How to Deal with Intense or Inappropriate Parents at Kids' Sports Events

Updated: April 30, 2019
As parents on the sidelines, we want our children to do well and to do their best, but lines are crossed when parents begin yelling at the referee or umpire and screaming at the players. Here are five tips for dealing with intense and inappropriate parents at kids' sports events.
parents on sideline at kids soccer game

It’s spring, and that means that if you’re a parent, your weekends may be spent on the soccer, baseball, or lacrosse fields. With all of the time that we spend taxiing our children to sports practices and games, keeping track of their sports schedules, and buying needed sports equipment, it’s no wonder we become as invested as our kids in these games. The problem is that some parents can become even more invested in the games than the kids, and this can lead to inappropriate or intense behavior by parents that is a far cry from the sportsmanship guidelines most of us would like our kids to learn.

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As parents on the sidelines, we want our children to do well and to do their best, but lines are crossed when parents begin yelling at the referee or umpire and screaming at the players. It can be very uncomfortable for parents who do not take part in this behavior, and it is hard to know exactly how to handle these situations. It’s easy to say that you can just confront the parent exhibiting inappropriate behavior at the game, but unfortunately, chances are that a conversation with someone who is already yelling and amped up most likely will not lead to the results you are looking for.

What CAN be done in these situations? 

1. Provide perspective

inappropriate parents at kids sports event

One man took matters into his own hands in order to expose the ridiculousness of bad parent sideline behavior. Brian Barlow, an Oklahoma youth soccer referee, decided to start sharing videos of this inappropriate parent behavior on a Facebook page called Offside. His plan was to start holding parents accountable for their behavior after seeing way too much of it as a referee. As shared in a 2018 NY Times article, Barlow explained that he “offers a $100 bounty for each clip in order to shame the rising tide of unruly parents and spectators at youth sports events.” Though you may not want to take things this far to deal with an inappropriate parent at your child’s sports game, sometimes allowing a parent to see for themselves what their behavior looks like from another’s perspective can help them realize that they may need to tone things down.

2. Remove your family from the situation

family on sidelines at kids sports event

Don’t let the inappropriate parent control your family’s experience. If you don’t want your children to have to witness bad behavior, you can simply gather your family and leave the field. Be sure to let an official know as they are trained to deal with these kinds of situations. An authority figure will have much more luck with confronting a person experiencing intense emotions than you will.

Once your family is together and removed from the situation, do your best to make it a teachable moment. Without condemning or being unkind, explain to your children why you didn’t want them to be there and what you believe good sportsmanship looks like. You can also empower your children by letting them know that if your own behavior ever feels too intense for them, they should let you know. If another parent’s behavior is bothering them, you can let them know that they always have the choice to quietly speak to their coach or referee about the situation so that a trusted adult can help them handle it. 

3. Model the behavior you hope to see

mom and daughters on soccer field

As always, actions speak louder than words. If we want our children and other parents to follow certain sportsmanship guidelines both as players and observers, then we need to demonstrate this through our own actions. We can be encouraging to our children and their teammates without taking it too far. We can thank coaches and referees and volunteers for their time and encourage our children to do the same. We can offer to help. Even if we don’t feel that we know enough about the sport to be a coach, we can volunteer to bring ice pops or fruit for the team, keep kids focused in the dugout, or help keep younger siblings busy while the older kids play. 

More: When Parents Behave Badly at Kids' Sporting Events

We may not always agree with the calls of the referee or umpire, but if we handle those situations with decorum and respect and without calling too much attention to ourselves, other parents will see that there is an effective way to voice concerns. We can also wait until after the quarter or half ends (or even until after the game ends) to have a private conversation with the coaches about our concerns. 

4. Set and communicate policies and expectations

coach giving advice to team

Problems with inappropriate parent behavior can be avoided in some cases by clearly communicated policies and expectations by the leagues and coaches. Just as rules and guidelines are written and shared for the players on the teams, the same can be done for parents. Sportsmanship expectations can be extended to all who attend the game. 

If these expectations are clearly stated and shared with the sports community at the start of the season, it can make it much easier for a coach or referee to refer to those guidelines and quickly take action when a parent starts acting out. As a fellow parent, it can also empower you to reference those rules if you are in a position where you may have to be the person who handles the confrontation. That takes the onus off of you and puts you in a position of being helpful to the intense parent rather than in a position of judgment or chastisement. 

5. Provide a listening ear

parents on sidelines at kids game

You can literally take one for the team in some cases if you’re willing to provide the intense parent with a listening ear. A parent might be experiencing frustration and anger for reasons that are valid or not, but if they have the chance to get them off their chest and voice them to someone else, it may give them the outlet they need. Talking to another parent about what’s frustrating them could keep them from yelling their feelings out and taking things to the net level.

Bonds can be created amongst parents through various ways as well, and these bonds may encourage parents to simply talk to each other about what’s bothering them during the game rather than letting it bubble up through yelling or inappropriate actions. Parents may bond through fun parent versus player games or by working together at the concession stand or ticket station, which also helps to keep parents off the field. Just as with children, the more support a parent feels, the more likely they are to be a team player or spectator.

Regardless of how you choose to deal with inappropriate parents at your children’s sports games, the most important things are how you behave yourself and how you discuss these issues with your family. Kids are impressionable, and they always take in way more than we might perceive. Playing sports is about much more than athletic skills and practice. Learning how to be a good teammate, doing our best, and being a good sport overall leads to some very important life lessons, and taking the lead on these important discussions will have a positive impact on your children’s lives both on and off the field. 

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