Intervention with Angry or Abusive Parents

The question seemed to be popping up everywhere--in Ann Landers, a national alternative education magazine, letters in parents journals: what do we do when we see other adults behaving harshly toward their children in public? The suggested responses, all of them argued with passion, ranged all the way from doing nothing to trying to get their name and address in order to report them to child abuse authorities.

It seems to me that the first step in figuring out our own response is to notice the points at which we have felt (or looked, or been) abusive--and what it was like for us.

I remember how I used to self-righteously condemn (in my mind) parents who dragged desperately-crying children down the street. I just knew, in infinite smugness, that when I was a mother I would never do such an unloving thing. So it's not surprising that I have a vivid memory of the first time I found myself doing just that: dragging my desperately-crying child down the street. I was pretty sure I wasn't being a badly abusive parent. We had to get somewhere, and he just didn't like it, and wasn't about to go quietly. But I was acutely aware of how it must have looked from the outside. I felt embarrassed and defensive, and hoped fervently that we wouldn't meet anybody on the way.

I've also done things to my children that I wouldn't defend (not too many, I hope, and not too serious) and I bet I'm in good company. It usually happens when I'm at the end of my rope, trying to deal with more than I can handle, and the child's additional need or demand sends me over the edge. When I think about what I could use in those situations from another adult, the answer seems pretty simple: help.

It's tricky, because at that point I'm often feeling ashamed and defensive about what I've just done, ready to interpret any intervention as criticism. But what I'm longing for is reassurance that I'm not a bad person, and help to get back in control of the situation.

So a smile and a comment about how hard parenting is, or a matter-of-fact offer of help with the spilled groceries or the door, or the mud-caked shoes (or whatever) will go a long way toward restoring my balance. "Here, let me help you with that; I see that you have more than one person was meant to handle." "It's hard shopping with children, isn't it?" "What a beautiful baby you have; they're quite a handful at that age, aren't they?" The tone communicates respect for the difficulty of the job a parent is expected to do and appreciation of our best efforts. Just knowing that we are being seen that way can be enough to change the situation.

I would guess that much of what we see falls into this category--of a good parent at the end of his or her rope (and perhaps harsher than usual because of embarrassment about their children "making a scene" in public). There are others which are more serious. If we know those parents, we may be able to talk with them in that same respectful way. ("I know you're trying your best and want the best for your children and I see that it's hard. I know of a group that understands what it can be like for parents and can help...")

With strangers who seem locked into abusive behavior, our options are more limited. Calling attention to anything about their parenting may just cause further hurt, with the parent's feelings of anger, embarrassment or shame getting taken out on the child. A simple friendly hello to the parent (if we can muster it) might shake up the dynamic. Or we might be able to offer a loving look to the child to communicate that, in spite of what their parents are doing or saying, we know how good they are. These are the really hard ones. But in most situations, a little warmth and respect directed toward the parent will go a long, long way.