Parents Who Lost It

How to respond when observing child abuse.

Sonia Billadeau April 03, 2014
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Taken from Growing Concerns — A childrearing question-and-answer column with Martha Erickson

Question: Yesterday I saw a young mother really lose it with her toddler at the grocery store. The child was throwing a fit because he wanted to get out of the cart, so the mom slapped him and yelled at him. I wanted to do something, but I wasn’t sure what was appropriate. I wonder how I might have helped.

Answer: Most of us have been in that situation. We’re often not sure what to do. We do nothing and feel bad later. In fact, of 1,250 Americans recently surveyed by Prevent Child Abuse America, 44 percent reported that they failed to respond upon observing child abuse. Half of those stated they had no idea how to respond effectively. Of all those who responded, 55 percent said they had given a disapproving look to the offending adult, and 63 percent reported reprimanding the adult verbally. 

Granted, it feels awkward, and sometimes even dangerous, to intervene in a stranger’s interactions with a child. But Prevent Child Abuse America’s experts and board of directors suggest several ways to respond that are respectful of both the parent and child, and recognize the struggling parent’s own need for support and encouragement. Here are examples how these tips might be applied in the grocery store.

· Start a conversation with the adult to direct attention away from the child. For example, you might say, “My child often gets upset at the store too.” By identifying with the parent, you often can defuse the situation.

· Try to divert the misbehaving child’s attention by talking to him or her. Shopping with a parent can be boring and frustrating to a child, and sometimes a little attention from fellow shoppers can help to ease the tension.

· Look for an opportunity to praise the child or the parent. You might say, “You’re a brave mom to venture into a crowded supermarket with a lively toddler.” Or you could say to the child, “You were so good to sit in that cart for such a long time. You must be getting really tired.”

· If the child is in danger, offer assistance. For example, “How about I unload your cart for you (or carry your groceries to your car) while you comfort your child.” Or you might say, “You’ve really got your hands full. How can I help?”

· Most important, avoid making negative remarks or giving disapproving looks to the parent. That will likely increase the parent’s anger and could make matters even worse.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota’s Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing. E-mail to or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.

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Sonia Billadeau

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