How to start a conversation with a parent/carer

School staff may need to open up a conversation with a parent or carer about a range of topics that might be affecting their child’s ability to flourish and achieve in school.

For example, concerns might arise about:

  • A child’s mental health, wellbeing, progress in school or their safety
  • Factors in a child’s family or community environment that may be affecting their wellbeing – e.g. risk factors such as family breakdown, being a young carer, or facing discrimination.
  • Factors in school that might be affecting them – e.g. problems with peer relationships, bullying or academic stress
  • A parent or carer’s mental health and wellbeing.

Whatever the concern, it is important that staff work in partnership with parents and carers to explore what might be challenging a child’s wellbeing, to help find solutions and to signpost them to help and specialist services where necessary.

Barriers to opening up a conversation with a parent/carer

Typical barriers that prevent school staff from starting up conversations with parents/carers include:

  • embarrassment
  • stigma
  • lack of confidence and feeling inadequate
  • fears about making things worse
  • concern about the response they will receive, especially when talking about sensitive issues. 

We also know that many parents struggle to talk to their own children about mental health. In a national parental survey (Time to Change 2015), for example, more than half of parents did not talk to their children about it. Reasons included not knowing how to address the issue and sometimes not recognising mental health problems as something that might be affecting their child. This survey concluded that talking about mental health is still seen as too awkward and that this needs to change.

What schools can do

Most schools try to build up friendly, respectful and welcoming interactions with parents before any serious conversations need to take place. Being at the school gate, getting to know parents and carers and having positive things to say about their child is vital. 

However, there will always be some parents who find it difficult to engage because of their own mental health needs or negative attitudes towards school. Remember too that children will often reflect the attitudes and views of their parents.

Sometimes it will take patience and time and often the greatest effort is needed with parents who are the hardest to engage.

You do not have to be an expert to open up a difficult conversation or a discussion about mental health with a parent or carer:

  • Your school should establish an inclusive and welcoming culture so that all parents/carers feel comfortable coming in to meet with school staff.
  • Before meeting with parents/carers, discuss any concerns with your school’s pastoral, SEND or designated safeguarding lead (DSL). Alternatively, liaise with your school counsellor or mental health professional (if you have one).
  • Focus with parents/carers on your shared commitment to promote the best interests of their child. Parents have often described discussions about their children’s progress as a prompt for also thinking about, disclosing and addressing their own difficulties.

Top tips for meeting with a parent/carer

Guidance for meeting with a parent/carer to discuss mental health and wellbeing, with tips for before, during and after the meeting.

Related resources

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