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Teachable Moments: Managing Aggressive and Overly Involved Parents

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1 Teachable Moments: Managing Aggressive and Overly Involved Parents
Brian Van Brunt, Ed.D

2 Presenter 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.

3 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.”

4 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 times.

5 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 message No one really listens to what the other is saying

6 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

7 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

8 Power of analogies for reframing
Helicopter = Hovering Bulldozer = Pushing Tandem Bicycle = Guiding Umbrella = Caring Jody Used with permission of Dr. Donovan at Colorado Statue University

9 750 Colorado State University parents said:
How often would most parents say they have contact with their student? Jody Used with permission of Dr. Donovan at Colorado Statue University

10 How students see parents’ involvement
10 How students see parents’ involvement Higher Education Research Institute Survey Results on The American Freshmen: National Norms for Fall 2007

11 750 Colorado State University parents said:
How often would you say parents initiate communication with their student? Jody Used with permission of Dr. Donovan at Colorado Statue University

12 10 Best approaches I am going to discuss 10 approaches to working with parents

13 1. Understanding their motivation
Understanding why parents are upset is the first step. 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…

14 1. Understanding their motivation
Previously, parents may have helped their student by talking/advocating with their teachers. That behavior is no longer appropriate in college. Your challenge is to show them another approach.

15 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 child’s/student’s Student affairs staff are often well-trained in understanding college students in terms of their developmental stages.

16 2. Make it a teachable moment
Make sure to apply this same approach to their parents. Understand their behavior in this larger context.

17 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 boundaries.

18 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.

19 4. Respect for the role of parents
Honor the work of the parents while clearly communicating the college’s expectations. Parents hear two messages: Let go, and let your children solve their own problems, and we are here to help when they struggle, and… 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.

20 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…”

21 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.’

22 4. Respect for the role of parents
Colgate University: Gives parents the university’s philosophy on self-reliance 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.

23 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 parent… “Remember during parent orientation when we…”

24 5. Two kinds of communication
Understand the content (what is being said) and process (how it is being said) of the conversation: 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!”

25 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 underneath. As Covey says “Seek first to understand and then be understood”

26 6. Kung Fu of referral Kung-Fu and aikido are based on the idea of re-directing 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.”

27 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 habits…” “I don’t put my notes online…” “I don’t have the time to talk with you….” Consider other ways to communicate and offer solutions. Your referral, redirection or advice should not make things worse.

28 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 (C)

29 7. A-B-C’s of handling stress
Emotional and Behavioral consequences ACTIVATING events Rational and Irrational Beliefs A= cause of stress (activating event) B= belief (your interpretation) C= consequence (your reaction)

30 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.

31 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.

32 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

33 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

34 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.

35 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 life…

36 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…”

37 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.

38 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.

39 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.

40 8. When it gets violent There are times when a pushy parent transitions from being pushy or aggressive to being violent. One way to deal with this is to understand how people move through stages when they become aggressive.

41 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 (escalation). His work can be found at

42 Quality of Judgment Diminishes
8. When it gets violent Quality of Judgment Diminishes Aggression Escalates

43 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.

44 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 about…” “What I hear you saying is…”

45 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 it. Albert Mehrabian (1971 UCLA Study) found that when communicating emotionally, people attend to: Words 7% Tone/Inflection 38% Body Language 55% 93%!!!

46 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?”

47 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….

48 9. What we can learn from MI
Listening / Reacting Guiding Directing / Informing

49 9. What we can learn from Mi
Overview of Motivational Interviewing Express empathy Develop discrepancy Avoid argumentation Roll with resistance Support self-efficacy

50 9. What we can learn from MI
Express empathy Communications that imply a superior/inferior relationship are avoided. 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

51 9. What we can learn from MI
51 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.

52 9. What we can learn from MI
52 9. What we can learn from MI Avoid argumentation Avoid direct argumentation, which tends to evoke resistance. 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 choices.

53 9. What we can learn from MI
53 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 imposed. 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.

54 9. What we can learn from MI
54 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.

55 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 (WDEP).

56 10. Reality therapy WDEP 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.

57 10. Reality therapy WDEP 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.

58 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

59 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!”

60 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.

61 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!”

62 Case Study #2: Poll 4. How would you respond to this parent? A. Redirect parents anger towards another office/superior 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 policy

63 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.”

64 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.

65 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.”

66 Case Study #4: Poll 6. How would you respond to this parent?
Explain to the parent the student aid policy and why students without aid can’t have on campus jobs B. Have the parent encourage her daughter to talk to library staff to see what they can do to help. 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.


68 References 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 Publications. George A. Parks, Ph.D., Associate Director Addictive Behaviors Research Center, Department of Psychology, BOX University of Washington Seattle, WA

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