School professionals and parents are constantly engaged in a process of reciprocal emotional exchanges which often go unnoticed. Yet, the power of these induced emotions can drive either constructive or destructive outcomes depending on whether the team can accurately “read” what is needed to move progressively forward.
A common example of how induced emotions can influence the outcome of a meeting (and the subsequent relationship with a parent) is when teachers, administrators, or child study team members innocently seek to convey to parents the difficulties they are experiencing with their children without first anticipating the parental response. Some parents will respond to reports about their children’s struggles with feelings of overwhelming anxiety, despair, fear, or anger. The latter occurs when parents are presented with information in a manner that feels assaultive to them. That is, they are hearing that their child is not performing adequately academically or behaviorally with the implication that they need to do something about it. These same parents may already know about their child’s issues, have struggled with them, and felt as equally perplexed, frustrated, or defeated as the professionals after unsuccessful attempts at addressing the problems. Parents who feel inadequate to the task look to the school team to come up with solutions. Some may respond with panic, shame, or embarrassment, viewing their children’s problems as representative of their failures as parents. Others will feel the need to respond to the perceived attack with a counterattack meant to deflect the onslaught of the intolerable feelings induced by the school team. In these instances, parents may aggressively inquire as to whether the team has followed the IEP, and want to know what they plan to do to further address the problems. When parents react in a defensive/combative rather than collaborative manner, the school team, in turn, may resonate with the emotions induced by the parent and become frustrated and angry at requests to do more, feeling that their efforts to date were not appreciated or recognized and not feeling disposed to give. Instead, their anger may result in behaviors that will only be experienced as being withholding which, in turn, will heighten the need for the team to do more.
Professionals who hope to have a positive outcome often need to give the emotions induced by parents the “right turn.” This requires first being aware that you are “under the influence” of emotional contagion and stop to examine those feelings before responding. Holding the induced emotions is challenging because the feelings are often uncomfortable or intolerable and they drive an urge for discharge. Yet, it is these very feelings that give you the diagnostic information you need to generate an accurate emotional response. They provide a roadmap about what to say or do if you can only tolerate holding them long enough to extract the information you need.
How do you give these contagious and often toxic emotions the “right turn”? The team members need to accept the fact that, whether they like it or not, they will be exposed to these feelings and resign themselves to allowing those feelings to wash over them, remove the toxic components, and use the remainder to construct an accurate emotional response. For example, parents respond to a report about their child by implying that the team hasn’t done an adequate job and needs to do more. The team has the choice of becoming defensive and listing every single intervention attempted or accepting the parents’ feeling without agreeing with it. It is important to be willing to hear and take seriously parents’ perspective because without this first step, there is little chance that they will be willing to hear opposing views. A response that may serve to begin to bridge the gap may be, “If the situation were as you described it, I would certainly understand your position. However, the situation is actually different.” Being accurately emotionally responsive requires that we tolerate the toxic induced emotions and use them to craft a response that addresses the emotions expressed. While this seems like a tall order, it is the best way to try to drain off toxic emotions and prevent them from morphing into something worse.