Dealing with Difficult Parents as a Teacher

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  • 0:02 Difficult Parents
  • 1:08 Use Mentalization
  • 2:13 Watch for Triggers
  • 3:08 Set Up Systems
  • 3:59 Ask for Help
  • 4:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

As teachers, we are often encouraged to form good relationships with parents. Yet not every parent is so easy to relate to or communicate with. This lesson will give you some ideas about how to deal with difficult parents in your teaching practice.

Difficult Parents

Ms. Perrin is a fifth grade teacher who strongly believes that communication with parents is part of what has made her successful. She knows that students benefit from the way she openly communicates with their parents about their strengths, needs, and challenges. She also knows that parents appreciate her openness about her curriculum and style. Yet every year, there are a few parents Ms. Perrin finds difficult. Sometimes, these parents are critical of her work. Other times, they are disinterested or uninvolved in their children's education to a detrimental degree. Some might even get hostile on a level that feels personal. Once in a while, Ms. Perrin asks herself why she bothers dealing with these parents. Yet she knows that if she finds some parents difficult, their own children might find them difficult as well. This makes Ms. Perrin's responsibility as a teacher even greater, but she knows that if she can establish a good, or at least civilized, and trust-imbued relationship with a difficult parent, she's potentially helping his or her child and family throughout the rest of the student's school career.

Use Mentalization

One strategy that Ms. Perrin has found particularly important in dealing with difficult parents is called mentalization. Mentalization means working hard to understand the emotional, intellectual, and internal experience of another person—even when it's challenging. For example, Ms. Perrin successfully used mentalization with a parent who never showed up for meetings, even when her child was clearly struggling. The parent subsequently complained to the principal that Ms. Perrin was pushy and unfair to her child. Ms. Perrin was hurt and angry, but then she focused on putting herself in the parent's shoes. Ms. Perrin thought about how hard it must be to see your child struggling and how easy it can be to blame the teacher, especially when you feel overworked, helpless to assist your child, and have a complicated history with school. Ms. Perrin became more empathetic toward the difficult parent and began offering ways to support her and her child, rather than asking for meetings. Eventually the parent came around and appreciated all of Ms. Perrin's efforts. Mentalization is not always easy, but it can go a long way toward making difficult people easier to handle.

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