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Dealing with Very Difficult Parents

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
“Parents Who Bully the School” by Robert Evans and Michael Thompson in Independent School, Spring 2016 (Vol. 75, #3, p. 92-98).
In this article in Independent School, psychologist/consultants Robert Evans and Michael Thompson say that school leaders they’re working with report an increase in problem parents, including a small minority who engage in what can only be described as adult-to-adult bullying. “These parents are habitually rude or demanding or disrespectful,” say Evans and Thompson, “engaging in personal attacks on teachers and administrators, demeaning and threatening them. They repeatedly violate the school’s policies, values, and norms of conduct.” The authors have identified three types:
- Righteous crusaders, who berate the school for not dealing with a problem that no one else sees. Their concerns range from, “My daughter says you don’t like her” to false accusations of sexual abuse.
- Entitled intimidators, who want special treatment for their child. “They demand that rules be waived, exceptions made, policies upended,” say Evans and Thompson – for example, firing a teacher they dislike or having their child placed in a particular class.
- Vicious gossips, who continually find fault with the school or certain teachers and broadcast their complaints, often to a group of “vigilantes” recruited by the lead parent. There may be an element of truth in their complaint, but it’s pursued in a relentless, destructive way that defames and victimizes people in the school.
What explains the increase in adult bullying that Evans and Thompson describe? They believe it springs from three sources:
• A rising tide of anxiety – “To be a confident parent requires, among other things, that the rate of change be slow and that the choices for children be few,” they say. In recent years, the opposite has been true in the U.S. socially, economically, and technologically. This means more choices – a good thing – but also more uncertainty about the future. No wonder parents are worried about how their children will fare as adults and more inclined to advocate aggressively for the best possible school experiences.
• A culture of loneliness – Some parents may be isolated from other families and their children may not take part in the kind of regular free-play experiences with other children that were common in previous generations. This may result in a lack parental perspective on how children navigate normal aspects of growing up, which may prevent some parents from keeping in perspective the common ups and downs of the school day.
• Educator denial of parent mental health issues – A few parents have genuine personality disorders that lead them to twist the facts and see things that others don’t. “Although all of us who are parents can lack perspective when it comes to our own offspring,” say Evans and Thompson, “a few have a profoundly distorted view of their children or a deeply rooted mistrust of institutions, notably the school.”
For conscientious educators, encounters with bullying parents can be profoundly distressing. Thrown off balance by intense criticism and unreasonable demands, teachers and administrators may try to placate, persuade, convince, and accommodate a righteous crusader, entitled intimidator, or vicious gossip. But these tactics are unlikely to be successful. Evans and Thompson offer these suggestions:
- Have administrators, not teachers, deal with very challenging parents. “Managing bullying parents is a job for those who can speak for the school,” they say.
- If a teacher has had a bad encounter with such a parent, he or she should never again meet alone with the parent.
- Realize that bullying parents are externalizers, which means self-observation is not their strong suit. They’re unlikely to ask, “Am I doing something to upset people or that keeps them from seeing things my way?”
- Rational discussion is not going to work. “No matter how intelligent they may be, bullies demonstrate arrested social/emotional development,” say Evans and Thompson. “Educators will rarely go wrong by treating a bully parent exactly the way they would an outrageous and aggressive high-school student.”
- “The ideal approach can be summarized in three words,” they continue: “‘Limits, limits, limits.’ Bullies deserve thoughtful attention and an invitation to be reflective, but when these don’t suffice, they need to know – unequivocally – the minimum nonnegotiable conditions of belonging in the school community.”
- Some possible lines: “You have every right to your opinion, but you cannot swear at us.” “We hear clearly that you want us to change your son’s grade, but we will not do so.”
What’s most difficult for educators is not becoming defensive in the face of an onslaught of criticism and invective. Evans and Thompson suggest keeping this idea in the forefront of one’s mind: “Whatever we did, we did nothing to make this person as crazy as he or she sounds at this moment.”
Avoiding defensiveness, and being persistently curious about how the parent sees the situation, can lower the temperature. “At the heart of any inquiry should be a desire to learn what the parent is hoping for and what his or her biggest fear is,” say the authors. “Often, the biggest bullies are, underneath, deeply frightened. Once you set boundaries on their behavior, it may be possible to get to the heart of the matter. But not always.”

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