Breaking bad news is hard to do

Telling parents unwelcome facts about their children demands a professional approach, Adi Bloom reports

* ast year Karen Schumacher gave birth to a child with severe special needs.

Sitting in a room full of doctors, all of whom knew what was wrong with her son before she did, she suddenly realised what it was like to be receiving, rather than giving, bad news.

As a result, Ms Schumacher, an educational psychologist in south London, decided to conduct research into the best ways to break difficult news to parents in school. She now gives seminars and lectures on the subject to other psychologists.

"The parent always knows the child better than anyone else," she says. "But suddenly you're at the mercy of professionals, who have knowledge about your child that you don't.

"It can be very disempowering."

Parents often come into school to hear bad news: that their child is misbehaving, has learning difficulties, is a bully, or is being bullied.

Some might already have suspicions of their own, and will be pleased that the problem has been recognised.

Others, Ms Schumacher says, will respond as though they have been bereaved, progressing through denial, anger and sorrow.

"Bad news about a child can be the absolute worst thing a parent can hear, aside from their death," she says. "In lots of ways, it's the death of their hopes. They need to change their perspective of that child. Often, parents behave badly towards the messenger.

"What they're dealing with is so powerful, so painful, they pour that pain back as much as possible. But if you work out where they are in terms of the stages of grief, you won't take it personally."

The impact of any news can be lessened by ensuring that parents are fully informed. Involving them in small developments avoids a single, cataclysmic revelation. It also prevents the uncomfortable feeling that the entire staffroom knows more about their child than they do.

Teachers should also make sure they provide parents with sufficient privacy. "Schools are very busy places," says Ms Schumacher. "You can end up in the corner of the staffroom, continually being interrupted, talking about something that's very sensitive."

Equally, time-pressed teachers might allocate a 15-minute slot to parents, forgetting the enormity of the news they are breaking. Instead, they should try to respond to parents' needs.

"You have to be professional in the information you give," says Ms Schumacher. "Everything should be accurate. But you shouldn't forget to respond in a human way. Take their hand, say, 'I'm sorry. You must be devastated.'

"If someone is compassionate, a parent is more likely to phone again and say, 'I didn't understand that.' That human contact is what stays in the memory."

Above all, she says, schools should treat parents as partners, rather than adversaries.

"You need to acknowledge that parents know their children better than anyone else," she says. "Then they won't feel alienated. You can only work with parents if they trust that you're good for their family."

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How people react

Denial. Parents may refuse to accept what you are telling them.

Dismissive. They may underplay the extent of the problem.

Anger. They may take out their frustration and disappointment on you because you are breaking the news.

Sorrow. They may burst into tears or show visible signs of distress.

Shock. They may be unable to process fully what you are telling them and will need to make further appointments or telephone calls to clarify details.

Come out fighting. They may aggressively pursue their child's cause, convinced that they will not get the necessary support otherwise.

Understanding. They may have had their own suspicions that there is a problem and be grateful for corroboration and support.

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