10 tips for professionals on how to talk with parents

Don’t wait to address your concerns until you are certain that there is something wrong; present your concerns without judgement. These and other advices in our downloadable infographic.

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Tip 1. Give space for emotions

It could be the case that parents react angrily or are upset by your concerns. That is understandable: you are talking to parents about how they are raising their children and the concerns you have about their children. Emotions can run high, particularly if the parents don’t recognise the concerns or feel that they may have contributed to them. It is important that there is space for this: if someone can show how they feel, there is a higher chance that the emotions will subside more quickly.

You create space for emotions by giving someone your full attention. You show someone you are there for them through your posture and nonverbal attentiveness. You can then help them to get their emotions under control by reflecting on their feelings. For example: ‘I can imagine that this shocks you. I can see that you are angered by what I am saying. Is that right?’ Sometimes this is enough, but sometimes you need to do this a couple of times to help the parent down the emotional staircase, step by step.

Tip 2. Listen carefully and ask questions

Active listening means: asking questions and summarising. Show that you are listening attentively. Repeat the main points that the parent has made.

Tip 3. Try to consult parents before taking action

You are unable to grant confidentiality to parents that ask for it. If you promise confidentiality, you could put yourself in a difficult situation: you don’t want to breach their trust, but if they share something serious with you, you are obliged to act and involve others to rectify the situation. What you can do is promise to consult them before taking any action.

Tip 4. Show interest in what parents have to say

Show interest in what the parents have to say. Ask them what they think about your concerns, what they think of the discussion, and let them tell you what their child is like at home. Don’t predict what they are going to say, be receptive to their answers. This will help them tell you what they really think. Are your concerns only greater following their reaction? Talk to your supervisor.

Tip 5. Don’t judge, simply relay what you see

Present your concerns without judgement. Don’t say: ‘Angie smells’, instead say: ‘I notice that Angie smells of urine.’ And explain what you have seen or heard and why it is significant. For example: ‘I have noticed the last few weeks that Eugene often seems tired. He has been falling asleep during playtime. It happened today too.’ Don’t accuse the parents. Don’t talk about a suspicion of child abuse or state that the parents are doing something wrong. Simply tell the parents about what you have seen or heard that stands out. For example, Jim has suddenly been displaying overactive behaviour, or Lisa never looks directly at you.

Tip 6. Seek collaboration towards a common goal

Most parents want the best for their children. That’s why they will appreciate you sharing with them what you have noticed about their child. Let them know that you are looking for a solution to potential ‘difficulties’ – using the word ‘problem’ may cause the parent to feel judged. And explain the steps that you want to take. Don’t take action behind their backs: this may cause resistance and increase the chance of angering the parents or causing them to leave. If you intend to confer with a supervisor or a colleague, then share this with the parents. ‘I find it difficult to come up with a solution with you by myself, so, I want to discuss it with someone who has more expertise in this area. Is that okay with you?’

Tip 7. Be clear about what you want to achieve

It’s important that you are clear about what you want to achieve with the discussion. Something minor or seemingly innocent can be discussed with the parents when they collect their child. If you think there may be more to the situation, make an appointment for a later time. Consider whether you want to have that discussion alone or together with your supervisor or a colleague. This can be prudent if you think the parents will be shocked by your concerns or if a colleague has also picked up worrying signals.

Tip 8. Structure the discussion

Rather than beat around the bush, plan and structure the discussion. Let the parents know that you appreciate them sitting with you and tell them why you wanted to talk to them. Then you can state briefly and without judgement what you have noticed about their child and why this concerns you. Ask the parents what they think about your concerns and whether they recognise them. Pose open questions so that you do not steer parents in a particular direction. Continue to show interest and don’t fill in answers for them. Summarise the discussion to check that you have understood what they have said.

Tip 9. Make clear agreements and follow up

Agree with each other on what action both parties will take to ensure that the situation improves for the child. Record the agreements in the child’s file. Check-in with the parents from time to time. If there is no improvement or new concerns arise, make a new appointment, and talk about the potential next steps.

Tip 10. Talk about your concerns immediately

Don’t wait until you are certain that there is something wrong, instead address your concerns, big and small, immediately with the parents. Perhaps they can alleviate your concerns. For example, by explaining that the bruise on Kim’s back was sustained falling from her bike, or that Mick is so quiet and sad because his grandmother is sick. The longer you wait to discuss your concerns, the more likely it is that the parents will feel that you are not being honest with them. If you share minor concerns with them, it is easier for them to talk to you about the bigger issues.