The Four Stages of Parent Grief: What educators should know about how parents process news of their child’s developmental challenges

When the school’s phone number pops up on the caller ID, any parent’s initial reaction is panic.  My first-born child had probably been in childcare for less than a month when they called me to tell me there was a problem.

School administrator: “Hi, Ms. Mitchell.  Donovan has conjunctivitis.”

As a new parent, I had no idea of what conjunctivitis was but it sounded terrible. Apparently, I channel my grandmother (who was known to use a few expletives) when I am not thinking rationally and responded in a less than professional way.

Me:  “No the ___ he doesn’t.  What is that, and who are you to diagnose this?”

Fortunately, the administrator was a seasoned professional that recognized the terror in a young, new mother’s voice.  She responded with a chuckle, “It’s pink eye; he just needs to go to the doctor for eye drops.”  Feeling only slightly embarrassed and mostly sad for my sweet baby boy, I set out to pick him up to address what I learned was a common childhood illness.

The feelings that surged through me during those seconds are the feelings that parents regularly experience when educators tell them their child is having developmental challenges. They are feelings of denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance – what I call the stages of parent grief.  Often sequential, sometimes cyclical, and rarely lasting a mere few seconds, these stages are important for an educator to understand so we can appropriately manage our messaging and counsel families with compassion.

In this post, I summarize the emotions and behaviors I have observed parents experience when processing messages from the school about their child’s developmental challenges.  In subsequent posts, I will share ways I have found parents and educators can work together through the stages to support students in need.

Stages of Parent Grief

Stages of Parent Grief

Denial – In this stage, parents are not yet ready to see the challenges being described by the teachers/administrators.  Parents may make excuses for behaviors or provide evidence that appears to conflict with the claims being presented.

 Anger – Parents may feel personally attacked by teachers or administrators and blame the environment, including teaching practices, structures and policies, and other children for any issues being described.  At this stage, there is some recognition that the issues exist, but efforts are being made by the parent to protect the child from others.

Sadness – This stage usually follows a quiet period.  Parents have had time to talk to others they trust, see the issues being described, and they too believe there is an issue.    They don’t know what to do about it and are unsure of outcomes.  This stage might include feelings of guilt.

Acceptance – Parents are ready to move forward with addressing the challenges described.  They are open to dialogue and willing to take some action.

 
Again, I have found that these stages are often sequential but sometimes cyclical, especially during discussion about how to address challenges.  My point in sharing these stages is that without awareness of them, educators may find themselves reacting to parent emotions rather than communicating strategically to support families.  Most importantly, it is a reminder that in spite of emotions, educators and parents are on the same team and share goals of good health, happiness, and achievement for students.

Stay tuned for subsequent posts on each stage of grief and how to help families move through them.

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