Heathdale flower 22nd June 2023

When Your Child is Mad at Their Teacher

Helpful advice on how to listen to your teenager, triage concerns, and help them take responsibility and learn from life’s challenges with your support.

Heathdale flower

I’ll never forget coming home in Year 8 one day really stinking mad about something a teacher had done that day at school. I’d been working on a group project for a lunchtime club and put piles of effort into arranging the next big event. Suddenly there was a new teacher in charge, and they took over and changed everything I’d worked so hard on. It was so unfair!!!

And when I got home, I told my mother exactly what I thought of the whole situation. I think it must have been a very long evening of whinging, and maybe some tears, because the next day my mum did the unthinkable. Without asking me, she went “up to school” to sort the problem out.

I was mortified!

You see, I really just wanted to let off steam. It never entered my mind that mum would actually go and speak with the school. I was pretty embarrassed about the whole thing because all of a sudden I could see that it was really something pretty petty and that I might have been quite a bit to blame in what happened as well. Not that I was admitting that much to mum!

From time to time, everyone faces someone in life who rubs them up the wrong way. We find we have a personality clash with a school mate, a teacher, a work colleague or an employer. Perhaps, it’s even more than that – perhaps they have hurt our feelings or treated us with disrespect.

So, what should a parent do when their child is obviously upset or unhappy about what’s happened at school with a teacher? Maybe they just don’t like their style or maybe they’ve had an interaction that has been negative and discouraging.

Listen really well. Regardless of whether it is something you need to help manage or whether they just want to vent a bit after a long day: listening is the first and most important step. Resist the urge to jump in with too many questions or your very wise advice. Give your child the gift of time to process their thinking through talking and give them time to reflect on what they are saying without doing their thinking for them.

Remind yourself that you are hearing one person’s perspective. It’s important to take your child’s feelings seriously but remember, none of us are immune from forgetting that our point of view might not be the only valid point of view. Some other students or the teacher might have a very different point of view on how things went down. Stay calm and neutral while you listen. When we let our emotions become overwhelmed by our child’s emotions, we lessen our ability to be the calming presence your child needs to think through their problem. Hold your own feelings in check, if you can, and reflect calmly and thoughtfully what you are hearing. Allow your child to own their own feelings and emotions without adding your own distress to the fire as something else they must manage in that moment.

Resist taking the matter into your own hands immediately. Work with your child to develop strategies for them to deal with the situation. Obviously, there are some situations – e.g. when safety is involved - that require an adult’s need to intervene immediately and make sure that matters are appropriately resolved. But where you can, make room for your child to consider how they could or would like to handle the situation.

Modelling and scaffolding problem-solving strategies prepare our children for life’s ongoing relationships. After a good deal of listening, move into this space by asking questions:

“What do think you would like to do about this? How do you think that might help?”

“Who could help you at school? How will you contact them?”

They might suggest going to a coordinator, counsellor or another trusted teacher for help and advice. This is a great in-between step that involves your child taking initiative to get the help they need from another adult but is different to just leaving it to mum or dad to solve. There’s a vital step of initiative and ownership that helps develop their own agency in problem-solving.

“What have you thought about doing so far? How do you think that will work out?”

“I’m worried about what you are saying happened today because it sounds like you were really upset. Do you think you need help to address it? Would you like me to help you?”

But what if they don’t want to solve the issue the way you think they ought to? Yes. That could happen. Maybe they’ll want to just let it go but you think they shouldn’t. Or maybe they don’t want you to go and talk with the teacher, but you feel you really should.

First consider: is this a safety and wellbeing issue? If your child is being hurt or repeatedly bullied, you need to step in even if they are not keen on the idea. It’s important that those adults that care for your child at school know about that situation so that they can work to ensure your child is safe at school and can focus on their learning.

If it’s not a safety issue, or another matter which is pressing and urgent, why not give them some space to try out some of their own ideas about dealing with the issue? Let them have that trust and responsibility which comes with growing up.

If it doesn’t work out, they are more likely to come back to you for help if you’ve given them space to work it through themselves first than if you force a ready-made solution on them. And if they can solve it themselves, imagine the sense of ownership and accomplishment they will feel. And if they can’t, you’ll still be there to work on Plan B which might mean you get more involved this time around.

Many of life’s great challenges are working out how to deal well with relationships that involve conflict and irritation. Someone skilled in navigating complex relationships is likely to be a highly valued employee in their organisation. Frequently it’s these skills of dealing well with other humans that enable that people to be highly effective in their roles and manage life’s unexpected curveballs.

Photo courtesy of Maria Lysenko