Parents Who Bully the School
Robert Evans, Ed.D. and Michael G. Thompson
Over the last 30 years, we have, between us, consulted to more than 2,000 schools, public and independent, in the United States and internationally. Our school visits have given us a deep appreciation for the range and complexity of challenges schools face and for their capacity to master evolving problems. With one glaring exception: For the past 20 years, we have each encountered a relentless increase in educators’ frustrations in dealing with difficult parents.
The absolute level of concern is not the same everywhere, and in many schools administrators hasten to say that “most of our parents are fine.” We believe them. But every school we visit—every single one—reports more frequent and more severe problems with parents. In this article, we offer some thoughts about the roots and context of the general trend, but our focus is on coping with the small minority of the most difficult: those who bully the school. These parents are habitually rude or demanding or disrespectful, engaging in personal attacks on teachers and administrators, demeaning and threatening them. They repeatedly violate the school’s policies, values, and norms of conduct.1
Bully parents come in three basic types: the Righteous Crusader, the Entitled Intimidator, and the Vicious Gossip. The Righteous Crusader is perhaps the most confusing for teachers because she claims to have identified a moral problem and attacks the school for failing to address it. We had a call once from a head of school who said, “I have three mothers who are relentlessly challenging my teachers about a supposed bullying problem that does not exist, that no one else sees.” All educators are potentially vulnerable to the charge of failing to protect children because it cuts to the heart of their mission. Teachers can thus be easily threatened by a charge as mild as, “My daughter says you don’t like her,” to one as extreme as a false accusation of sexual abuse. A major international school recently had two of its teachers jailed for 10 months on an unbelievable—and entirely unsubstantiated—charge of sexual assault by a parent who was either disturbed or attempting to extort money from the school.
Entitled Intimidators make no bones about what they want: special treatment for their child. They demand that rules be waived, exceptions made, policies upended. They want teachers they dislike fired. A parent recently told his daughter’s school that he would not re-enroll her without a guarantee that a particular child would not be placed in her section. His rationale? “The school owes me. I was president of the parents’ association for two years.” (In this regard, the phrase, “As you know, I’m married to a member of the board,” almost always marks the start of an attempt at bullying.)
The Vicious Gossip has what we psychologists call a character problem, one that plays itself out in continually finding fault with the school or with teachers and broadcasting her complaints, often to a group of vigilantes that she recruits. Sometimes she has a valid concern and has identified a genuine teacher weakness or administrative failing. It is her exaggeration of the issue—the relentless, destructive quality of her storytelling to other parents, her repeated gathering of what Richard Chait, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has called the “Volvo caucus in the parking lot”—that qualifies it as bullying. We have both talked with teachers who have been victims of such campaigns and who end up feeling defamed and victimized.
Many factors contribute to the rise in bullying among parents. Three stand out: an epidemic of anxiety; a culture of competitiveness and loneliness in the upper-middle class; and a failure on the part of school administrators to recognize when they are dealing with personality disorders.
The rising tide of anxiety among parents stems in good part from a trade-off between opportunity and predictability that has grown ever more severe in recent decades. To be a confident parent requires, among other things, that the rate of change be slow and that the choices for children be few. How else can parents feel sure that what their children know is what their children need to learn in order to live successful, productive lives? But the rate of change—social, economic, technological—keeps accelerating and most parents (and schools, for that matter) want students to have maximum opportunity, to be able to become anything they want. This freedom, unprecedented in human history, has obvious appeal, but it means that certainty and confidence for adults about what’s good for children, about how to raise them are in sharp decline. Couple this with a growing uncertainty about future employment, caused both by the financial meltdown of 2008 and the increasing cannibalization of professional careers by technology, and it’s no wonder that growing numbers of parents are apprehensive about their children’s prospects and eager for the school to provide guarantees for the future, or that they find it hard to tolerate any evidence that their children’s experience is anything but optimal.
This anxiety is often accompanied by isolation from other families and from experience with a diversity of developmental pathways in childhood. More and more parent couples are composed of two professionals who have a lot of resources but may not see much of other people’s children, particularly in mixed-age groups or free-play situations. They lack a crucial perspective about how children navigate and learn from the normal stresses and challenges of growing up. What they do have is a willingness to advocate for their children. The combination of anxiety, inexperience, and a tendency toward advocacy can lead to ferocious overreactions.
Finally, most educators tend to give parents, their tuition-paying customers, the presumption of good mental health. Unfortunately, this is not always warranted. In every school, some parents suffer from genuine personality disorders, which means they may be high-functioning in many respects but in certain areas of life consistently distort reality. Although all of us who are parents can lack perspective when it comes to our own offspring, a few have a profoundly distorted view of their children or a deeply rooted mistrust of institutions, notably the school. Too often, it takes months of parental misbehavior for administrators to recognize that they are dealing with serious psychopathology that will not yield to normal intervention.
Special Vulnerabilities of Educators
Increases in bullying behavior by parents are one side of the equation; vulnerabilities of educators are the other. Teachers tend to be a highly conscientious group. They thrive in the company of children and try to accentuate the positive. They have a strong service ethic and have chosen a career that is much closer to that of the clergy than to, say, anything corporate. The benefits for students are obvious. But all this means teachers are easily made to feel guilty, that they haven’t done enough for students. It also means that they are extremely conflict avoidant. Hence, when confronted with intense criticism and unreasonable demands, they are easily undone. Many teachers—and many former teachers who are now administrators—find themselves repeatedly trying to placate, persuade, convince, accommodate Righteous Crusaders, Entitled Intimidators, and Vicious Gossips. To no avail.
Bully Management Basics
Dealing with bully parents begins with a twin perspective: First, that bullies are externalizers; second, that they almost always need to be handled by administrators, not classroom teachers. Bullies blame outward; they show little capacity for self-observation. They almost never ask themselves, “Am I doing something to upset people or that keeps them from seeing things my way?” Trying to reach them through extended rational discussion is fruitless. No matter how intelligent they may be, bullies demonstrate arrested social/emotional development. In this they resemble certain students. Educators will rarely go wrong by treating a bully parent exactly the way they would an outrageous and aggressive student.
The ideal approach can be summarized in three words: “limits, limits, limits.” Bullies deserve thoughtful attention and an invitation to be reflective, but when these don’t suffice, they need to know—unequivocally—the minimum nonnegotiable conditions of belonging in the school community. They need to hear, “You have every right to your opinion, but you cannot swear at us,” or, “We hear clearly that you want us to change your son’s grade, but we will not do so.”
These kind of messages can be delivered by a teacher, but almost always, true bully parents must be turned over to an administrator. Period. We counsel teachers that after one terrifying parent-teacher conference, they should never again meet alone with that parent. Managing bullying parents is a job for those who can speak for the school.
One headmaster begins the limit setting this way: “You have a message about your child that you want us to address. But you taped it to a rock and threw it through our window. You want us just to respond to what you wrote, but we can’t because we have a rock and broken glass all over the place.”
The hardest thing for teachers and administrators is to not become defensive in the face of withering criticism. This is more easily said than done, but when being accused, it is crucial to hold on to this idea: “Whatever we did, we did nothing to make this person as crazy as they sound at this moment.” A lack of defensiveness combined with a persistent, relentless curiosity about how the parent reached her or his conclusions about a situation can often calm things. (Here again, approaching the parent as one would a student can be helpful.) At the heart of any inquiry should be a desire to learn what the parent is hoping for and what his or her biggest fear is. Often, the biggest bullies are, underneath, deeply frightened. Once you set boundaries on their behavior, it may be possible to get to the heart of the matter.
But not always. You can’t win them all. When every normal remedy has been exhausted, sometimes the only true solution is excommunication. The health of the school community and the protection of the faculty can require expelling a bullying family, even when their children are quite wonderful and completely innocent. For public schools, of course, this is almost never possible. For independent schools it is, but it’s a step they take rarely and never easily. But with the most extreme bully parents, the sooner the better.
When expulsion is not an option, it is vital to set clear, strong restrictions. These can include: confining parents’ communication to one specific administrator and clarifying that no staff member will respond to their emails and calls; sharply limiting the number of messages that will be acknowledged; seeking a restraining order to control—even eliminate—parents’ access to the school and its people. When these measures become necessary, they are best presented briefly and directly as decisions, not as items for discussion. Even when you can’t expel the bully parents, you can make it much harder for them to misbehave. And it is limiting their behavior, not promoting their insight that is key. In so doing, leaders can make the school a safer place for all.
This article appeared, in slightly different form, in Independent School, Spring, 2016, published by the National Association of Independent Schools. Robert Evans, a psychologist and consultant to schools, is the Executive Director of The Human Relations Service, in Wellesley, Mass., and the author of Family Matters: How Schools Can Cope with The Crisis in Childrearing. He can be reached at www.robevans.org. Michael G. Thompson is a consultant, author, and the supervising psychologist for the Belmont Hill School. With Alison Fox Mazzola, he is the author of Understanding Independent School Parents. To contact, visit http://www.michaelthompson-phd.com.
1 “Bullying” is now widely misapplied to much normal child and adolescent behavior. We use it here as it is defined in dictionaries: a bully is a “blustering, browbeating person [who is] habitually cruel to others,” who “badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.”