We’ve all been there before. You think you’re going to have a routine parent meeting, but you soon discover—too late—that you are sitting across from a ticking time bomb. When an angry parent lets loose, you, as an administrator, are often the prime target. Even for a seasoned principal, angry outbursts can leave you rattled for days. It’s up to you to learn how to diffuse these anger bombs before they take out any more casualties.
Being a punching bag can be a common situation for administrators. After all, many of us are the last stop for furious parents. In fact, there are many talented would-be administrators who avoid seeking leadership positions simply because angry parents can be intimidating. Fortunately, you have tools at your disposal to lessen the impact of a surly parent on your peace of mind.
Staying calm in the face of aggression is difficult but essential. Even as the temperature of the conversation rises, you must remain cool. Obviously, you can’t break out in a yoga pose as a parent unloads, but there are simple and subtle ways of settling your mind. Try relaxing your shoulders, unclinching your jaw, and breathing deeply. When you can stay calm, you can stay in control.
Cut it off
When language turns abusive, end the conversation. Standing up from your desk and opening the door is the universal symbol of a finished conversation. On the phone, ending the conversation can be challenging. If you can’t get a word in edgewise, speak calmly over the parent and let them know that you are hanging up. Tell them you will be ready to talk when they are prepared to speak calmly. When you hang up (yes, you do need to hang up), let your superintendent or any other supervisor know. Inform and prepare them to receive a phone call from the aggrieved party.
If you know a parent has a history of being verbally abusive toward others, it’s up you to protect your teachers and other staff. While it’s not important or appropriate to share all the details, you can tell them when a parent has a history of bullying adults in the school building. When appropriate, offer to attend the meeting with them. Let them know that you are their ally and be prepared to step in when necessary.
Don’t take it personally
Tari Hardy, a principal at Sanders Middle School in Sanders, Arizona, says that understanding a parent’s fear is the key to remembering that it’s not all about you. “I figure that the yelling is the product of fear, so I actively listen until they’ve said everything they need to say,” she says. “Then I set forth the facts of the situation. If it’s related to student discipline, I provide a copy of the discipline matrix. Then acknowledge a positive attribute of the student. I’ve never had anyone leave my office angry, but a whole lot of them have come in that way. Just remember, it’s not you, it’s their own parental fear driving [the] behavior.” Dr. Barbara Markway agrees. “You don’t know what the other person is going through,” she writes. “Chances are, if a person is acting unreasonable, they are likely feeling some sort of vulnerability or fear.” That awareness can quickly diffuse the negative feelings that can linger after a parent blow-up. It’s easier not to take it personally when you think about the painful vulnerability of others.
Know when enough is enough
Tolerance for bad behavior might vary, but repeated blow-ups are unacceptable. Your time and peace of mind are valuable, and one bad parent doesn’t get to hijack your feelings more than once. You are the leader of your school community. For your own well-being and peace of mind, you have to draw a line in the sand for badly behaved parents. If after the meeting, the issue is still unresolved and ends with the parent blowing up, follow up quickly. This first communication after a blow-up is especially important. You need to put forth clear guidelines for future conversations in writing. Be specific about the consequences of further bad behavior. They may include the loss of the privilege of meeting in person.
Create guidelines for behavior
When you notice that bad behavior has become widespread, consider creating guidelines for parent behavior. Geraldine Paynter, director of Secondary Teaching and Learning at Norwest Christian College in Sydney, Australia, uses a parent code of conduct to keep expectations clear in their pre-K through 12 community. “We developed a parent code of conduct and refer to it when needed,” she says. “[It says,] ‘In this community we are considerate of your opinions and requests, but intolerant of disrespect. Let’s agree to move forward in a way [where] we can both do what’s best for your child and the community.’”
Creating a parent code of conduct could be a smart step toward building the culture you want, and it could also be a great way to collaborate with your PTA. Some youth-league sports teams have already made this parent contract part of their preseason process.
As a school leader, you have a tremendously stressful job. Poorly behaved parents are the exception, not the rule, but it helps to be prepared when they step out of line.
Plus, check out our article on how to be the principal parents want to talk to.