In the Trenches: Effective Communications with Parents

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter


As directors of a day camp in a major metropolitan area, our summer is filled
with challenging calls from parents. Some parents who call ask to have their
child moved from one group to another or for their child's counselor to be
fired or for another child to be put on a different bus or into a different
group even before we know what the problem is.

It seems that many parents talk to us more as consumers than out of
a concern for their child's true well-being. We often find that the child
is happy, and the parents may feel the need to exert their power or may
be reacting to a problem they are blowing out of proportion. If the child
does have a problem, parents seem to want to micromanage in a way that
doesn't look at the big picture of camp or show that they trust us to
work out a solution that will benefit everyone.

Bob, what can we do to help parents understand that we are caring professionals
who have many children to take care of besides just their one child?

- Exasperated

Dear Exasperated,

You echo the concerns and aggravation of many day and resident camp
directors I have worked with over the past several years. If your camp
is like most, I suspect the majority of your parents are quite grateful
and cooperative and that demanding or entitled parents make up a smaller,
albeit vocal and challenging, group.

Let's remember, too, that parents do not have a front row seat at camp
- resident camp or day camp. They are letting you have a tremendous amount
of influence and impact on their child without the benefit of seeing
firsthand how things are going. For many parents, this is distressing.
There is so much in the media today to frighten parents about the people
caring for their children that we must imagine the world from their perspective.

Approaches for Dealing with Parents

That having been said, let's look at some practical approaches. First,
many parents lead with their solution. What I mean by that is parents
often tell you what they want done about a problem before they tell you
what the problem is. The key here, as it is in any challenging human
interaction, is to slow down and be less emotionally reactive. This may
sound easy, but if you have ever been on the "firing line," you know
just how difficult it can be not to take an attack personally. Yet, this
is precisely what is needed for success. The following are my tips about
how best to manage your own emotional equilibrium when speaking with
anyone about charged or sensitive topics:

  • Put yourself somewhere physically where you can have the conversation
    without distractions and where you can focus and stay calm.
  • Take a moment to put yourself in the mind-set where you are calm,
    focused, and ready to enter the fray. Breathe deeply three times -
    in slowly through your nose and out slowly out through your mouth -
    before you accept or make a challenging call. This simple move will
    help calm and center you.
  • Be aware of your own emotions before you begin. If you are feeling
    threatened, anxious, or annoyed, being clear about your feelings will
    help you manage them better. Be at choice about your feelings. That
    means, don't let your emotions run you or sneak up on you in ways that
    you may later regret.
  • Have an intention about the outcome of the conversation you are about
    to have. Do you wish to avoid fighting? Do you want to strengthen or
    create more of an alliance with the parent? Do you want to hold your
    ground and not be manipulated? Do you simply wish to get more information?
    Take a moment before the conversation and think about what your goal
  • Find an ally to bounce your ideas off of before you begin the conversation.
    You may want to see if someone else on the staff has had a history
    with these parents and can give you some pointers or support you in
    your efforts.

I acknowledge that calls from parents can happen in such a way that
you do not always have time to go through the above steps. My experience
has been that the more you practice, the more able you will be to calm
yourself and put yourself in the most advantageous mind-set, even when
you are taken by surprise.

Stay Calm and Inquire about the Problem

When parents call and immediately begin demands, the worst thing you
can do is argue the merits of their suggestions. Doing so simply results
in a combative exchange that erodes any alliance you might have or wish
to create with the parents. First and foremost, practice inquiry.

Simply put, find out what the problem is. For example, say, "Sounds
like there's a problem, Mrs. M, what is it?" Another thing you can say
is, "You're obviously upset. Tell me what the problem is." Remember,
once you mirror the alarm or aggressiveness of the person on the phone,
the conversation will deteriorate. If you can remain cool and slow the
conversation down, while still sounding interested and concerned, you
will have more success.

Validate Parents' Feelings

Once parents begin talking and telling you what the problem is as they
see it, it is extremely effective to validate their concern or upset.
Remember that validating a feeling does not mean that you are agreeing
with their assessment or making any promises. It is simply helping other
people know that you can see their point of view - that you can put yourself
in their shoes.

Here are some examples of validating statements:

  • "Wow, if what you say is true, then I don't blame you for being upset;
    I'd be upset, too, because that's not what our camp is all about. Let
    me look into it and see what I can find out."
  • "Of course, you're concerned, Mrs. Parent; she's your daughter. Now
    let's see what we can work out together."
  • "I'm so glad you called, Mr. M, because that's how we can help."

Parents who come on more as consumers may need to be validated in a
different way, which is to say that you must look for the positive intent
in their call. "I see what you're trying to do, Ms. T, you're simply
advocating for your child as best you can." An extremely useful phrase
in this situation is "feel-felt-found." It might be used as follows: "I
can understand how you feel protective of Chantelle. It must be difficult
knowing she is struggling with some of the other girls in her group.
Many parents have felt the same way as you in similar situations. What
we've found, however, is that, working with the girls, and with your
support, we cannot only help them get along, we can help them learn an
important life skill - working out differences."

The formula above "feel-felt-found" relies on validating feelings first
and then stating your own observation or conclusion. People are much
more receptive to an opposing viewpoint if they have been validated and
listened to first. I call this approach "VIP" - validate, inquire (find
out more, listen, express interest), and then, and only then, preach!

Be Firm and Clear about Your Position

Parents who are adamant about a course of action that you do not wish
to embrace need a different phrase, which simply enough is, "I'm not
comfortable with that." After all, you are in a position of having to
make judgment calls based on the well-being of the entire community.
This means compromises from time to time. Being firm, clear, and calm
about your position is more credible than defending and explaining. The
more you try to explain, the less convincing you sound.

For parents who use the argument of money (how much they are paying),
being clear about your principles is the best way to guard against the
impression that you can be bought or blackmailed. It may be that parents
who are not willing to accept your decision do not have the right camp.
In response to such statements, you might say, "It sounds like whatever
I say it is not going to satisfy you, Mrs. P. I'm sorry about that, but
what I am willing to do is . . . so perhaps you need to decide if this
is the right place for you. We love having Chantelle here, but this is
what we are willing to do." The more simple your language (e.g., "I'm
not willing to do that . . . "), the more professional you are.

The harder you work to convince someone that you are caring and professional,
the less likely you will come off that way. If you are true to your word,
don't take things personally, ask for what you want, and are clear about
your principles, your behavior will speak for you.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing
in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for and can be reached via e-mail at or
by fax at 617-572-3373. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by American
Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2001 March/April
issue of Camping