Managing difficult conversations with parents

Published on Tuesday, 24 March 2020
Last updated on Thursday, 19 March 2020

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Discussing a difficult topic with a child’s parent or carer is an inevitable situation for most early childhood educators.  These conversations can be fraught and knowing how to prepare to ensure the best possible outcome is challenging. 

However, learning how to manage difficult conversations is important to developing a plan to best support the child and/or deal with the tricky situation. This week a range of strategies to help you handle these conversations in a way that reduces conflict and stress and maximises the chances of a good outcome. 

Relationship building

Ensuring you have developed a trusting relationship with the parent will go a long way to minimising any awkwardness or conflict when an issue comes up. Remember that parents want the best for their child and you are their partner in meeting that need. Putting yourself in their shoes may help you navigate the conversation more effectively.

Remember, tricky conversations are more difficult if they become confused. So ensure you approach these conversations with sensitivity, respect and a solutions mindset will make the interaction more productive. Follow your service’s policy for resolving difficulties with families and if necessary supply the parents with a copy of the policy to ensure they are aware of the process.

Be prepared

Tricky conversations are important so think about what you need to say ahead of time and ensure you have all the information you need before the meeting. Be open, honest and keep your language non-judgmental. Give parents clear and accurate information and use examples to describe the behaviour or situation that you are concerned about. Be sure to include positive observations as well as negative ones, consider any questions you’d like answered and be clear on the main issue you want to focus on.

Anticipate questions parents might ask and prepare to be interrupted. Your strategy for the conversation should be flexible as emotions can be heightened. Try and remain calm, focused and adopt sound conflict resolution skills if the parent becomes upset or angry. If appropriate, try and have a management plan ready for discussing with the parents including possible solutions.

Set the tone early

Invite parents into a space which is private and quiet and be friendly and welcoming. Try and start the conversation with positive comments about the child. Remind the parents that you’re working to a common goal of supporting the child. This common goal should be referred to throughout the meeting to maintain a focused conversation. 

Set the plan for the conversation by using an agenda and share this with the parents. Hosting a structured meeting will keep parents in problem solving mode rather than in a defensive position. 

Listen and guide

Strive to listen openly and without judgment. This will ensure you receive the full benefit of parents’ in-depth knowledge of their children and demonstrates that you value their experience, ideas and opinions and take their concerns seriously.

Adopt the Active Listening process called LEAN. L for ‘lean’ in physically which makes a person feel that you care about what they’re saying. E is for ‘eye’ contact. A is for ‘ask questions’. And finally, N is for ‘nod’, which has the effect of encouraging the other person to keep talking and making them feel like they are being listened to.

Use open-ended questions to gain more information. Open-ended questions give parents a chance to expand on what they’re saying rather than just saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For example, ‘What sort of things did Taj do when he was feeling like that?’

Try to understand the perspective of the parents, even if you disagree with what they’re saying. Put yourself in their shoes and validate their feelings. For example, ‘It sounds like you felt judged as a parent’. 

If a parent becomes angry or upset they won't be able to listen or discuss the situation objectively until they calm down. You can de-escalate the situation by listening and using their name and a low tone of voice.  Deliberately use the word  "we" to emphasise that this is a collective team effort. If the meeting deviates from the original purpose, return to that common goal that was originally identified. 

Be sure to separate and speak about the child’s behaviour, not the child as an individual. Refrain from using educational jargon. 

Remember that perceptions of what’s appropriate can differ between cultures or contexts and no family is the same. For example, families with vulnerabilities, rainbow families, blended families and culturally and linguistically diverse families all have different support and communication needs.

Conclude with resolution

To ensure clarity and a collaborative way forward, summarise the parents’ thoughts and concerns in your own words back to them. Also ask the parents to share what they've heard back to you. Partner with the parent to agree on the next steps to be taken and what things will look like ad feel like as you work towards resolving an issue.

If there are any obstacles to a resolution make a time to come back with other solutions for discussion or to meet with someone else who can help. End the meeting just as you started, with a positive statement about the child and positive body language.

Keep communicating

After the meeting follow up with an email and keep the communication channels open. Confirm whether the agreement or plan is working and identify any areas of adjustment if necessary. Determine if another meeting needs to be arranged and remember to acknowledge improvements. 


What can you learn from this experience? Would you approach a similar conversation in the same way? Did you learn something that you would try next time? How did you feel before, during and after the conversation?

Thanks to and  for their insights on communication and difficult conversations, which helped write the article.

References and additional resources

Effective communication between families and early childhood staff

Parentshop: Five tips for staging tough conversations in early years settings 

Scholastic: How to Solve Six Tough Parent Problems 

Excellence Matters 

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