Five ways we unknowingly provoke other parents



By  Mark B. Borg, Jr, PhD

You were running late, trying to get your kindergartener to class on time on her first day, when you brushed by the other parent in the hallway. Because there were so many things to keep track of – parents running around, new routines to learn, and teachers to meet – you didn’t notice that you lit the fuse of the unacknowledged parent you recently befriended.

We parents agitate other parents all the time. Why? Because when we retrace our own childhood through the experience of our children, we unknowingly trigger and reenact our own unresolved playground issues from our youth. Those same gnawing questions about our social status that left us feeling inferior when we were kids come rushing back and we find ourselves wrestling once more with old insecurities.

Because these old issues are often triggered when our kids reach school age, it’s important to understand how they might unintentionally provoke hurt, anger, and insecurity in other parents. Some of the ways we unknowingly irritate other parents include:

  1. Excluding kids from parties or events. Exclusion triggers the oldest, most unresolved pain. It is often the case that our child wants to have a play date with one child and not the other. While this preference might seem inconsequential to us, it is upsetting to the parent of the child not included. And while we’ve not done anything wrong, we still need to be mindful and work toward inclusivity when possible.
  2. Acting like we have it all. We can unknowingly incite envy in others by (perhaps unintentionally) looking like we’ve got it together. We might seem like we have a perfect marriage, gorgeous home, beautiful clothes, etc. These things can be the adult/parent equivalent of childhood popularity and might be among the most severe provocations of all.
  3. Participating in cliques. Being a part of a clique is often a big provocation to other parents. Do you find yourself only talking to the same small group of parents all the time? If so, branch out. Get to know some of the other parents and expand your network.
  4. Gossiping. This may seem like a no-brainer, but the truth is that it is very easy to slip into what might seem, at first, like a conversation driven by innocent curiosity. The problem is, however, that such innocence tends to snowball. But, it is not the target of the gossip who is being provoked; it’s the people doing the gossiping! The other person may very well think, “You spoke poorly about that person; what’s to stop you from doing the same to me?”
  5. Using kids to compete. Competition always provokes people. But with parents, it isn’t our possessions or our careers that we use to compete with one another; it’s how well our kids are doing in school and extracurriculars. We often use these metrics to compensate for how badly we felt (and maybe still feel) about ourselves now.

Each of the above provocations can start out innocently enough (“It’s just clean, fun competition,” or “I didn’t know that these moms excluded all the others”), but each also has a trap-door that can, unknowingly, lead to the very worst kinds of us/them dynamics among parents.

The best way to prevent this from happening is to become aware of how unresolved feelings of pain from exclusion from our childhoods can be triggered by situations and in contexts where they were first experienced. This is true for us as well for the other parents we are provoking—whether we mean to or not. In fact, if we don’t mean to provoke others and they then react, we are very likely to over-react to their reactions, creating a very hard-to-break vicious cycle.

For most of us, our child’s academic performance, recess, playdates, and popularity among other students provoke memories and feelings (many of which we’re unaware of) that make us more insecure and sensitive. Keeping this in mind as we interact with other parents, let’s try to include others whenever possible and to say “Hello” to whoever we can when our kid starts school. Even better, let’s say it with a big friendly smile that conveys I’m not the kind of person who hurt you…then or now.


Mark B. Borg, Jr, PhD isa licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst who has been in private practice in New York City since 1998 and the author ofDON’T BE A DICK: Change Yourself, Change Your World(a Central Recovery Press Paperback, on sale Nov 19, 2019).