Is it just me or have you noticed an increase in high conflict parents in your school?  Not too long ago, I was walking through the front office and a parent with three small children in tow came flying through the front office door demanding to see the principal.  The secretary regretfully told the parent that the principal was out of the building and asked if she could help.  The parent was very cross and informed the secretary that she wanted to see someone now!!  Feeling really uncomfortable, I walked out of the office and toward the counseling suite. As I was walking down the hall, one of our administrators asked the parent to step in another office to talk about the issue. On the way to that office, I heard the parent shout that the school was mistreating her child and she wanted something done about it today!  As the assistant principal was trying to explain the reason for the student’s discipline, the parent started hurling expletives in front of her children and everyone else in the office. At this point, I am asking myself what made this parent so irate that she would lose all sense of civility?

In my school, I have definitely noticed an increase in bad behavior in parents.  Students’ bad behavior I understand, but parents?  What could be the explanation for this rise of incivility in schools?  Of course, our brain plays a large part in our reaction to danger.  The amygdala or the reptilian brain controls our response to danger and if we should run away or fight back.

HCPs have little to no ability to regulate emotions

Bill Eddy, founder of the High Conflict Institute, states that high conflict people, like our parent, have never learned the skill of emotional regulation so it becomes their go to response when they feel threatened.

According to Bill Eddy, some characteristics to remember about high conflict people or parents (HCPs) include:

  • They have all-or-nothing thinking: High conflict people/parents believe that situations will always turn out badly if others do not handle them the way they want. If school professionals disagree, they may verbally attack and take the a situation up to the next level (i.e. calling the superintendent’s office) – again an all-or-nothing solution.

  • They have unmanaged emotions: As in the case of our parent in the office, high conflict people tend to become very emotional and often catch staff members by surprise with their behaviors (i.e. anger, yelling, or disrespect for those nearby). Since their behavior takes everyone off guard, we are often unable to react in the manner they expect.

  • They have extreme behaviors: High conflict people/parents have extreme behaviors which include losing control over their emotions or exerting control by threatening extreme actions if they feel they are being mistreated.

  • They tend to blame others: High conflict people/parents have a history of blaming others like people in authority positions (i.e. administrators). They tend to take issues personally and feel like life will not be the same if things don’t go their way; therefore, they attack, blame, and find fault even in minor incidents. However, they tend to see themselves as blameless and having little to no responsibility for the problem.

Mr. Eddy found that 15% of Americans are intent on blaming others for their problems and this percentage is growing in our society. It is important that schools understand the psychology behind handling parents who are prone to this type of behavior. As a school counselor of high conflict parents, you can prepare yourself and other staff members how to respond to them.

Always Be Ready for HCP Fallout!

How to Prepare for High Conflict Parents?

1.  Understand you are a target of blame

Blaming others helps high conflict parents feel stronger; however, the blaming behavior causes them constant distress. Since they often cannot see the connection between their behavior and their problems, their behavior continues and the conflict with others grows.

2.  High conflict parents have high conflict personalities

Please understand that your high conflict parent’s behavior did not just start when their kids started your school–they have always argued against feedback, tried to persuade others to agree with their points of view, and stress always follows them from school to school.

3. Reduce their Mistaken Assessment of Danger or M.A.D.

Try not to be threatening and realize that the parent may be operating out of a life-long history of feeling victimized.  See the pattern of behavior for HCPs.

4.  Set Limits on Behavior that’s Aggressively Defensive or B.A.D The most effective ways to stop bad behavior is to show empathy and concern for the person, explain the reasons why the specific behaviors need to be stopped, and spell out the potential consequences if it continues. You can tell the parent that you regret addressing their behavior, but you want to help them and other behaviors will be more effective at getting him/her what he/she wants.

5. Avoid Giving Negative FeedbackIt is natural for us to resist parents’ bad behavior, but with high conflict parents this feeds their misperception of danger and triggers more defensive behaviors. Instead of giving negative feedback, Mr. Eddy suggests focusing on reducing emotional threats, setting matter-of-fact limits on their behavior, and communicating that you want to help them. Demonstrating a true desire to help can make a positive difference with a high conflict parent.

6.  Don’t try to persuade them by using logic Many professionals try to urge high conflict parents to turn off their emotions and stop their behaviors. Trying to persuade them to think differently only triggers their defensiveness and bad behavior.
7. Use Empathy, Attention, & Respect (E.A.R.)
Many high conflict parents are used to rejection, insults, and being ignored by school staff; therefore, they are expecting this same treatment when they come into your office.  As the school counselor, you have an opportunity to connect with them and help them with their issue by being empathetic, listening to their story, and providing respectful communication.
8.  Remember, it is not about you!  This is really difficult for us touchy feely people, but if you can remain calm, the brain has mirroring neurons that mirror the behavior of others.  Therefore, it is important that you take deep breaths, calm yourself, and engage your pre-frontal cortex before engaging with a high conflict parent!
9.  Keep in mind, the issue is not the issue with high conflict parents
It’s their inability to manage their own emotions and behavior that is the cause of their stress, not you!

I hope this tutorial on HCPs (parents)  has been helpful for you as a school counselor.  Being prepared for their behaviors with specific skills can make meeting with a HCP a little less stressful.   
The High Conflict Institute provides webinars and training on dealing with high conflict people whether in person or on an email.  Check out Mr. Eddy’s site!

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