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Talking to Parents About Problems in Development
Authors: Saraswathy Ramamoorthy with Judy Myers-Walls, Ph.D., CFLE     

As a childcare provider, you may be the first person to notice that a child has problems in development or has special needs. If you see problems, it is important to talk with parents about them. This can be very difficult. Sometimes it is hard for parents to accept bad news. If you are sensitive when you talk to parents, it will help them understand the issue better.

Before you talk to the parents, get your thoughts together. Then set up a time to talk.

Keep a record of the child’s behavior. Write down the things you noticed that made you think there is a problem. Include the dates and the places where you saw the events. This way you can be accurate and honest. It will be easier for the parents to believe you if they see that you have kept a careful record.

Invite both parents to the meeting (if it is a two-parent family). It is good to talk to all the important caregivers of the child. Then one parent doesn’t need to understand and remember everything to tell the other about the meeting.

Put yourself in the parents’ situation. Try to think about what it must be like for the parents. Think about how you would feel if you were told that your child might have a disability. This will help you understand and get ready for the parents’ feelings and reactions.

Find out how ready the parents are to hear the information. It is easier to talk to some parents than to others. Try to get a sense of how easy it will be for the parents to hear the news. Some parents will not be surprised to hear there is a problem. Others may never have thought about it and will need some time to get used to the idea.

Be honest without being unkind. Give parents correct information, but try to use kind words. Say, "your child may have trouble with. . ." Don't say, "your child will never be able to . . ." When you use words that sound scary or harsh, parents will be more frightened and anxious.

Use common words. When you use complicated names and words, it may scare parents. They will not be able to understand what you are saying. Use words you can all understand. (Some suggestions are included at other places in this website.)

Be calm but concerned. When parents see that you are handling the situation calmly, they will probably stay calm, too. When you look tense and worried, they might think something terrible will happen. No one will be able to think or talk very clearly if everyone is upset. On the other hand, if you are too calm, the parents might think you do not care. Show concern, but try to be in control so that you can support the parents.

Talk positively. Encourage the parents to take the child to a professional. Make sure they know that your concerns may not be accurate. Talk about all the possibilities and choices that might be open to the family. Don’t focus on the negative side. Talk about all the things the child will be able to do even if there are things she can’t do.

Expect different reactions from parents. Every parent will react to your concerns in a different way. Some may become angry and refuse to believe what you are saying or refuse to discuss it. Others may cry and talk only about the negative side. Still others may have been worried for some time. They may be glad that they can talk with you about the problem and share their feelings and concerns with you. These are all very natural reactions. It is not easy to hear that a child might have problems. Parents love their children and want them to be perfect. Don’t argue with parents when they tell you that you are wrong. Encourage them to talk to a professional who can find out if there really is a problem.

Listen to the parents. Parents know their child best. They will want to tell you what they know or what they have noticed with their child. Listen carefully to what they tell you. You may have made a mistake in understanding what the child is doing or saying. It’s OK to tell the parents that you made a mistake. It is better to be honest with parents about their child than to avoid talking to them.

    Talking with providers about problems

Go to:  Talking with parents about normal age-related fears
           Talking with parents about uncommon fears
Communicating with parents about parenting quality


For more information, contact Judith A. Myers-Walls, PhD, CFLE at

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