Your child comes home from school, dramatically flings down their backpack on the floor and declares: “My teacher is mean!”
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It’s normal to be at a loss for how to respond. But pediatric psychologist Vanessa Jensen, PsyD, recommends starting by lending an open ear.
“I think the first thing to do is just listen,” she says. “Let them talk on. Let the child tell their story without judgment — just let them get it on the table — with a lot of neutral comments like, ‘Uh huh’ or ‘Hmmm.’ Or ask neutral questions such as, ‘What happened then?’
The thing you don’t want to do is say, ‘Oh, she is so mean,’ or, ‘How could he say that to you? That was inappropriate.’ Just don’t go there.
Sometimes (like adults) kids just need to whine and complain. And know that you care enough to listen.
Why listening is so powerful
Have your child put their thoughts and feelings into words, Dr. Jensen says. This can help them problem-solve their way through the issue.
Then perhaps, if the issue persists, get the teacher’s side of the story.
“Sometimes it’s just clarifying with the teacher, and asking: ‘You know, Susan came home the other day and she was all upset about something. I was hoping you could help me understand what happened, as far as you’re concerned,’” explains Dr. Jensen. “It may be something very simple, innocuous — the teacher was having a tough day and gave a funny look, something totally benign.”
When further action may be needed
After getting more information, you can decide if there’s a need to sit down with everyone — parent, child and teacher — to get to the bottom of things.
If you have very young children, it’s important to remember that it’s easy for situations to be misinterpreted (especially if your child is very sensitive or anxious).
And remember that conflict can provide a learning opportunity for children of all ages.
Don’t ignore or overreact
Never ignore or completely dismiss your child’s concerns, especially if the issues keep recurring or are more serious. But Dr. Jensen also cautions not to intervene over every little thing, especially if you have an older student.
There comes a time when your child benefits from having the chance to handle what’s troubling them on their own.
“You want to start easing your way out of the role of managing everything for your child as they move into high school, so that more and more decisions are made (at least the decisions are talked about and thought about) with the student and the teacher, or the student and the guidance office,” she says.
“Obviously, parent input, asking questions and giving thoughts is important. But you eventually want them to start having them negotiate those things a lot more on their own, so they are prepared for life after high school.”
Often times, student-teacher conflict may be the result of a mismatch between the student’s style of learning and the teacher’s style of instruction, Dr. Jensen notes. But if you’re concerned about something inappropriate or troubling, it’s important to follow up on those concerns with the child’s teacher or school administrator.