Bystander Intervention in the Interests of the Child
Lots of readers responded to my recent post about The Lost Toddler. Here’s a different bystander situation, where the child is right there but being yelled at.
Everyone has seen this: A parent at wit’s end yelling and berating a child in a public place, like a store. The child is crying; the parent is insulting, threatening, or even dragging or restraining the child.
What do you do? Like with any successful intervention, before acting you must decide what your goal is. If your goal is to help the child, there is very little you can do.
Participants in my classes often push back on this. They feel a moral imperative to stand up for the verbally abused child.
Reasons to act, and why you should not:
- The parent needs to know that their behavior is unacceptable. Silence is condoning it. To this, I answer, “Do you think that the words of a stranger is going to change someone?” Showing your condemnation of the abuse will not change a parent’s behavior. And, it may make things worse for the child.
- Distracting the parent to benefit the child. Participants tell me that they distract the parent in one or more of these ways. I follow with what is most likely to happen:
- Suggesting that the parent try a different tactic with the child. This is likely to get the parent to tell you to buzz off. You don’t know these people. You don’t know what this parent has tried.
- Expressing your anger about the parent’s behavior. This is likely to get the parent to tell you to buzz off. This could cause the parent to retaliate against the child for causing the outrage of attracting the busybody (you).
- Commiserate with the parent about how hard it is to have children that age, to shop with children, or to do whatever it is that caused the altercation. The child is listening! That child just heard another adult blame the child for the abusive interaction.
Consider these things before opening your mouth:
- You are observing an ongoing relationship.
- Most likely, that child lives with and is wholly dependent on that adult. Chances are the child loves the parent and will be loyal to the parent.
- You do not know the situation of this adult and child. You do not know the situation between this adult and child.
- Most likely, a stranger’s criticism will cause retaliation against the child.
- The child is listening.
How can I help an abused child?
If a child, who is a stranger to you, is being physically assaulted in a public place, it becomes a criminal matter. Depending on the level of violence involved, it is a police matter. Before you call them, consider the severity of the physical assault and calculate the most probable outcome.
The child could be harmed in these ways:
- This incident could be atypical of the family. However, a child-protection investigation can disrupt the family relationships. The family could be broken up when the primary problem in the family is poverty or other stressors. (Read more.)
- It is difficult to get protective services for a child based on a single incident. Priority is given to children in grave danger.
- A parent could be deported because they have come to the attention of authorities.
The child could be helped in this way:
- This incident could be typical of the family. Far worse abuse could be going on behind closed doors. This incident could be the beginning of bringing the child to a safe environment. When the child’s teachers, neighbors, friend’s parents, and family physician are interviewed, a pattern of family dysfunction may be revealed and addressed.
Family, friends, and neighbors: You can help children in your social sphere.
- Someone who is abusive to their children may also be disagreeable to you. For the sake of the child, use your skills to stay in relationship with the family.
- Very few parents will accept direct criticism of their parenting skills, even from close friends or family. Don’t try it. There are better ways:
Model good parenting. Discuss what works with your children, not what the other parent should or should not do. Share tips.
Provide support for the parents.
- Spend time with their children, so the parents can de-stress. This might be creating sleepovers for the child. It could be creating girl or guys nights-out for the parents.
- Encourage group activities with many adults and children, so there are many models of non-abusive parenting. This also affords the parents some relief from family stress while other people play with their children.
- Offer to run errands while you are doing your own family business. Example: I’m picking up the Girl Scout cookies for my daughter, should I get your order, too?
Provide support for the children.
- When you are with a child who may be abused, support the child’s self-esteem. Remind a child of the strengths you see. Be open with your love and respect for the child. (More)
- Model ways of setting boundaries and age-appropriate verbal skills.
- Keep track of any signs of physical abuse. Ask open-ended questions about bruises or cuts you see. Remember that the child loves the parent; the child may lie to protect a parent.
- If you judge that the child is being physically abused, alert the authorities. The most effective way, in most communities, is to go through the school system. Teachers and guidance personnel are trained in these matters and will know how to initiate an investigation.
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