Building Bridges with Parents of Disruptive Children

Reach out to parents early on to share your interest and good intentions of working together. After speaking to a parent in person or over the phone, an online partnership might be a good next step. To promote parent reception and eliminate defensiveness, consider scheduled weekly or biweekly emails:

Bridge Building 101

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Review specific goal(s). Keep the email focused on the specific goal that is being worked on. This will help eliminate child blame and focus on strategies that are working or need tweaking. For example, instead of “I am emailing you about David’s anger problem,” try “I am emailing you today regarding our goal of anger management.”

Use language that demonstrates partnership, such as “us, we, our, let’s.” Although this may show a looseness of boundaries,  we want parents to understand we are equally invested in their child’s goals and progress; and this avoids blaming statements.  A helpful example of positive language is, “let’s  work on helping David with coping skills this week.”

Invite parent expertise. A newbie mistake is assuming parents are at fault for their child’s behaviors. Regularly ask the parent/s for their advice. Ask what has worked for their child before, what is working for the child at home, and what reasonable suggestions the school could try to help their child’s behavior. This will not only provide strategies you may not have considered before but helps to improve the parent’s feeling of value and connection.

Include positive behaviors and progress towards goals. Similar to children, parents need to feel encouraged and supported. Parents need to hear their children are moving in a positive direction and although there may be a temporary regression, reminders of the steps made forward are necessary to sustain hope. Although this may be a challenge, it will be a critical piece of gaining parent investment.

When sharing updates that include negative behaviors, avoid language that shows judgment or criticism. Simply state the facts. Instead of  “David lost control again and rudely threw his pencil. He can’t seem to control his anger,” try, “David struggled with impulse control today and threw his pencil.” Sticking to facts prevents emotional and finger-pointing responses.

Avoid reviewing the negative consequences to their child’s behaviors, such as “the teacher and the classmates are tired of his behavior.”  This will only promote shame and resistance. Instead, focus on the positive consequences that include the both of you working together. For example, “I plan to review coping skills with David this week. I will send home a list of the skills he prefers to practice at home.”

Offer help.  Even the best of parents feel helpless and inadequate. Instead of imposing recommendations, when appropriate, gently offer solutions. For example, “If you are interested, I have found some useful tips that may work at home, I would be happy to email you.” Other suggestions that help support the parent include collaborating with the student’s outside therapist and providing updates as needed.

Lastly, although parents can have a negative influence at times, we do not want to take for granted the positive influences they have on your student’s success. These emails may seem like a chore at first, but once you create a trusting connection with a parent, the fewer details need to be provided and most importantly, the alliance built aids in improved behaviors. Finally, when writing your email, always put yourself in the parent’s shoes and ask yourself, what would I want to read if this was my child?

Download the FREE editable behavioral progress note from Mental Fills.

How to Burn a Bridge with a Parent

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It was Back to School Night for parents a few weeks ago and I introduced myself to my son’s new school counselor. Following our greeting exchange, I politely asked in private how my son was doing. The 6’4 twenty-something counselor immediately pulled his body away, avoided eye contact, and said with force, “I can’t talk about that because of confidentiality.” His defensiveness to my innocent question caught me off guard.

After ignoring my impulse to walk away from his intimidating presence, I asked him to clarify what he was talking about. Specifically, because the treatment goal is just improving social skills. The counselor blurted some scripted speech about needing to protect my son’s privacy and wanting to preserve rapport with him. He was unapologetic and appeared apathetic to my curiosity.

When I finally mustered up the courage to tell him I was frustrated and that no one at the school had ever talked to me in his tone, he acquiesced and gave me some general updates about my son. At that point, all rapport with me was destroyed and I was emotionally checked out of the conversation. My detachment from our interaction prevented him from hearing any useful tips and strategies that would make his job less challenging this school year.

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Bridge Burning 101:

  1. Dismiss a parent’s question about how their child is doing.
  2. Use confidentiality as an excuse to not engage.
  3. Use body language that shows you are in control and disinterested.
  4. Use a memorized script to answer questions.
  5. Invalidate a parent’s feelings.
  6. Be inconsistent with what you say and do.
  7. Neglect to ask a parent for their input and see the value of their collaboration.
  8. Permit interruptions and give divided attention to others.