Do you ever wonder what to do when you witness an adult hitting a child in public? Should you say something? Should you leave? What should you say to your children if they witness it too?
To end domestic violence, including violence against children, we all need to be part of the solution. We start by educating ourselves and others, intervening when we suspect or see violence against children, and providing resources to families in an effort to help them learn how to resolve challenges in neurodevelopmentally informed ways. The best intervention is prevention – you can learn how to de-escalate a potentially violent situation by reading the “Intervening” article by Robbyn Peters Bennett.
This article, however, is a guide for those of you who want to know what to do when you witness an adult hitting a child in public. I encourage you to practice saying and doing these suggestions so you can find what words and actions work for you AND so you will already have some experience saying them when you are in the emotionally difficult situation of intervening. Practicing with a person whom you feel safe with is important, because, to be honest, violence against children is frightening and often triggering for many of us. You can take steps to help. Each of us has the power to reach out and tell children that abuse is not their fault, and help parents understand that love shouldn’t hurt and there are alternatives that bring greater joy to parenting. Through this 2-step process, you will learn how to get regulated (or stay regulated) and how to intervene.
Finding a supportive way to intervene may feel overwhelming, especially when we’re voicing a child-centered perspective that is contrary to the well-accepted social norm of hitting children. We may fear that we’re being nosy, that we’re unqualified to intervene, or that we may come across as argumentative or intrusive. We may feel embarrassed or fear we may cause some sort of retaliation. There are a myriad of reasons why we may hesitate to speak up, but when we learn safe interventions, we become more comfortable in speaking up and creating safe, violent-free communities for everyone. This process is about finding your voice and holding a place of compassion in your heart for the child and parent in crisis.
Managing your own arousal level is key to intervening. That being said, don’t let your own thumping heart and shallow breathing stop you from at least take 1 or 2 steps in the intervening process, even if all you can do is “accidentally” bump in to them, sing a song off key, or drop a loud book to distract the adult from hitting. Any intervention is better than no intervention, even if it only prevents the hitting for that one moment.
How to manage your arousal level
- Walk a bit – movement creates a calming response
- Take a breath and exhale longer than the inhale – a slow exhale tells your brain you are safe
- Feel the ground beneath your feet – increasing your own body awareness helps you stay in your body and grounds you so you remain calm
- Find compassion for both the adult who is having a hard time and the child – our compassion is an amazing guide and can help de-escalate the situation. Compassion is also calming for us.
Most children who are victims of disciplinary violence feel very alone and confused. They often blame themselves for being hit and believe hitting is a normal way to resolve disagreements. As advocates, we have an opportunity to give them a new message and model a new way of resolving conflict…all at the same time. We’re often given the message that if we intervene we’re “meddling” and that we should “mind our own business.” But I would like to counter that if an adult were being hit we wouldn’t think twice about finding a way to de-escalate the situation in some way. Let’s remember that children have the same right to be free from fear and pain in the same way adults do, even if it’s not backed up by law…yet. As an active bystander it’s important that you intervene in a way that feels safe and appropriate for you. No two interventions will look the same.
How to Approach and Interrupt the Situation
- Don’t ignore smaller acts of aggression because they can quickly grow. Move toward the parent because your presence can stop a potentially violent act.
- Pay attention to your body language – in an aroused state, the parent is paying more attention to your body language than your words. Practice an open stance and a kind face. Avoid using a neutral facial expression because it will be experienced by the parent as judging or threatening…so practice a kind face and then do the best you can.
- Express concern – break them from their anger attachment and shift their focus:
“Oh, please don’t do that,” or “please let me help you”
- Express empathy to help the parent feel understood and set them at ease:
“I can see you’re in a tough place. Parenting is hard.”
- Offer compassion to help create safety for them and help open their hearts and so they might feel cared for:
“Be gentle with yourself. You’re all doing the best you can.”
- Offer help in the moment with their current dilemma if they’re receptive and you have time.
“Perhaps I could distract your child while you attend to that (call, shopping list, email, label, grocery cart, etc.)?”
- Take the time to listen if they want to unload – this can help them release their overwhelming feelings in a healthy way, rather than taking it out on the child. Practice active reflective listening, but do not accuse or feel the need to be an expert.
- Offer respect by remaining regulated regardless of their response to you. Parents are vulnerable to being told they’re wrong – they may fear judgment or punishment. They may tell you to mind your own business, which might be the parent saying, “don’t judge me!” Remember there is incredible value in your message because the child is listening too – and your child might also be listening and watching. You can still offer them a kind smile or a simple, “I hear you.” Acknowledging people and remaining calm is key to helping the other person calm down and feel that they matter.
- Connect them to resources that offers encouragement and alternatives. I’m working with my friend and colleague Robbyn Peters Bennett of StopSpanking.Org and we created a NIP Kit for helpers and advocates, which includes resources, encouragement cards and removable stickers. You could hand them a helper card or removable sticker and maybe say, “This resource has really helped me as a parent.”
What to say when your children are witnesses
Children have a natural inclination towards social justice. “Mama, why is that man being mean to that kid?” and “Daddy, why is that lady hitting that child?” are some questions you may here after you witness these events in public. I usually acknowledge my daughter’s concern and ask her thoughts, “yes, I saw that and was wondering what was going on too. I feel upset for them both. What do you think may have been going on?” or “Yes, that was difficult to watch. I’m guessing they were both having a hard time too. What do you think we could do?” I practice a lot of StayListening, offering empathy and compassion, and modeling advocacy for nonviolent parent-child relationships in these situations. As you begin to step into a role of advocating for positive parent-child relations you will figure out what’s right for you and your child. And I invite you to join in the discussion so we can all learn how to best help struggling families everywhere.
Please share your experiences and encourage others to advocate for parents and children worldwide. We would LOVE for you to join the nonviolent parenting movement and help create a nonviolent world everywhere.
Order a NIP Kit for helpers and advocates HERE.
Learn more about Neurodevelopmentally Informed Parenting HERE.
And watch my discussion on this topic with Jacqueline Green here: