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Reality Check: Stopping a Verbally Abusive Mom

Q  While shopping the other day, I saw a mother yell at her child for knocking over some cans, calling him terrible names. I said nothing but didn't feel good about my silence. Was I right to mind my own business, or should I have butted in?
A Sometimes you know in your gut that it's best to stay out of a tense situation. Other times you can sense that saying or doing something is the right course. But even then, you have to feel up to the task. It takes a certain amount of nerve to intervene in a scene like this, and none of us feels up to it all the time. If you do choose to say something, keep in mind that you're extremely unlikely to reform someone in one encounter.

Joan Murphy, an elementary-school counselor in Keene, NH, and a mother of two, sees plenty of evidence in her job of the damaging effects of verbal abuse on small children. She also sees plenty of stressed-out parents. When witnessing this kind of abuse in public, Murphy suggests, "don't confront or reprimand the parent, because that will usually make it harder on the kid." Instead, if you feel you should step in, use "helpful distraction," says Murphy. "Lend the mom a hand by picking up the cans her child knocked over and say, 'Oh, gee, it really is hard to get through a supermarket with a toddler.' Defuse the mom's anger by sympathizing with her about how difficult parenting can be and doing something concrete to bring to an end this particular bad situation."

Keep in mind, too, that when you hear a parent verbally lash out like this, you can't know whether it happens routinely or if this is an exception. You don't know the context of that family's life or what is happening at home. So instead of rushing to judge, Murphy advises, do something to help calm everyone down. Sometimes an act of kindness and understanding from a stranger is exactly what a frazzled mom needs.

Contributing editor Trisha Thompson is a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk magazine.

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