I got into a conversation on social media about what to do when we see a parent about to hit or hitting their child in public. This post contains my thoughts on the subject. I don't think there is one “right” way to handle a situation like this, and we all take different approaches to a problem. My way may work better for me than it would for someone else, but I want to offer this as a possible approach. Some folks would openly confront the parent, but I think that could potentially have a devastating backlash effect for the child later on. Here's another possible way:
I know it can be frustrating to witness an adult brutalizing a little child, and it is understandable that we would feel VERY angry with that parent and want to DO something!!! However, unleashing our own feelings of anger is very unlikely to offer long-term help to the child who is being brutalized. That’s because when a person feels attacked, they tend to want to attack back, feeling humiliated and defensive. They may harden their position, and that does not allow them to hear or take in what is being said to them and think critically about it.
So, what can we do when we see a child being hit or about to be hit? It depends on our goal. If my goal is to release my own bad feelings about what I’m seeing, I might feel better by yelling at the adult and shaming them for behaving so badly. It may make me feel better to let that person have it.
However, if my goal is to help the child, then I may have to find a way to help the parent. Here’s why: because, after I leave the scene with MY feelings released, there will still be that humiliated, frustrated, UNSKILLED parent who will take their additional shame and humiliation out on the one person who is least capable of dealing with that: their little child.
So, if the goal is to help end the cycle of abuse, we COULD:
Find a way to have compassion for the struggling parent. That parent learned to be a parent from their parents who learned parenting from their parents, and on and on and on. That screaming parent in the supermarket was once a child being screaming at by their parent. When we peel back the layers, we are looking at a grown-up who is really a wounded child now carrying their own heavy burden of pain. When you understand that, can you find a way to hold that frightened and wounded child inside the raging parent in compassion? Just that one different way of looking at that situation could possibly change the energy, ever so subtly—BUT significantly. It is possible that no one has ever held that person in compassion before!!! Imagine what that must feel like! Even if we did nothing else, that could be an opener to some healing and create a space where a shift could happen. And, it’s better than participating in and perpetuating a cycle of shame and brutality.
This next step takes a heap of courage. That would be making eye contact with the raging parent and offering compassion. It could just be in our attitude, or it could be in words: “Looks like you’re having a REALLY rough day!!! I know how hard that can be!” Everyone has had at least one rough day, so everyone could (if they really try) find a way to feel compassion and empathy for someone who’s going through it. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to defuse a ticking time bomb and prevent violence!
Sometimes that won’t help, but sometimes it might. If our offer of compassion is not received well, however, it’s important not to take it personally (see step #1). Sometimes, we may offer compassion, and the parent will just dissolve into tears. I have seen that happen.
When we charge in and bring our own feelings of rage into the fray, we cannot possibly be helpful! And, the goal is really about helping kids, right? By doing this, we won’t always succeed, but we have a better chance of helping this way than we do the other way. That parent and child won’t always have a person like us nearby to show them compassion.