What to do when you see parents lose their cool

You’re standing in the checkout line at the supermarket. Ahead of you, a 4-year-old is whining to his mother in the hope of getting a candy bar. Clearly frazzled, the mom begins to berate him in a voice loud enough to be heard halfway across the store. She then gives him a whack on the seat of the pants. He starts to cry.

Your eyebrows, and those of everyone else in line, go up. You all look out the corners of your eyes at one another, then drop your heads. No one says anything, but you are all thinking the same thing: Should I do something about this?

We’ve all been in this situation. We’ve observed other people treat their children in ways we wouldn’t treat our own. What we witnessed just didn’t feel right to us. We thought about intervening, but didn’t.

We don’t confront other people about how they raise their children. It’s none of our business, a societal taboo. Sometimes, somehow, it seems like it should be our business.

But our instincts are right — intervening in situations like these is our business. We could be of help. But confronting the parent and criticizing his or her parenting isn’t the best option. A supportive intervention usually is.

Next time, try diffusing the situation by offering a word of sympathy to the parent, such as: “When my kids were that age, I had a hard time keeping them away from the candy too. The store shouldn’t put it here. It’s too tempting for them. It’s hard being a parent today.”

You’re not only making the point that the parent isn’t alone in facing a challenging child-rearing situation, but also that it may not be the child’s fault that it is responding to the store’s marketing tactics.

Not every parent sets the same range of behavior for their children or deals with it in the same way.

Most of us have experienced the airplane ride from hell — the infant that won’t stop crying or the toddler kicking the back of our seat all the way from Manchester to Chicago. Our first response may be anger. After all, we’re paying to be here. Our comfort is being violated. We’re being inconvenienced. These people should keep their children in line. This isn’t fair!

But instead of getting angry, next time try a positive intervention. Offer a word of sympathy or support to the frazzled parents. Try a little humor. Turn around and engage the toddler in a brief conversation. Where are you going? Have you ever been on an airplane before?

Every parent needs assistance at some point. Our supportive intervention can often be the help that they need before they reach their boiling point.

Without question, however, there are situations that require more forceful action on our part.

If you observe a child that you consider to be at risk of imminent harm from parental abuse or neglect, or harm from any other adult, your duty is to report this to the authorities. New Hampshire law requires each one of us to call and report.

Professionals, like teachers, pediatricians or child-care workers, must file written reports, but the rest of us are required to verbally report suspected child abuse or neglect to the Division of Children Youth and Families at 1-800-894-5533, or to the local police.

Early reporting often prevents greater harm to children and other family members. Proof of abuse or neglect is not required before reporting. Reports are investigated confidentially by the authorities.

We are all responsible for the well-being of children.

Karen H. Carpenter is executive director of the New Hampshire Children’s Trust Fund. Parenting support information is available at www.nhctf.org.

Categories: Opinion