If you are a teacher, you have most likely encountered situations where a parent has told you information of a sensitive matter that has left you with uncertainty in how to respond. You may feel uncomfortable, unsure of what to say, and at a loss of how to help!
Maybe you had a parent drop their child off at school this morning and you noticed that mom was teary eyed and the child was more clingy than usual. You walk over to check in and mom shares that they just found out that dad has lost his job and they are uncertain they will be able to remain in their current home.
How can you help?
It’s very important to stop and think before you respond. Take a deep breath if you need to and gather your thoughts before speaking. All too often, we want to immediately comfort the person and try to fix the situation. If you rush into a response, no matter how well meaning, it may come off sounding differently than what you intended! Refrain from cliché phrases such as “It’ll all work out” or “You’ll be fine”. This may very well be the case but right there in that moment, this parent has trusted you with their feelings and fears. One way to respond is to simply reflect back what you think the parent is communicating such as “You’re feeling scared about what happens next” or “This is really stressful and scary for you right now” Saying things such as “I know exactly how you feel” is also a common go to response and even if you have been in a similar situation, you truly don’t have an exact understanding as to what this parent is experiencing. Although your words are meant to be comforting, it may not be taken that way by some.
Be mindful of little ears listening in to the conversation. Perhaps, if you sense the parent needs to talk further you can suggest that you help get the child get settled into an activity with peers and then turn your attention back to the parent. Children internalize parental stress and will often find ways to make it their own fault that something bad or scary has happened in their family no matter how far from the truth that is. When a parent is too upset to provide the emotional protection that child needs in that moment, you can help by modeling and giving that level of support to the family.
BE MINDFUL OF YOUR BODY LANGUAGE
Remember that actions speak louder than words. Be sure your body language is conveying an open, non-judgmental message. Use eye contact, nod, be mindful of crossed arms or how the direction your body is facing. Offering a hug, if you are comfortable and you feel the parent may be receptive, is ok! If you offer and they don’t accept, don’t take it personally.
IF YOU ARE ABLE, HELP TO IDENTIFY RESOURCES
Some parents are very clear on the needs their family has and the level of support they are comfortable with. Others may feel so overwhelmed they don’t know where to start. Let them know that you and the rest of the staff are there to provide extra love and support to their child as needed while the family works through challenges. If the parent would like extra support you can help them to access other staff within your school that can assist with additional resources such as the guidance counselor, school social worker or your director/assistant director. You may want to jump in and start brainstorming ideas but again, be mindful of where the parent’s needs are at that moment. They may still be just trying to process what has occurred and need to work through the initial shock phase before being able to brainstorm and solidify a plan of action. Others are ready to jump right in. Either approach is fine- be a presence for that parent meeting them where they are at right then and there.
Remember, your role is not to “fix” the situation but to be compassionate and supportive; helping to identify family strengths and possibly assist with problem solving. Most importantly, you have a child looking to you to for support, structure, and guidance. Cushion their day with stability, predictability, love, and patience while their family travels through this stressful period.