Redirecting Pushy Parents: How to Build Healthier Relationships

Teachable Moments: Managing
Aggressive and Overly Involved Parents
Brian Van Brunt, Ed.D
• Dr. Brian Van Brunt serves as the Director of
Counseling at Western Kentucky State
University. He is the president of the American
College Counseling Association (ACCA) and has
worked in higher education for over ten years.
The problem
Let’s face it. We’ve all had a run in with that
“special” parent who needed to talk to us:
– “My child is NOT staying in this mess of a
residence hall!”
– “I was told my son would be taken off the meal
plan because he is lactose intolerant. Why hasn’t
that been done?”
– “I need you to make sure my daughter is taking
care of. Here is a bottle of Champaign.”
The solution?
The temptation is to fire back or ignore these
attempts to push staff around.
– “We appreciate your concern…But It Is Time You
Let Go Of Your Child And Let Him/Her Grow Up!!!”
Staff and faculty often challenged to respond to
these demands placed on them by parents,
which often happen at the most inopportune
The problem
• Parents express concern for their student in
inappropriate ways -- reasonable requests by
an unreasonable/ angry parent
• Student Affairs staff respond defensively -responding to the messenger and not the
• No one really listens to what the other is
The do’s…
• Keep your head
• Return phone calls and emails
• Know yourself and your family
• Make use of soft referrals
• Know your campus resources
The don’ts…
• Don’t take a hard-line approach…
• Don’t reward them for aggressive behavior
• Blindly separate parents from students
• Don’t fight or argue
• Dismissively refer it and forget it
Power of analogies for reframing
• Helicopter = Hovering
• Bulldozer = Pushing
• Tandem Bicycle = Guiding
• Umbrella = Caring
Used with permission of Dr. Donovan at Colorado Statue University
[email protected]
750 Colorado State University parents said:
How often would most parents say they have contact with their student?
Used with permission of Dr. Donovan at Colorado Statue University
[email protected]
How students see parents’ involvement
Choosing college
Choosing college
Dealings with officials
at your college
Decision to go to this
Decision to go to
Too Little
Right Amount
Application(s) to
Too Much
Higher Education Research Institute Survey Results on The American Freshmen: National Norms for Fall 2007
750 Colorado State University parents said:
How often would you say parents initiate communication with their student?
Used with permission of Dr. Donovan at Colorado Statue University
[email protected]
10 Best approaches
I am going to discuss 10 approaches to
working with parents
1. Understanding their motivation
Understanding why parents are upset is the first
Parents worry.
– They are concerned about their child who is also
your student.
– This is expressed as concern about relationships,
academic standing, living arrangements, etc…
1. Understanding their motivation
Previously, parents may have helped their
student by talking/advocating with their
That behavior is no longer appropriate in
Your challenge is to show them another
2. Make it a teachable moment
See yourself as the consultant to the parent.
• When a parent pulls you aside, see this as a
teachable moment for the parent.
• Remember, the parent is going through a
developmental transition that parallels the
• Student affairs staff are often well-trained in
understanding college students in terms of
their developmental stages.
2. Make it a teachable moment
Make sure to apply this same approach to their
parents. Understand their behavior in this
larger context.
3. Set early expectations
If you have a problem with
parents who become
over-involved, be
proactive and develop a
comprehensive plan
rather then reacting to
when they cross
3. Set early expectations
Outline your expectations and clearly develop
your approach to working with parents and
communicate this to parents.
– Consider creating a brochure and/or section on
your website that addresses these issues.
Collecting your ideas and sharing your
philosophy early will prevent you from being
caught off-guard.
4. Respect for the role of parents
Honor the work of the parents while clearly
communicating the college’s expectations.
Parents hear two messages:
1. Let go, and let your children solve their own
problems, and we are here to help when they
struggle, and…
2. Stay in touch with your child and let us know
how we can help.
There are just as many horror stories about hovering
parents as there are about insensitive/defensive
college staff.
4. Respect for the role of parents
During parent orientation avoid words/phases
that communicate a negative image (e.g.,
helicopter parents).
Focus on the resources available to students
Have information available to parents about
support services so they can become referral
agents when speaking with their child.
Note to parents: “You have laid a great
foundation for your children. Now let us build
on it…”
4. Respect for the role of parents
Alma College:
The parent program at Alma College in Michigan
takes a comprehensive approach at
orientation, complete with scripts that allow
parents to role-play.
A problem is presented and parents are coached
to say: ‘Tell me what you’d done already to
solve this problem.’
4. Respect for the role of parents
Colgate University:
Gives parents the university’s philosophy on selfreliance and outlines what should parents expect for
their first-year student, themselves, and from the
university during this period of adjustment.
While the students are unpacking and meeting
roommates, this special program for parents
provides an overview of the typical transition issues,
offers constructive ways to be involved in the
process, addresses common questions from parents,
highlights first-semester events, and identifies
valuable Colgate resources.
4. Respect for the role of parents
Colgate University shares the contents of the
parent orientation with all the staff who may
come into contact with parents.
They can refer back to it when speaking with a
“Remember during parent orientation when
5. Two kinds of communication
Understand the content (what is being said) and
process (how it is being said) of the
– Spoken: “You need help Justin! He is failing all his
classes, and he has a learning disability. His high
school had an entire team of people dedicated to
helping. Why isn’t anyone here doing anything!”
– Unspoken: “I’m far away. And I’m scared no one is
helping my son!”
5. Two kinds of communication
By responding to the unspoken message (or meta
communication), staff can match the question being
asked and better satisfy the parent in their response.
Too often, we focus our response directly back to
match the frustration and anger. A better approach is
to focus on the worry, concern and frustration
As Covey says “Seek first to understand and then be
6. Kung Fu of referral
Kung-Fu and aikido are based on the idea of redirecting negative energy towards a neutral source.
When talking with a frustrated parent, consider referral
options to help redirect their frustration:
• “Can we schedule a time to sit down with you and
your daughter to discuss this?”
• “Has your son explored other steps before giving up
on his current roommate?”
• “Perhaps it would help if our Dean talked to you
about our policy directly so you can get the answers
you need.”
6. Kung Fu of referral
While you are within your rights to say:
• “I don’t talk to parents of my students…”
• “I’m not responsible for your son’s study
• “I don’t put my notes online…”
• “I don’t have the time to talk with you….”
Consider other ways to communicate and offer
• Your referral, redirection or advice should not
make things worse.
7. A-B-C’s of handling stress
Ellis developed a system of Rationale Emotive
Behavioral Therapy (REBT).
This method outlines an approach of getting out
ahead of frustrating stressful interactions (A)
and altering our beliefs (B) about them.
This shift leads to a more positive consequence
7. A-B-C’s of handling stress
A= cause of stress (activating event)
B= belief (your interpretation)
C= consequence (your reaction)
7. A-B-C’s of handling stress
A. A parent pulls up in front of the residence hall
in a fire lane and proceeds to unload their
daughter’s car.
B. You already dealt with several parents and
students parking illegally. There is a clear sign
not to park there and they are ignoring it.
C. You lose your temper and yell at them in
frustration to “Move the CAR!” Your boss
walks by and pulls you aside for a talk.
7. A-B-C’s of handling stress
Our reactions become so familiar we don’t think
about them.
Some of these “automatic reactions” are simply
bad habits.
7. A-B-C’s of handling stress
If you magnify an activating event such as…
• A parent who yells at you
• Lack of respect from a new student
• A director who sets unrealistic expectations
You also magnify your stress. You become…
• Worried, upset, and uncomfortable
• Your thinking becomes cloudy and muddled
• It will increase your frustration and stress
7. A-B-C’s of handling stress
Instead, if you minimize an activating event
– You are calmer and at ease
– You think more rationally and clearly
– You are better able to solve problem
– You eliminate the source of your stress
7. A-B-C’s of handling stress
How do you remain calm when experiencing an
activating event?
– Recognize the old habit taking over.
– Stop, take a deep breath, remain calm.
– Try an alternate interpretation.
7. A-B-C’s of handling stress
Step 1: Find the good in a bad situation
– Parent is upset and comes charging over to you…
– Two roommate are arguing during move-in…
– Your RA is no where to be found…
– Overwhelming/stressful situation in your home
7. A-B-C’s of handling stress
Step 2: Control your inner dialogue
– “This person is out to get me. No matter what I
do, they will see me as incompetent.”
– “They aren’t happy with my performance. How
can I improve my work in a way they will notice?”
– “Get ready to defend yourself…you are going to
get it now…”
7. A-B-C’s of handling stress
Step 3: Avoid the blame game
– It’s natural to want to blame other people for the
bad things that happen to us.
– But what we really are saying to ourselves is we
aren’t in control of our work.
– Instead, accept responsibility for things that are in
our control to fix.
7. A-B-C’s of handling stress
Step 4: Shift your focus forward
– Shifting from “what was, and can’t be changed.”
– To “what is, and what can be done.”
– Don’t wallow in self pity. Think about solutions.
7. A-B-C’s of handling stress
Step 5: Keep your problems in perspective
– Changing our perspective changes the way we see
our current difficulties. We see them as temporary
set-backs rather then year long events.
– Try putting problems aside at the end of the day
and tackle them fresh at the start of the next day.
– Try to see the humor in a situation.
– Don’t expect your interactions to always be
wonderful. Expect both ups and downs.
8. When it gets violent
There are times when a pushy parent transitions
from being pushy or aggressive to being
One way to deal with this is to understand how
people move through stages when they
become aggressive.
8. When it gets violent
John Byrne’s Aggression Continuum shows how
a parent may move from being upset
(triggered) to losing their ability to cope
His work can be found at
Quality of Judgment
Aggression Escalates
8. When it gets violent
8. When it gets violent
We need to have the proper mindset prior to
attempting to manage any aggressive
behavior. This requires us to control our own
emotions and body language.
Staff and faculty can prepare to manage the
parent’s aggression and move them to a lower
phase so they don’t reach crisis.
8. When it gets violent
Build a connection with parents by listening to
their concerns and paraphrasing these
concerns back to them.
• “Let me see if I understand. You are concerned
• “What I hear you saying is…”
8. When it gets violent
It is essential to understand that frustrated
parents respond less to what we say, and
more to the way and manner in which we say
Albert Mehrabian (1971 UCLA Study) found that
when communicating emotionally, people
attend to:
– Words 7%
– Tone/Inflection 38%
– Body Language 55%
8. When it gets violent
We can better manage aggressive parents if we:
– Display a quiet confidence
– Convey a willingness to help
– Offer acceptance, respect, and validation
– Use enthusiasm and keen interest
– Ask: “Is there any thing I can say or do at this time
to make the situation better?”
9. What we can learn from MI
Motivational Interviewing is an approach to
working with college students to motivate
them to address their alcohol problems.
The core approach to MI is focused on the
“helper” being in a stance of trying to connect
find the right stance or approach for each
given situation.
MI discusses three key stances which can be
used. These are….
9. What we can learn from MI
Listening /
Directing /
9. What we can learn from Mi
Overview of Motivational Interviewing
1.Express empathy
2.Develop discrepancy
3.Avoid argumentation
4.Roll with resistance
5.Support self-efficacy
9. What we can learn from MI
Express empathy
• Communications that imply a
superior/inferior relationship are
• The parent’s freedom of choice and self-direction are
respected. While the staff is in a position of power,
encouraging change happens through listening rather
than talking.
• Attitude change attempts are gentle & subtle -- always
with the assumption that change is up to the parent
9. What we can learn from MI
Develop discrepancy
• Change occurs when a parent
perceives a discrepancy between
where they are and where they want
to be.
In certain cases such as the “precontemplators” (in Prochaska
and DiClemente's stages of change model) it may be necessary
first to develop such discrepancy by raising the parent's
awareness of the adverse personal consequences of their
negative behavior choices.
9. What we can learn from MI
Avoid argumentation
• Avoid direct argumentation, which tends to evoke
• Do not seek to prove or convince by force of argument.
• Instead, employ other strategies
to assist the parent to see
accurately the consequences of
their negative behavior, and to
begin devaluing the perceived
positive aspects of their negative
9. What we can learn from MI
Roll with Resistance
Do not meet resistance head-on, but rather "roll with"
the momentum – with a goal of shifting parents’
perceptions in the process.
New ways of thinking about problems are invited but not
Ambivalence is viewed as normal, not pathological, and is
explored openly. Solutions are usually evoked from the
parent rather than provided by staff and faculty.
9. What we can learn from MI
Support self-efficacy
• According to Bandura, self-efficacy is the belief that
one can perform a particular behavior or accomplish a
particular task.
• In this case, the parent must be persuaded that it is
possible to change his or her own behavior and
thereby reduce their overall problems.
10. Reality therapy
William Glasser, founder of reality therapy, talks
about the importance of creating plans and
goals in a manner that ensures success.
He offers a system based on the Wants,
Direction and Doing, Evaluation, Planning
10. Reality therapy
W = Exploring the parent’s wants and needs.
Here we are looking for the desires and
direction the parent wants to head in.
D = Direction and doing: We assesses what the
parent is doing and the direction these
behaviors are taking them.
10. Reality therapy
E = Evaluation: We make an evaluation of the
parent’s total behavior. Is the behavior taking
them closer to their wants and needs?
P = Planning and commitment: Assisting
parents in formulating realistic plans and
making a commitment to carry them out.
10. Reality therapy
• Simple: plans are broken into small, easy pieces
• Attainable: plans are realistic and can be accomplished
• Measurable: plans can be assessed and evaluated
• Immediate: short term goals that occur soon
• Controlled by the planner: ensuring adjustments
• Consistently practiced: repeat until habits form
• Committed to: buy-in and investment
Case Study #1
A parent calls you on the phone and says:
“My daughter apparently was taken to the
hospital earlier in the semester for suicidal
thoughts. I know she is talking to someone in
your counseling center.
Why wasn’t I called at the time? I am furious!”
Case Study: Poll
3. How should you respond to the parent?
A: Redirect the parent’s anger towards the
counseling center, since this is their policy.
B: Focus on the student handbook and show
them the written policy about confidentiality.
C: Talk to them for 20 minutes to better
understand why they are frustrated.
D: Explain, in caring way, the reasons behind
why the school didn’t notify the parents.
Case Study #2
A parent approaches you at your desk and yells,
“There is an enormous alcohol problem on my
daughter’s floor. Every weekend there is vomit
on the bathroom walls. She says no one cares
or will help. This needs to stop!”
Case Study #2: Poll
4. How would you respond to this parent?
A. Redirect parents anger towards another
B. Focus on the student handbook and show
them the written policy
C. Talk to them for 20 minutes to better
understand why they are frustrated
D. Explain, in caring way, the reasons behind the
Case Study #3
A parent pulls you aside at homecoming
weekend to talk. She whispers “My daughter
is surrounded by “ethnic” students in the hall
where she lives on campus. We are concerned
about her safety and want you to do
something about it.”
Case Study #3: Poll
5. How would you respond to this parent?
A. Teach the parent that her comments border on
racism and you are sure that is not what he/she
wants to convey.
B. Have the parent encourage her daughter to talk
to her RA/RD.
C. Talk to them for 20 minutes to better understand
why they are concerned.
D. Try to connect the parent to a staff member who
is non-white and could help bridge the gap and
talk to the parent.
Case Study #4
A mother is upset that her daughter’s aid was
reduced and that she was “let go” from her
job as a student worker in the library.
The mother is tearful and says “You just have to
do something to fix this. My daughter needs
to have a job in order to pay for her books. I
don’t know why they would fire her after all
she has done. It is just so mean.”
Case Study #4: Poll
6. How would you respond to this parent?
A. Explain to the parent the student aid policy and
why students without aid can’t have on campus
B. B. Have the parent encourage her daughter to
talk to library staff to see what they can do to
C. Talk to them for 20 minutes to better understand
why they are concerned.
D. Since the library job requires student aid, help
the mother find her daughter another non-aid
job on campus or reapply for student aid.
Byrnes, J. (2002). Before Conflict: Preventing
Aggressive Behavior. ScarecrowEducation.
Glasser, A. (2001). Counseling with Choice Theory:
The New Reality Therapy.
Glasser, A. (1975). Reality Therapy: A New Approach
to Psychiatry. Colophon Books.
Miller, W.R. & Rollnick, S. (1991). Motivational
Interviewing: Preparing People to Change
Addictive Behavior. New York: Guilford
George A. Parks, Ph.D., Associate Director Addictive
Behaviors Research Center, Department of
Psychology, BOX 351629 University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195-1629 [email protected]