Strategies for Talking with Parents

A little preparation can set the stage for a more open and productive conversation with parents. They may be noticing the same troubling signs in their teen at home, or you may have a perspective that is new to parents.  Either way, your goal should be to come from a place of caring and concern, and keep the focus on working together to connect the family with the best possible resources to help the student.

The following information is adapted from “Effective Communication with Parents,” a guide developed by the Center for the Advancement of Mental Health Practices in Schools.

Three Important "Dont's"

#1: Don’t wait for a problem to start a relationship.
If the first time you introduce yourself to a student’s parents is when you meet to discuss a mental health concern, your challenge, and the resistance you may meet, are that much greater. Instead, make an attempt to call or meet the parents of each student in your class early in the semester. Let them know that you are looking forward to partnering with them to help their child succeed. If possible, try to call parents occasionally to share positive feedback about their children as well. If and when a concern arises, you’ll be glad you did.

#2: Don’t go it alone. 
As soon as you notice a potential mental health issue with one of your students, your first call should be to your school’s guidance counselor or staff mental health professional. He or she is trained to help everyone involved – you, the student and the parents.  In partnership, you can determine the best strategy for sharing your concerns with the parents, identifying resources and next steps.

#3: Don't assume the worst.
Discussing a concern with a student's parents doesn't always set up an adversarial relationship. Most parents will be grateful for the candid fact-based information you can share, and many will be relieved to have their own concerns validated.

The right time and place

Each situation is unique. Together, you and your school’s mental health professional can determine how best to reach out to parents. Here are some tips for connecting through printed newsletters, on the phone, and in person:

Newsletters or written communications:

  • Send messages home in the parents’ native language, and written at an appropriate reading level. If you know of parents who cannot read, consider sending audiotaped messages, or asking the student to read the communication aloud to the family.
  • Try to make newsletters visually appealing and limited to one page; much longer will discourage reading.

Phone calls:

  • Aim for the number of positive phone calls you make to outnumber the negative calls.  Even when the purpose of the call is to share a concern, also share positive statements. Again, take steps to avoid connecting only when there is a problem.
  • Invite the parent to share their concerns.
  • Ask permission to share your concerns, allow time for them to respond to your concerns, and to offer solutions.
  • Use active listening by repeating back in your own words what you think the parent is saying and then ask for confirmation that you heard it correctly.

Parent-teacher conferences and other face-to-face meetings:

  • Here too, balance positive and negative statements.
  • Make a list of at least 10 positive things about the child, along with no more than four areas of concern that you would like to address together.
  • Begin by sharing some of the positive things about the student, then ask permission to share your concerns.
  • Don’t try and accomplish everything in a 15 minute conference. If you can, schedule more time or a follow-up conversation.

More tips for productive parent-teacher conversations

You might find some of the suggestions below helpful for making the most of your conversations with parents:

  1. Express empathy. Ask permission to share what you have observed about their student in the classroom that concerns you, and then ask what they have observed at home, and what strategies they might have tried in the past to address their concerns. Use open-ended questions and reflective listening (repeating back what you hear them saying in your own words) to help show that you understand. Express understanding related to their frustration or worries.
  2. Help parents see the difference between where the student is now and where he/she wants to be. You may need to help them compare the consequences of change versus maintaining the status quo. 
  3. Avoid arguing. You’re not seeking to prove a point or to be right. Instead, you are trying help the parent/guardian understand your concern and see the pros and cons of change.
  4. Roll with resistance rather than meeting it head on. It’s common and understandable for parents to resist acknowledging a mental health problem, or to feel that somehow they are being “blamed” for the situation.  They do not necessarily have to agree with you.
  5. Acknowledge the positive attempts they and the student have made so far. Your optimism can reduce the discomfort that parents may feel.
  6. Communicate respect. Act as a compassionate and knowledgeable consultant, while respecting the family’s freedom of choice and self-direction.  
  7. Respect cultural differences. Remember that different cultures have different norms regarding personal space, touching, eye contact, etc.

Preparing for parental resistance or denial

It’s not uncommon for family members to deny the existence of a mental health or behavioral problem. If during your conversation a parent/guardian grows defensive or rejects your concern, continue to rely on these conversational tools.* And remember: the way you behave and respond plays a big role in diffusing or aggravating that resistance.

  1. Shake hands to welcome them (if culturally appropriate).
  2. Sit face-to-face (if culturally appropriate).
  3. Ask permission to share your concerns with the family.
  4. Establish time limits and the issues to be covered early.
  5. Speak gently, calmly and confidently.
  6. Stress the positive, and be gentle with the negative.
  7. Use open-ended questions and reflective listening.
  8. Listen with empathy and respect, which also requires reflective listening.
  9. Welcome constructive criticism and ideas.
  10. Remember that you and the parent are allies.
  11. Focus on problems, not personalities.
  12. Share feedback – if you have objective data about the concern (grades, attendance, etc.), share it.
  13. Affirm, reinforce and compliment – frequently acknowledge the positives in both the student and the parents.   
  14. Discuss a plan – transition from discussing the concern to providing options and negotiating a plan for addressing it.
  15. Provide information and resources – visit the Resources section of this website for ideas.