Perhaps there is nothing more inevitable in youth ministry. It will happen. No matter what you do, how hard you try, or how good of a job you do, it will happen. It’s an eventuality and inevitability: parents will get angry and you will have to deal with it. Even though it’s something we all face, it’s also one of the more difficult parts of the job. Handle it the wrong way and you won’t be handling it much more. Furthermore, if you don’t handle it well it can steal your influence and steal your ministry. Learning how to deal with angry parents is a must for youth workers who want to lead next level!
Unfortunately, I’ve had to deal with more than my share of angry parents over the years. The good news is that out of these experiences I have learned 5 steps to take to defuse the situation. Just last week we held an all night event off campus. As you probably guessed, that meant dealing with some angry parents!
The good news was I had a process to handle it. It’s a tried and true process that has proven me well over 12 years of ministry, and I want to share it with you. So here are five steps to take when dealing with angry parents.
The first step in dealing with angry parents is to recognize what went wrong. It’s important to verbally recognize what went wrong to the parent. The truth is they already know what went wrong. They may not know the why, but they know the problem.
In the case I mentioned above, it was clear part of our group arrived late. At this point, it didn’t matter why we were late, it just mattered that we were. The most constructive thing I could do was recognize what went wrong and own it. This step alone makes a huge difference in dealing with angry and frustrated parents. Once they know you recognize mistakes were made and that you see what they see, it usually calms them down.
“When dealing with angry parents, it’s important to see what they see.”
The next step is to apologize. What do you mean? What if it wasn’t my fault? What if there was nothing I could have done differently? I hear this from youth workers all too often. No one likes to admit when they’re wrong, and it’s hard to apologize when you feel like you haven’t messed up. That’s not the point though.
The point is we can ALWAYS apologize for something. A good rule of thumb for me is to apologize for whatever I can. My pride doesn’t like it, but it makes a huge difference in dealing with upset parents. I apologized for getting students home late. I apologized for not communicating better, even though I don’t know that I could have made it any better. I wished I could have, so I apologized for what I could.
Don’t let you pride get in the way of salvaging the situation. Apologize for what you can and move on. It may not feel great, but it will help a great deal.
“When dealing with angry parents, apologize for what you can.”
The third step in dealing with angry parents is to empathize. Try to feel what they’re feeling. Instead of bowing up and taking the emotional arrows personally, feel what they're feeling.
I’m convinced that no other step in this process makes as great of an impact. It’s the most important step you can take. It’s also the most unnatural for me. I’m not a real emotional or empathetic guy. I generally feel for people more than feeling with them, and I hate to be wrong. The competitive and prideful spirit in me fights this step, but I lean into God’s Spirit as hard as I can here. Why? Because this step is vital to successfully dealing with angry parents.
Feel what they feel and apologize again if necessary. Let them know you understand the situation is frustrating, inconvenient, or difficult. Put yourself in their shoes and let them know you feel with them. Show them your heart for them as a parent. Nothing makes a bigger difference in these situations.
“When dealing with angry parents, try to feel what they feel.”
Now it’s time to reorganize the conversation. Call back what you've heard them say, what you recognize happened to cause it, and how it made them feel. Then, tell them what steps you’ll take for a better outcome next time. Reorganizing the conversation lets the parent know you’ve heard them, understand them, and you want to do something about it.
It’s difficult for most people to stay mad when they feel like these things have happened. Often, I find angry parents just want vent, and this let’s them know you’ve heard and care.
“When dealing with angry parents, let them know they’ve been heard.”
At this point, thank them for their patience, understanding, honesty, support, etc. Thank them for whatever you can, even if it's more what you hope to receive. Then, let them know you hope they have a great day, and pray for them if you can. It may sound silly, but this has a way or reframing the whole conversation and ending it on a bright and hopeful note.
The previous steps diffuse the situation, but this step helps turn it. They came to you upset, you want them to leave hopeful. In essence, it's all about letting them know you care. And nothing turns a conversation like knowing the person on the other side cares.
While the other steps diffuse problems, this step wins fans. Some of the best parent supporters I’ve had came after critical conversations like this. This step will help take your ministry to parents to the next level!
“When dealing with angry parents, thank them and let them know you care.”
One final note, always remember to stay gentle and even. A gentle answer turns away wrath. You can't be a leader if you can't keep your cool. I hope this process helps turn your next conversation with an angry parent into an incredible win!