THAT Parent.


Photo source: ww.giphy.com, www.turning-point.org




“Well, the parents on this case are a bit….high maintenance
“You definitely need thick skin to work with this mother”
“You have experience dealing with…very involved parents right?”

If you're an ABA professional, then you probably know what I mean by the phrase “That Parent”. You have been warned about those kinds of families in hushed tones, or directly felt their wrath somewhere in your career experience.

Who loves honesty? Yup, me too. So let’s honestly describe what is meant by the hushed and frantic whispers about THAT parent. 

The parents are/A parent is:

  •  Difficult to please and/or very picky
  •  Quick to complain, criticize, belittle, or insult 
  • SUPER vocal, opinionated, and in-your-face assertive
  •  Overly involved in the therapy process
  •  Frequently talks over you, or talks for so long you forget the point you were going to make
  •  Demanding (if you don’t respond to their email fast enough they start texting you)
  •  Slow with praise or compliments
  •  If there is a chain of command, they never follow it. Any small grievance gets immediately reported to the top of the company 
  •  Habitually speaks in an agitated or annoyed tone of voice (always seems upset)

Is this description ringing any bells?  

Over the years, I’ve had multiple experiences dealing with THAT parent. Some experiences were very brief, usually because the parents abruptly stopped services. Other experiences seemed to stretch out like stars against the night sky, and every day with them felt like 1,000 years.

Back in the day I used to approach these types of parents with a queasy stomach, sweaty palms, and a lovely tension headache whenever I was in their presence. They made me nervous, made me stammer over my words, or worse, left me angrily rehearsing unspoken conversations in my head of what I should have said, or how I should have responded. And of course, nothing like THAT parent to make you feel wholly incompetent and like a disgrace to your field.

Fast forward to today as I have a few things I didn’t have back then: perspective, increased maturity, and a munchkin of my own. As a munchkin wrangler, do I now understand what it’s like to be a 24-7 advocate for a child with Autism? No. Do I know what it’s like to navigate IEP’s, special education laws, inclusion classrooms, and the like? No. Have I nearly gone into bankruptcy trying to get my little one all the therapies she needs that insurance *coincidentally* won’t cover? Nope. BUT, I can only imagine what going through all of that might do to my awesome, bubbly personality. ;-)

And now we have reached my point: There is nothing wrong with being THAT parent. Not only is there nothing wrong with it, we ALL have the potential to be That parent when it comes to our children.

Even the most sweet, gentle, Happy Happy-Joy Joy parents that I work with have stories to tell me about that “one time” they acted like THAT parent. They ashamedly, or with clearly false bravado, tell me about the time they yelled at their child’s teacher, said the F word in an IEP meeting, or made the ABA therapist cry. 

For the most part, THAT parent doesn’t enjoy behaving the way they sometimes behave. They are not out to get you, and do not actually despise you. They are not intentionally trying to make your job harder, trying to get you fired, or trying to make you look bad. Actually it’s the opposite: they are more concerned about their child than about you.
 If fighting for what their child needs means you get yanked off a case, or receive regular 2 a.m. emails from them, or you have to spend 4 hours rewriting the behavior plan they didn’t like, then so be it. 

When dealing with THAT parent, it’s helpful to take a step back and switch out THAT for This:

  • This parent did not ask to be in the position they are in
  •  This parent may lack a strong support system that also gives them honest feedback on their behavior 
  •  This parent may be having marriage problems
  •  This parent may be dealing with emotional or mental health issues
  •  This parent may still be carrying guilt about previous experiences where they did NOT speak up
  • This parent may feel resentful that you can help their child in ways that they can’t
  • This parent may not have slept in days because they stay up nights worrying about their child’s future


My advice for navigating the choppy waters around THAT parent is to choose empathy over offense, to tackle problems/conflict head on and respectfully, and to know when to back off. By “back off”, I mean know when to say “Well then I can’t help you”. 

Part of being an ethical professional is being able to assess when you are not adding value to someone’s situation. If the working relationship has become more about misunderstandings and heated conversations, then how is that helping the individual receiving services? It really has nothing to do with someone being THAT parent: if what you bring to the table is not seen as valuable to the parents/family, then get out of the way for someone else who could potentially be a better fit.



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