Stepping in When Parents are Out-of-Control
[By L.R.Knost, author of The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline, Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood and Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages now available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]
Parents often ask how they can gently and effectively approach a parent who is berating or smacking or otherwise mistreating their child. While the reality is that there is no way to intervene without offending the parent, no matter how kindly it is done, that doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t intervene. Obviously if we believe the child is in danger we should always contact the authorities immediately. Other times, though, there’s no real physical danger, but we can see the parent is out-of-control, is struggling with parenting, or is just too stressed or self-focused to care. What do we do then? Can we intervene in any meaningful, effective way? Should we even try?
To answer, let me first me share with you an interesting encounter my seven-year-old little funnyface had recently. She was away from me for four hours in a backstage room with around forty other two- to seven-year-olds for their second ballet recital of the day. A parent volunteer in the room apparently lost her temper with her five-year-old, grabbed her arm, and dragged her across the room with her daughter screaming and fighting to get away, then shoved her in a corner, yelled at her, and pinched her among other things. My seven-year-old related this to me on our way home from her recital and said:
“I saw the mom was having trouble balancing her temper, and I wanted to help her and her poor little girl in the pretty blue ballet dress. The mom cornered the little blue girl and kept yelling and pinching her and flicking her. So I went to her and told her that my mom wrote gentle parenting books and asked if I could have her address so I could ask you to send her one. She didn’t respond to me, but her friend who was there asked for your name, so I told her and she looked it up on her phone and found your books. And then I heard the mad mom tell her friend that she just didn’t know what to do. I said to her that she gets that reaction from her daughter because that’s the reaction she gives to her daughter. I told her that it was like putting a trail of gas all the way to her home because the fire will follow the gas and make the house on fire. Because, you know, anger is like fire. She didn’t talk to me, but her friend did, the one who looked your books up on her phone. I told her that if her friend didn’t know what to do, she just had to listen, because then she would know what to do. Listening is always the first step. And I said to her that kids aren’t just, you know, like things or nothings, we’re people. I wasn’t mean to her, mama. I was very kind when I talked to her even though she didn’t listen to me or talk to me back. I was kind because I wanted her to see how nice kindness felt, then maybe she would want to be kind, too.”
Did the mother suddenly decide to change her parenting? No. But her friend overheard the exchange and wanted to know more. Did the “little blue girl” escape the manhandling and anger of her mother’s adult temper tantrum? No. but she, too, overheard my daughter’s words, and she saw that someone cared. No one can possibly measure the impact a single moment of kindness has on another soul.
And what about my little funnyface? Children learn what they live. They imitate what they see their parents, their most powerful role models, doing. My children have seen me gently intervene on a number of occasions when a parent was out-of-control. They have patiently waited for my attention while I answered a parent’s email or message asking for help with a parenting issue. The older ones have proofread my books, and the younger ones have offered ideas for chapter titles and book covers. They have seen gentle parenting advocacy at work, day in and day out.
Children really do learn what they live. They also walk out what they learn in their own unique way. One of my six, my oldest daughter, went into psychology and became a Family Therapist. She now works with Social Services trying to help families at risk before their children end up in foster care. Another one feels other children’s distress so deeply that we’ve had to leave shops, restaurants, and parks because she gets so upset by ‘normal’ parenting, but she writes her feelings rather than confronting people directly. One day you’ll see her thought-provoking children’s books on store shelves, mark my words. My seven-year-old, as evidenced by the vignette above, is very much like her oldest sister, ready to take on the world in defense of the defenseless.
The value of stepping in when a parent is struggling with their parenting cannot be measured by the parent’s response alone. The parent will most likely be offended and respond negatively, if at all. That momentary break in the parental meltdown, though, does often give the parent a chance to pull themselves together and regain some semblance of control.
But far beyond the value of the moment is the value of a child, helpless in the hands of an angry parent, seeing that someone cares. Of far greater worth than the momentary discomfort of confrontation is the courage and willingness to confront with kindness. And the value goes on and on, in the life of the child, in the hearts of those who overhear and those who hear about it later, and in the life and heart and mind of those courageous enough to meet wrongs head-on and to do so with gentleness.
That value lives on in the beautiful heart and brave spirit of my sweet girl, my little funnyface, my seven-year-old gentle parenting advocate. She is the very definition of my motto, “Changing the World, One Little Heart at a Time.”
If you are confronted with a situation in which a parent or other adult is mistreating a child, don’t hesitate to call authorities if the mistreatment constitutes abuse. But if the adult’s actions wouldn’t be considered abuse by authorities (even if you think they should), here are some ways to step in with the same gentleness and respect with which you would like the adult to treat the child:
- Walk over and speak to the child, quietly asking them what’s wrong and if you can help. Most adults won’t appreciate that, and it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to follow through with your offer, but the child will get the message that they aren’t alone in this world.
- Walk over and speak to the adult, calmly observing that you can see that they are having a hard time and you’d like to help. More often than not they’ll tell you to mind your own business, but sometimes they will unleash some of their frustrations in a torrent of complaints and you may be able to offer some constructive suggestions. Either way, the child will get the message that someone cares.
- Walk over and speak to both the adult and the child at the same time with a friendly smile and share that you’ve been there and understand the frustrations both of them are feeling. Ask if you can help with some suggestions about things that have helped you in similar situations in the past. The adult will often still react negatively, but the child will get the message that there is another way.
Giving the adult a chance to regain control of themselves and to remember that others are watching may at least temporarily stop the mistreatment. More importantly, however, the goal is to help the child feel less alone, less helpless, and more cared for. Never forget that an act of kindness in the life of a child has a ripple effect that expands immeasurably, affecting not only their present, but also impacting who they will become and how they, themselves, will treat others in the future. We may never see the results, but we can rest assured that, “”No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” – Aesop
L.R.Knost is a best-selling parenting and children’s book author and founder and director of Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, an online resource for gentle parenting education, articles, and research. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood , Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages , and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline the first three books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, as well as her children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series available from Amazon and other major retailers.