.
Now listen to what the parent has to say and do not interrupt.
When they’ve finished talking, give an emotional response to their concerns. Label and validate how they feel.
Say something like, “You must be very worried about what’s happened today. Thank you for coming to see me straight away.”
(Note: this is different from agreeing with the parent. You’re simply labelling their emotion and the reason behind it from their perspective.)
Then, summarise what the parent has said. This shows you’ve listened to their concerns and gives them a chance to clarify any misunderstandings.
And the key part is…
Your parent isn’t a state to resolve what happened. Just like Mrs. Smith, they’re running on emotion.
So push the next part of the conversation to a later date (usually the next day).
Tell the parent you’ll investigate what has happened and get back to them. Do this regardless of whether you know the full facts or not.
Don’t make this a general, “I’ll get back to you.” Give them a specific time and date when you’ll feedback. For instance, “I’ll meet you tomorrow at 3.45pm to resolve this for you.”
By the time the next meeting comes, the parent is much more likely to be cooperative and listen to all the facts. They’ll be out of the fight-or-flight state that’s blocking progress.
Tomorrow, you can pivot towards a productive, problem-solving discussion about what happened (and what needs to happen in the future).
In fact, exactly the sort of discussion Mr. Jones tried to have at the very beginning of this article – but at completely the wrong time.
Turns out, timing is everything
The secret sauce
So, the problem wasn’t Mr. Jones’s attempt to have a logical, detailed conversation in response to Mrs. Smith’s concerns.
It’s that he tried to have that conversation at the wrong time. During that first confrontation, he failed to respond to Mrs. Smith’s emotional state.
He needed to split what would normally be one meeting across two separate days.
- Day one: deal with the parent’s emotional state
- Day two: respond to their concerns (pivot to a problem-solving conversation)
That delay is the secret sauce that makes this method is so effective.
Calmer, happier parents who believe you take their concerns seriously.