I once spent several uncomfortable minutes in a grocery store watching a young mother with her young child. The woman was nicely dressed, probably in her middle twenties. She had two children with her, a little girl of perhaps three or four, and another little girl probably a couple of years older. The woman was kneeling with her face almost touching the smallest girl’s face, and she was threatening the child with the punishment she was going to receive once they left the store. The little girl stood there with her head down and tears rolling silently down her face. The other child seemed unaffected by the mother’s anger.

There was something so strange about the intensity of the woman’s anger and the hopeless attitude of the little girl… AND the way the woman then continued shopping as though nothing had happened. Both little girls stayed close to their mother, not touching anything and not talking. Suddenly the mother turned on the smallest child, grabbed her by the arms, and started yelling at her again, telling her what a bad girl she was and how she was going to be punished for what she had just done, even though as far as I could tell the child had done nothing. With each new threat an expression of pain passed over the little girl’s face. I think the mother might have been squeezing her arms, but it was impossible to be sure.


Bee on sedum

By this time I was convinced that something was seriously wrong with the mother. Another shopper came up to me and asked if I knew what was going on. We both felt that we needed to intervene in some way. And then suddenly the mother had stopped shouting and was shopping normally again. We continued to watch the woman and child, and we had almost convinced ourselves that we had overreacted to the previous incidents, when suddenly the woman was once again screaming… and once again as far as we could see the little girl had done nothing.

It was a great relief to both of us when just at this moment a policeman appeared. He went directly to the woman and told her to be quiet and that he needed to talk to her outside. We found out later that the screaming incidents had been going on in the store for some time, and one of the clerks had called the police. We all watched the policeman take the woman to her car and we could see them talking and the woman crying. Obviously whatever she told him convinced the policeman because eventually she drove away, and after a few minutes he did too. I hope that all the woman needed was a warning and that someone official will be checking regularly to see that this little girl is OK.

This incident has left me with a big question. When should you get involved? The abuse didn’t seem to be physical, but everyone watching felt it WAS abuse. If the policeman had not already been called, would we have had the courage to question this mother’s actions to her face?

And by doing so, would we have made things worse for this little girl?


Add Your Comment

All comments are moderated... your email address will not be published.

Talk to me! :o)

Comments

Anonymous

I’m probably going to be flamed for this, but I wouldn’t intervene. We have no idea what is going on in other people’s lives. Maybe this woman was having a really awful day and this behaviour was out of character. I don’t think calling the police will help. Unless you see actual abuse, I don’t think you should report the mother.

Kathy in WA

Wow, what a difficult thing to witness. Could you have asked the woman if she felt okay? Unfortunately she sounds mentally unstable. Those poor little ones. I agree with you, I certainly hope there is someone in their lives that is keeping a watch over them.

Good, thought-provoking questions.

Marcia

Hmm, I’m also not a mom (yet) but it sounds like that is typical behaviour for that mom.

I’m very outspoken so I would have said something but directly to the girl, “what’s wrong?” and if the mom said nothing, I’d say, “but she looks distraught and I can’t see that she’s doing anything wrong”.

And then she’d probably slap me! But that’s still what I’d do.

I have this problem in that I can’t keep quiet when there’s injustice around me :)

Melissa

It is a tough question. And I don’t think there is one stock answer. In a situation like this, I think intervention is necessary. You didn’t see the child doing anything wrong, the mother was obviously stressed about something. I have read you can always approach the mom with a line like…you know somedays my kids make me feel more tense or something like that. There may simply have been something going on in her life (like her husband just walked out on her) and an approach may have given her the adult shoulder she needed. Her response to you would also give you more information about what your next step should be.

Kristie

I would be hesitant to intervene because I would wonder if the mother would take it out on the little girl after she had left the store. I agree, it does sound like something bad was happening, but I think intervening might make it worse. It is so hard to tell. I can see why you were glad that the decision of what to do was already made for you by the store clerk.

Milehimama

It’s a tough call, but if your gut tells you something is going on, you should act on it, even if it is only to alert the store manager.
You don’t even know if that woman was the girl’s mother – she could have been a sitter, an aunt, even a kidnapper. I doubt that is the case, but as mothers we instinctively recognize when somebody is NOT mothering or does not have a Mothering heart.

You could also talk to mother in a compassionate way. For example, the book “She’s Gonna Blow! Moms Deal with Anger” was very helpful for me. So I might mention in a non-threatening way that my kids always seemed to be able to push my buttons too, but this helped me.

Something else that might help if all else fails is to try to give the Mom a heart for her children. Perhaps you could say “I couldn’t help but notice how quiet your girls are in the store. They are being very good girls!” and then perhaps talk to the children to encourage them (any positive adult interaction could help them).

sarah o.

I just recently went to a meeting about preventing child abuse. Something the speaker said was to get involved in those type of situations. He said just by offering to help with their cart, or saying you remember those days with little ones can make the person realize that people are watching their actions and that help is available. So, I would say to get involved. In a nice way. Just by commenting on how tricky it is to be a parent isn’t condemning their actions, and helps them realize you know how it is.
The man talked about two instances where people didn’t speak up and children died. All the neighbors afterwards said they thought stuff was going on, but NOT ONE of them had spoken up about it. Even saying to the parent, “hey do you need a night off?” let’s them know, again, that you notice what is going on. Maybe they would open up and tell you what is happening in their lives.
I don’t feel comfortable calling CPS on someone, but maybe if I told them I was concerned about their kids and was considering calling CPS.
So, again, my opinion is to get involved.

Hollie

First I have to say what you witnessed is abuse..You may not of witnessed the phuiscal abuse of a child but you did witness the verbal abuse of one and that will break a child more then a quick tap on the butt. I know this from first hand experience.

As a child I had a mom who was very verbally abusve, and who had mental health issues. She should NOT of had custody of us. A child who is yelled at on a daily basis will lose self esteem, will lose the will to live, will lose so much of what they could of been.

What do I wish happened when I was younger? That someone spoke up loud and clear. That when someone got that “gut” feeling they did something, anything.

Now as someone who didnt know she was abused for years till I managed to get to university and learned there that my home wasnt reality for most. I have learned how to act on my “gut” to help. If that radar goes off please as a once child do something. If you know who the parent is then make that call. If you are out in public like this alert management.

We truely are a global village and there might be a child who needs to know there are adults who really do care.

Melanie

This is an issue so very dear to my heart. I am brought to tears as I read this. The Lord intervened in this situation.

ALWAYS go with your gut. No matter what others say, you have to do something. Never assume you are overreacting. Most of the time others feel the way you do. I have been in a similar situation where I asked the store to call police. Reluctantly, they did so. Turns out the family had a history.

Never feel bad for sticking up for a child. You may be the only one who does. It may be awkward, but you can walk away knowing you did it for the right reasons. Remember, it isn’t You against The Mother. She may need help, too.

Marie

You’ve got to be careful with stuff like this, there could be things going on you know nothing about. It’s very hard to make a judgment when you’ve only observed someone for a few minutes of their life. This situation sounds a little extreme and like intervention was warranted, but I would hate for someone to use situations like this as an excuse to judge any parent that finds it necessary to discipline their child in public.

IMO the best way to approach the situation would be to ask the mother if she is alright, if there is anything you can do to help her. She could be suffering from PPD, or there could be something going on in her life that she doesn’t know how to handle. Something as simple as being kind to her can make a very big difference and turn things around in a more positive manner.

SHM

That situation seems to have gone above and beyond normal motherly impatience. Hopefully her brush with the law will remind her to keep calm from here on out–in the stores and at home. I have to say, though–I’ve often lost my patience with my son in a store, and only one time has anyone confronted me. I was at my wit’s end and asked my son, “What’s wrong with you?” An elderly lady answered, “Nothing, Honey–he’s just little!” I was so thankful that there was a wiser, calmer, helpful person there to remind me to parent gently. So my answer to your question is, step in not only if you think you’re witnessing abuse, as in your example, but also if you can see that it’s a simple case of impatience. I would certainly appreciate being kindly reprimanded.

candy

well i was out eating with my 3 kids and my daughter would not stop screaming. play screaming but screaming so i poped her mouth not hard but enough for her to know i meant for her to stop well she got mad and when she put her head down to cry she missed her arms and slammed her head on the table. her nose was bleeding. and at that moment some lady decided i had abused my child and caused a huge sence. so i was mad and things got bad. so when i see soemthing i remember that and think wow did i really see everything? so i am careful before i say anything.

Melonie

I agree with several other commenters who mentioned that there may have been something behind the scenes – especially the parenthetical about “her husband may have walked out on her”. My ex-husband did exactly this, several TIMES, and I’m sure I wasn’t the calmest person to deal with. I tried to keep things under control with my daughter, as I do have a parent who was physically abusive – but not everyone is even aware they are “losing it” on their kids. Sounds like this woman had some mental issues or a serious case of stressed out-itis. It’s possible even that her daughter had been making her nuts all morning long and did that *one last thing* and Mom just couldn’t shut up about it, or let it go. (I’ve had that happen too, unfortunately.)

If it were me I’d have asked the other customer to approach the woman *with* me, and I’d have calmly as possible told her that we had both seen several scenes between her and her daughter – and that it seemed like she could use a hand with the shopping. Perhaps the three of us could do the aisles together and help each other out?

One more thought that comes to mind with the mom’s mental health is schizophrenia. I wonder if she *thought*, truly believed, that her daughter was doing something she shouldn’t have been? If this is a common issue in that family, we’ll never know – but the daughter would know, and would know that arguing she’d done nothing would get her nowhere but further in trouble. Hmmm.

It could well be that said policeman had a talk with Mom and found out the kids are driving her bonkers, or her hubby left her, or she lost her job, or whatever. All we can do is hope and pray – and maybe remind each other to band together and help if necessary.

Kim

Once upon a time, I was that little girl. Please, do not personally intervene, it will only be worse for the child once they get home. Having to look forward to being punished for something you did not do is bad enough, but when you are then accused of appealing for help and drawing attention to yourself, the punishment is that much worse.

Call the police, let the professionals handle it. Although my experience with that was much the same as in the above story. Mother talked her way out of it time and again and nothing changed.

Kacie

Yeesh. This is a sticky situation. I don’t have kids (yet), and my perspective might change when I’m a mother.

By the way you described the children’s’ behavior, it sounds like this is pretty typical of their mom. Scary.

One thing I might do is say something lighthearted to the mom, like “Hi.” If you wanted to be a little daring, maybe say “Looks like somebody needs a nap,” actually referring to the mother.

If she realizes that other people are watching her, maybe she’ll shape up. Then again, once they leave the store, God only knows what will happen.

Kacie

Plus, I wanted to mention that this little girl should know that her mother’s behavior is not OK and not normal.

If she believes she’s always in the wrong, and that the way her mother handles it is acceptable, then she’s likely to grow up repeating this terrible behavior to her own children.

Kelly

My heart turned over when I got to the last comment by Kim. Kim, even though this may have happened to you many years ago, I am going to keep you in my prayers now. I believe God is beyond time, and can still help you. I was married to an abusive man for 13 years and my kids and I are still working and praying your way out of the scars he left us. God Bless you Kim!

Liisa

There are so many forms of abuse, and often the most damaging things done to a child don’t leave any marks. So, so sad. I can personally testify that rage and irrational yelling from my dad have left deep, deep scars that have taken me a lifetime to recover from. It definitely happens, sometimes in public, but is often a symptom of what happens regularly behind closed doors. Praying for mercy and wisdom for anyone involved with this kind of situation!

Tanya

This is a tough one, from the story it sounds warranted to intervene, I like many of the nice examples given in above responses, ones that don’t point at the children so much, more about giving empathy to the mother. I also understand that no matter what is done it might be worse on the children later, if this is a real issue (which we can not know, we can really only assume). There are many other possibilities going on as well. Some above mentioned a really bad day, someone could have just passed, maybe a lot of tension at home with personal matters, maybe the kids know about the tension and did something (that was not seen by observers) that set the mother off, then the mother internalized it and continued to punish/threaten for the same thing over and over because she couldn’t let it go. None of this makes it right, just more guessing. Obviously the behavior had been noted by many, hence the police getting involved. Something happened to me when my first child was about 20 months old and it’s always made me stop and question before getting involved. I’ll make this as short as possible. It was 8pm, hubby and I were showing a our rental to possible renters. We had friends two houses down with a child the same age. I walked down, they had a Disney film on, the toddlers watched together for a few minutes, I had to go, tantrum begins. Anyone who’s had a toddler understands that sometimes there is nothing one can do about a tantrum except let it work itself out, well this was one of those. He wanted no holding, soothing, nothing. So once I got back to our house, not wanting to put possible renters through the noise I put him down on the ground outside, I was hidden by an open door to neighbors, but was right there watching him the entire time. He calmed, I was now holding him in front yard, police pull up and threaten me, tell me they could take him, neighbors are watching and I better watch myself. I’m really scared, he was not nice. My child was screaming, having a tantrum, I wasn’t yelling, touching him or anything and the police are called. These people did not have children. Anyway, that’s always made me think before getting involved.
T

Pam McCormick

I am a nurse, worked pediatric ed for awhile.Always advocate for the child.IF the situation is harmless it will correct itself, facts will come to light like the prior post where child having tantrum was safe and Mom just observing safely.Rather a few good parents have a few uncomfortable moments then 1 child have serious consequences.Do what you are comfortable with, call professional help but do alert someone!Who will speak for children and animals?

Celeste

I intervened a long time ago when I saw a toddler dressed only in pajamas walking by herself at 7:30 am down a VERY busy street in 14 degree weather. The police were called, the mother lived in an apartment down the street the child was walking down; she was passed out from the night before and her child had let herself out of the apartment and out of the building. When I was interviewed by DCYF later, I was grilled and made to feel like I was persecuting this mother who very carelessly allowed her child to be in grave danger. I did not know this person nor did I live anywhere near there but just happened to be driving by and saw the imminent danger. Not sure I would intervene again.

Miki

This is a difficult question. I tend to stick my nose in more than I should, I’m not sure if I would have here or not. However, someone said above that one should not intervene if one does not see ‘actual’ abuse taking place. In my opinion, and from my experience when a child, this WAS actual abuse.

Shell

Children should be taken away from people that behave this way. If this was going on in the store, more than likely something horrific was going on at home. She’s a bully, a slime bucket. Plain and simple. If a stranger treated a child like this in the street, they would be arrested. They usually single out one child to abuse. They use the other child as a willing participant in the abuse.( to gain favor) It would seem obvious to me, by the fact that the other child wasn’t affected by the anger. Why these people have children, I don’t know. I think everyone should be required by the state they live in to attend classes on respect and anger management,before they have children.