Both of Isabel’s parents are present for the visit, which offers you a golden opportunity to talk with them. When you ask how things are going with Isabel’s signing, her mother replies, “Well, she’d be learning if her father didn’t just do everything for her. Isabel doesn’t even have to sign at all.” These two sentences set off an argument that unfolds in front of you about how much (or how little) each parent is participating in Isabel’s intervention. It’s heated and uncomfortable. Once it dies down, both parents are angry and embarrassed. You have 20 more minutes left in the visit.
What do you do?
Just re-reading the scenario above makes me anxious because I’ve been in positions like this before and they are always hard. I’ve sat through visits with parents (or other caregivers) playfully arguing with each other, lashing out, and just plain ignoring each other. I’ve had people argue then ask me for my opinion – which I guarantee you is worse than hearing the argument itself. Each time, I knew that the argument had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the family’s stress, but I still left upset inside at being put in that position.
Finding yourself smack in the middle of a heated situation is just an occupational hazard of being an early interventionist. Hopefully you won’t find yourself in this awkward position very often, but if you do, here are a few suggestions for what to do in the moment and afterwards.
In the Moment
Assess your own safety – This might seem like an extreme suggestion to begin with but it’s so important. If you feel unsafe at all in the midst of a heated situation, excuse yourself and leave the visit. Call your supervisor too.
Keep your sense of humor – Using appropriate humor has helped me untangle many sticky situations. For example, I once had a father ask for my opinion about how his wife talked too much (his opinion) after he and she had playfully (yet intensely) argued about it in front of me. I replied, “I’m staying completely out of this, thank you very much,” and laughed. They laughed too and things settled down. My opinion wasn’t needed; he was just drawing me in and I wasn’t going to let that happen.
Resist the urge to mediate or take sides during the disagreement– We are helpers, all of us. In this moment, you might feel like you should help somehow. Maybe you could speak up to try to calm things down? Maybe you should support one parent when the other is lashing out? My advice would be to avoid stepping in. It’s not your fight so stay out of it.
Put your diplomacy hat on – If you ARE asked to give an opinion and feel that you must do it, tread carefully. Stay neutral and objective while being professionally honest. For example, if caregivers are arguing about how much speech therapy a child really needs, and then ask your opinion (which will agree with one perspective more than the other), explain your opinion as objectively as possible. Ask for input from both caregivers after sharing your opinion. In this case, mediating after the disagreement may be necessary, and should be handled gently.
AFTER THE ARGUMENT
Talk about it – If you are comfortable, call the issue. In Isabel’s case, you might say something like, “It sounds like using signs with Isabel can be a challenge sometimes. Tell me more about when she is using signs during the day.” See if you can gently open the door to learn more about the issue. Helping the parents focus on what Isabel is already doing might shift things in a more positive direction too. You may have to tread lightly to avoid stirring up the argument again, but if you can get a healthy discussion going about this, you might be able to help the family solve a problem that affects Isabel’s intervention. Remember, though, to balance the fact that you are not a counselor or a mediator but you are there to facilitate family-centered intervention. It’s a tricky balance to maintain sometimes.
Wrap up if necessary – Even though there are 20 min left in Isabel’s visit, it might be time to end the visit, and that’s okay. It might be necessary to say something like, “It sounds like you two need to talk about this more. I can go so that you can have time to do that.” Attempting to wrap up can either get you out of an uncomfortable situation, or have the effect of settling the dust.
Arguments don’t just happen between parents; you might find yourself in the midst of a disagreement between a young parent and a grandparent, two friends, or a parent and an older child. How you handle each will depend on the specific situation and your own experiences. Do your best to stay neutral, and keep in mind that sometimes, you just need to let the storm pass.
Have you been in this situation? What did you do?
Share your experiences in the comments below!