Occasionally, we face the challenge of a difficult meeting with a volatile parent, a parent who has a history of struggling to control their emotions, especially when their reactions can be explosive and threatening. We may have some negative news to share about their child that includes significant consequences, and we need the parent to understand the full scope of the situation. We may need to ask for the parent’s cooperation and support for a difficult decision. We may need to caution the parent to not reach a premature conclusion or allow the bad news to lead to physical abuse of their child. Regardless, these situations call for face-to-face interaction despite our anxiety.
Meetings with parents who may become volatile require special planning and precautions to increase the likelihood that the purpose of the meeting can be accomplished without the situation becoming unmanageable. We also need to be prepared should the situation escalate, and we need to take steps to protect ourselves. Here are seven elements and actions to consider when a meeting with a volatile parent is in your future
First, carefully choose the location of the meeting. Meet with the parent on the school campus, if possible. Choose a space with visibility, such as windows or glass walls. The space should be near a public area, if possible. Visibility can serve as a deterrent to having the situation spin out of control and provide access to assistance, if necessary. Avoid meeting in a windowless office or remote room.
Second, arrange for someone to attend the meeting with you as an observer. The observer might be another staff member, but an administrator or supervisor often is preferable. Explain the observer’s role to the parent, as a listener and “second set of ears” to be certain that everyone’s questions are answered, and all concerns are addressed. The presence of a third person can reduce the potential for threats and other out-of-control behavior and can be an additional option to summon assistance, if needed.
Third, set ground rules at the beginning of the meeting. Before beginning, restate the purpose of the meeting. Consider expectations, such as committing to listening, showing respect, focusing on the needs of the student, and remaining focused on the problem. Seek agreement on the ground rules, but don’t press if agreement isn’t immediately forthcoming. Often, it’s enough to have stated your expectations.
Fourth, consider taking notes as the meeting unfolds. Recording what’s agreed to, noting questions, and documenting areas for follow-up signals that you’re listening and taking the conversation seriously. Also, taking notes can help manage the pace of the meeting. Stopping to make a note allows for reflection and allows tempers to cool. Of course, meeting notes can be helpful if the situation deteriorates and there becomes a need for legal involvement.
Fifth, remain calm, factual, and focused. Listen carefully and respectfully to what the parent says. You may discover hints and clues in the parent’s words that can help you navigate emotions and reach a satisfactory conclusion. Avoid getting caught in an argument. An argument can be a shortcut to an emotional eruption.
Sixth, if the conversation becomes heated, remind everyone of the purpose of the meeting and the importance of finding solutions. Keep your emotions in check. Share your concern that emotions may get in the way of what’s best for the student. You might consider suspending the conversation briefly to allow emotions to settle and refocus attention.
Seventh, if you hear a threat or feel threatened terminate the meeting. Ask the parent to leave. If the parent refuses, you and the observer should immediately leave the room. Report the incident to the principal or appropriate central office staff member. If it appears the threat may extend beyond the meeting, the administration may consider involving legal counsel to take appropriate steps.
Meeting with volatile parents is never a pleasant prospect. However, these meetings often are necessary to address difficult situations. Choosing to avoid these meetings can make the situation worse and undermine our efforts to serve the needs of the student. Our best choice is to plan carefully, prepare fully, and engage thoughtfully. We might be surprised by how well the meeting goes.