Denial: Guiding families through the Four Stages of Parent Grief

In a previous post, I wrote about the Four Stages of Parent Grief and what educators should know about how parents process news of their child’s challenges.  In the following posts I will outline how educators can guide parents to understanding concerns so everyone’s focus can shift to partnering in support of student needs.

Stages of Parent Grief

Sometimes parents are not ready to see the challenges about their child being described by teachers or administrators.  Parents may make excuses for behaviors or provide evidence that appears to conflict with the claims being presented.  This is a natural response to hearing challenging information.  The human brain is wired to protect us from harm and that means responding by fighting, fleeing, or freezing.  When teachers share concerns with parents, that information can be subconsciously interpreted as an attack.  What parents hear the teacher say is that something is wrong with their child, the one they work so hard to nurture.  If something is wrong with their child, then something is wrong with their parenting practices and/or with them as individuals.  In defense of the lovely being they are working really hard to raise and themselves, they deny what they are hearing is true.

Denial may appear as excuses or rebuttals such as… Of course my child can recognize the letters of the alphabet; we read books together at night religiously.  He most certainly can pay attention for periods of time; he plays with Legos for hours.  She could not possibly have issues with peers because everyone loves her; she is constantly being invited to playdates.  Look at this piece of writing he made this weekend.  I just sent you a video of her counting to 100.  Does that sound familiar?  Have you ever said or at least thought that as a parent?

Below are some ways I have found to think about and approach parents when concerns need to be shared.


Look for patterns; they tell a story.  There are always patterns.  There are even consistencies in the inconsistencies.  Look for patterns.

My daughter has many food and environmental allergies.  I’ve known about them since she was a baby and I took her to the doctor for insight into what could be causing a perpetually runny nose and randomly appearing hives.  It turns out grits and eggs for breakfast will do that when a person is allergic to eggs.  Oops.

We’ve collectively managed her allergies for 14 years.  She does an outstanding job with the food portion, advocating for herself and protecting herself when necessary.  The environmental allergens are trickier because they aren’t always visible, and it often takes a higher level of alertness than a child might have to prevent or identify reactions to them.  So, I’ve especially helped her manage that piece for 14 years; and, still I didn’t see the pattern that led to her most recent episode.

  • Week 1:  My daughter continuously complained of stomachaches, so we went to urgent care and received a diagnosis of reflux.  Me:  Where did that come from?
  • Week 2:  She came home from school early several times because of headaches, so we went to urgent care and received a diagnosis of sinus infection.  Me:  Nasty weather.
  • Week 3:  She crawled into my bed and cried through the night about her ears, and head, and stomach; we went to the children’s hospital and received a diagnosis of sinus infection and double ear infection.  Me:  Things are not getting better.  I don’t know what to do. 
  • Week 4:  She’s miserable.  I’m desperate.  We’re both exhausted.    Me:  No more.

Finally, I took my daughter back to the doctor who treated her when she was a baby.  The first thing she said was, “Let’s step back and look at her history.”  Those words ignited a flash of memories of tests, procedures, medicine, and conversations with doctors.  After talking through a series of questions, we connected all of it, the stomachaches, the headaches, and the earaches, to her allergies.  Of course!  While some of the symptoms presented differently than they had in the past, the timing and the triggers remained consistent.  Look for patterns.

I tell this story because even veteran educators sometimes miss the patterns.  Instead, we address the symptoms in the moment and then provide parents fractured information once  we’ve reached our breaking point, maybe after being alarmed at the results of a student assessment or exasperated by a student’s most recent behavior.  Rapid firing a list of issues to parents may seem completely justified to you as the educator because you’ve been feeling the accumulation of concern over time, but it feels threatening and disjointed to parents.  Instead, we have to communicate holistically what we are seeing so parents can see it too.

Even still, no matter how well we share concerns with parents, they may still go through a period of denial.  Regardless, it is our responsibility to guide them to acceptance more efficiently.  The best way to do that is through clear and intentional communications.  Below are some methods that have worked well for me.

Communicating Concerns to Parents


  • Step back.  List or talk out instances or examples of issues you’ve noted.  Analyze what you are seeing.  Look for a pattern or trigger.  Is it around timing?  Maybe those peer conflicts seem random but are really related to difficulty transitioning from one activity to another.  Is it related to a particular subject?  Maybe a child is becoming silly and playing with friends as a tactic to avoid writing.  This may take consulting with someone who is not as close to the daily interactions or someone who has a history with the student.  Before communicating with parents, articulate to yourself the essence of the concern and why it is concerning (how it is impacting the child or class).
  • Then, if you are truly concerned, use the word concern. In a person-to-person conversation (by phone or in person), explain that you have concerns that you want to share.  I placed clarity above compassion in this list because sometimes our compassion clouds our judgement and subsequent ability to communicate concisely.  This does not mean we should be callous, but veiled comments in the hallway and coded messages in progress reports do not equate to clarity.  Only teachers know what is meant by “sometimes has difficulty with” and “developing his ability to”.


  • Be on the same page.  If you are a teaching team, you must talk to each other first (and include your administrator as necessary) to develop a common understanding of the challenge and related messaging.  Putting parents on an emotional rollercoaster of mixed messaging won’t help a child receive the support they need.
  • This is not a time to bombard parents with examples.  No parent needs or truly wants a daily email detailing the inappropriate behaviors their child displayed or the tremendous difficulty they had with reading – no matter what they say they want.  Go into a conversation about concerns with a plan of action.  Set a goal that everyone can work toward and agree to check in at a specified time to discuss progress and adjustments.  This might mean a weekly email or even daily goals chart, but it should be a balanced sharing of observations and reflections.


  • This is last on the list but of paramount importance.  When parents don’t see it yet, be patient.  They need to be shown the pattern and to hear a story unfold that is told in a kind and caring way, a way that says you are not judging or forecasting certain failure.  They need to feel that you are working with them on their child’s behalf.
  • One way to communicate concern and hope is through the sandwich method (aka a compliment sandwich).  Dan Pink shares research in his book, When, that says people prefer to receive bad news before good news and that “given a choice, human beings prefer endings that elevate.”  (Audible clip) Yes, and I also know that parents need to feel that the teachers caring for their child each day appreciate their strengths and efforts.  Starting with concerns feels deficit focused rather than solutions focused.  That is why I think it is important to discuss everyone’s observations of a child’s strengths, efforts, and growth (good news), then share concerns (so called bad news), and end by discussing a plan for working together to support the child because that’s our ultimate shared goal (an elevated ending).

Communicating concerns is not easy for anyone, but it is necessary in order to move learning forward.  Parents may still experience anger and sadness before getting to acceptance, but clarity, consistency, and compassion will help everyone through the process.


Pink, D. H. (2018). When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.


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