How To Respond To An “Irate” Parent

There was fire in her eyes and I swear smoke was coming out of her ears. She threw the child’s wet clothes on my desk and demanded to know why they had been playing in the mud before pickup.

Was I caught off guard? Yep. 

Did I have that sick, uneasy feeling in my stomach? Yep. 

Was I wishing my office floor would just open up and swallow me whole so I didn’t have to deal with an irate parent? Yep. 

Well, no matter how hard I wished, the floor stayed solid and I knew that I was going to have to deal with this. 

Was it quick? No. 

Was it easy? No. 

Was it worth it? Absolutely. 

Let’s be honest, conflict sucks. The idea of arguing with someone or feeling angry about something doesn’t really seem to appeal to most people. And so, many of us avoid it. But we can’t always avoid it, particularly in our role as educators. 

This experience above happened to me when I was a long day care centre director. It wasn’t the only time I had an irate parent standing in my office, and it wasn’t the first time I had been on the receiving end of an almighty glare and a stream of frustration. And while I still wouldn’t welcome it with open arms, over the years I have come to realise that conflict can actually provide us with an opportunity to strengthen relationships and deepen understanding. 

But, we need to be open to the possibility. Here are a few simple tips: 

Seek to understand before seeking to be understood

This is vital. When we seek to be understood first, we often go on the defensive. We try to argue our case. When we seek to understand, we give the “irate” party the opportunity to voice their concerns, to be heard. This instantly breaks down the barriers between the two parties and creates a feeling of trust, respect and honesty. 

Ask an important question

This could be worded in many ways, but essentially what you want to know is: how can we overcome this? For some situations there might be a really simple fix. In others – there might not be. 

Share – make it factual and personal

This sounds tricky: to be both factual and personal, but it is possible. In training, I always tell educators to refer back to service policies, procedures and philosophy, or the NQF, when managing complaints or concerns from families. You should definitely do this. But you also want to make it personal. Tell the story of how the child engaged with his peers in the mud play, show photographs of them mastering climbing the tree. 

Encourage a break and regroup

When a parent is really irate, it can be difficult to properly resolve the matter. Each situation will be different, but you may say something like: “I understand that you are quite upset about this and I want to ensure that we manage your concerns in the best way possible. I need to be with the children right now, but could we organise a meeting/phone conversation/email this afternoon? I want to reassure you that we take all parent concerns seriously.” 

Often the time and space will allow for a calmer, more productive conversation to take place. 

One final thing to remember…

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. – Wendy Mass

If you would like to know more about conflict and how to manage it… register for our Conflict: Obstacle or Opportunity Mini Course today!

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Nicole Halton is an early childhood consultant and one of the co-founders of Inspired EC - an Early Childhood consultancy company based in Australia.Nicole has co-authored several books and developed a variety of resources for educators. Nicole and her husband live in Lake Macquarie, Australia and love spending time outdoors with their three young children.

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