Dealing with Aggressive Parents by Randi Chapnik Myers (Illustration: Monika Melnychuk/i2i Art Inc.)

The coach expected some students at his Scarborough elementary school would be disappointed when they didn’t make the school hockey team. What he didn’t count on was the backlash from angry parents. In fact, Jeff*, a physical education teacher, says that nothing could have prepared him for the small mob waiting to blast him outside the principal’s office.

It starts out innocently enough, with parents concerned about their children’s well-being. The heat rises when they feel that a teacher is working against them. “It’s about expectations,” says Janice*, an Ottawa special education teacher. “When parents are unhappy with their child’s progress, they sometimes need someone to blame.” And that’s when a discussion can turn personal.

While confrontations with angry parents are nothing new, there are far more opportunities for them these days — especially when access to teachers by email is so easy. Plus, in an age when some parents can be overinvested in their children’s success, there may be a tendency to blame teachers when students bring home less-than-stellar results.

“The clash happens because it’s hard for many parents to just sit on the sidelines and let kids learn in school,” says Toronto psychologist Alex Russell, author of Drop the Worry Ball, a new book that’s full of strategies for parents who are worn out from worrying about their children. He says it’s this passion about their child’s future that fuels emotion — which can easily turn to anger — in Mom and Dad.

For teachers, the first step in dealing with that emotion is to try to understand it, Russell says. “You have to remember that aggressive parents are usually anxious, obligated parents,” he says, explaining that parents have been conditioned by society to feel responsible for their children’s successes and failures. “They’re told to get involved in homework time, but not to be helicopter parents,” he says. “It’s hard to do sometimes.”

The discussions about her son’s behaviour put her on the defensive. There was a lot of yelling, pointing fingers and almost spitting out words. she would get very close to me, right in my space.

But understanding only goes so far. At some point, there is a line that emotional parents should not be allowed to cross, he says. And since most teachers are likely to face extreme reactions at least once during their career, it’s important to be aware of the policies and procedures that can support them and help keep the situation from getting out of hand.

Remaining calm was Coach Jeff’s top priority. It all started after he held hockey team tryouts and posted the list of players. When the teacher received aggressive emails from parents, he arranged a face-to-face meeting. But when he started to explain his rationale — choosing players based on which positions they wanted to play — the parents would have none of it.

“They didn’t hear a word,” Jeff says. Instead, someone thrust a spreadsheet in his face. “They had somehow compiled a list of the goals and assists of all players who made the team compared with the stats of their boys who didn’t.”

Next came the angry questions: How on earth could he choose a boy who had only played house league? What possessed him to pick someone with 10 points less than their son to play on the team?

Jeff knew not to react. “The key is to stay even-keeled when you see things from another perspective, to resist getting sucked into the drama.” But the hostility didn’t stop.

“At a second meeting, one mother got so furious she started yelling at me,” Jeff recalls. “I wanted to tell her that trying to bully me into accepting her child onto the team wouldn’t work, but instead, I just listened.”

A month later, Jeff got a call from the head of the athletic council requesting his side of the story. Next, the parents took their grievance to the principal and then to the superintendent — who all supported the teacher. “Those parents were still trying to get me in trouble with the administration even though the hockey season was almost over,” he says. “It was no longer about the students. At this point, it was all personal.”

“Boards and unions have to deal with all kinds of bullying — and it’s not just among students,” says Déirdre Smith, OCT, Manager of the Standards of Practice and Education Unit at the Ontario College of Teachers. As a result, Smith says, school boards have developed policies and procedures to guide and support teachers.

On its website ( → Advice for Members → PRS Matters), the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario offers conflict resolution procedures for teachers dealing with angry parents. (See bulletins “Anger in the Workplace” and “Assertive versus Aggressive Behaviour.”) Tips include taking time to consider your response, speaking up assertively, and using “I” language rather than blaming. They also advise meeting face-to-face with parents to resolve conflict and suggest that teachers be concise, open to compromise and careful to conclude the meeting with a specific plan for improved communication. (For more guidance on dealing with difficult parents, see “Keep grown-up aggression at bay,” below.) To help teachers identify whether they are being bullied, the federation also outlines the difference between aggressive and assertive behaviour.

Janice has her own definition: “Once an interaction between parent and teacher crosses the line from being about the child to being about you as a teacher, that’s when you know you’re being bullied,” the Special Education teacher of an Ottawa Grade 7 class says.

At a parent-teacher interview earlier in the year, a father complained that his child deserved a higher mark on an assignment because she had worked for so many hours on it. “He left frustrated because he didn’t accept my explanation,” Janice says. The following month, when his daughter brought home an average score on a math test, the dad sent Janice a scathing email tearing the test apart, question by question.

The teacher emailed back, justifying the questions, but her response only fuelled the man’s anger. “All of a sudden, he was attacking me personally,” Janice says. “He wrote that I had no idea what I was talking about and that I obviously don’t have enough experience to teach the class.”

That’s when she forwarded the email trail to the principal who immediately stepped in. He called in the parent and explained how inappropriate the email was.

In the end, Janice learned an important lesson: Use caution when responding to an emotional email. The best response is to invite the sender in for a chat, she says.

The experience also taught the teacher to be transparent and communicative with both parents and administration. “In order to derail conflict, you have to keep people informed of what’s happening in and out of the classroom so that everyone has the same expectations,” Janice says. That means keeping administration advised of problems with parents and keeping parents abreast of what’s coming up in class.

If a parent does get upset, listening and showing empathy can help diffuse the emotion, she adds. In the face of anger, though, you absolutely must stay calm, Jeff warns. “When both sides get heated, that’s when you have the makings of a war.”

Russell agrees. “You always have to keep your cool,” he says. It helps to remember that parents get most upset when they are more invested in their children’s outcome — whether it’s making the hockey team or getting an A — than their children are, Russell says. “These hockey parents were so worked up because it felt to them as if they themselves got cut from the team.” When you know that, it’s easier to stay calm, he says.

And yet, while aggression is aggression no matter what age, it’s a more sensitive issue when it’s between adults, Smith says. “At the College, we encourage teachers to use their ethical standards to guide their responses — care, trust, respect, integrity.”

Daniela Bascunan, OCT, was nervous every time she had to meet with the parents of a student who had been transferred into her class at a Toronto public school. Because the child had severe behaviour problems that were affecting the classroom dynamics, Bascunan scheduled regular parent-teacher meetings to keep the parents informed and to discuss effective strategies for dealing with the behaviour.

“No matter which strategies or accommodations I suggested, nothing was good enough for the mother,” Bascunan says. “The discussions about her son’s behaviour simply put her on the defensive.” The more emotional the parent became, the more physically intimidating she was. “There was a lot of yelling, pointing fingers and almost spitting out words,” Bascunan recalls. “She would get very close to me, right in my space.”

“Although teachers should be sensitive to parental anxiety, there is a limit to the behaviour they should be expected to deal with,” Russell says. Once there is physical aggression or verbal intimidation or assault, that’s when it’s time to call on the administration to step in.

That’s exactly what Bascunan did. For starters, she made sure she was not alone in meetings with the emotional parent by asking the principal to join them. “With someone beside me, I felt less alone, less vulnerable,” Bascunan says. “Plus, I wanted a witness to what was being said so that nothing could be taken out of context later.” If the principal was unavailable, she would conduct the meeting in the hallway.

Dawn* felt the need to contact the federation after the grandmother of a child in her primary behaviour class behaved aggressively. She was upset about the way the child was treated on the bus and decided that the teacher was to blame. “She came blazing into my classroom and I felt unsafe,” says Dawn, who immediately headed for the office. The woman followed her. “She was in the front hall as the students were being dismissed, yelling that she was going to beat my face in.”

In this case, Dawn was advised to call the police and file a restraining order. It was the right move because, as it turned out, the woman had a history of violence. “In a behaviour class, rage is not unheard of because parents are at their wit’s end,” she says. But while sensitivity is important, she says, you also have to know when to protect yourself.

Threatening scenarios can happen, but most nasty incidents are merely the result of parents’ disappointment in what they consider their child’s underachievement, Janice says. Sometimes just reminding parents that you are both on the same side — that you both support the child — helps you partner instead of clash, she adds.

As harrowing as these incidents can be, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Aggressive parents are not the norm, says Bascunan, who points out that for every parent who mistreats you, there are dozens who are supportive, respectful and a pleasure to deal with. “Conflicts happen,” she says. “It’s part of the job. It’s part of life.”

* Names have been changed for privacy.

Keep grown-up aggression at bay