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Children's Health

Strangers Abusing Their Children in Public



What do I do if I see parents abusing their children out on the streets in public and I don`t know who they are or anything else about them? I`ve seen it a few times, but I wasn`t sure how I should have handled the situation.


It can be quite intimidating to approach an out-of-control adult. Many of us allow that fear to stop us from acting to assist a child and their parent. You deserve tremendous credit for recognizing the need to intervene and wanting to learn how to help in these sensitive situations. With the stress of holiday preparations, life's many demands, and the weak economy, the instances of public abuse of children by parents or other caregivers rises during what should be a joyful and loving time of the year.

Should a bystander intervene? Yes! Thoughtful intervention will protect both the child and the adult. Here are some ideas.

1. A good first option is to remain calm and pleasant while distracting the parent from the child by making a supportive and nonjudgmental statement such as, "It is so upsetting when your child misbehaves in public, isn't it? I've had that happen to me." or "Shopping with children can wear you out! Is there anything I can do to help?" 

2. Another strategy is to focus on a positive characteristic of the child such as the child's lovely hair or skin. It may move the parent away from the negative aspect of the child's behavior that set off their anger.

3. Talk to the child to distract the child from their misbehavior and give the parent a break to gain control over him or herself.  

4. Find something to praise about the parent or child, e.g. get the young child to identify the color of an object and comment on how smart he or she is knowing the names of colors. Praise the parent for taking the children out shopping, which is stressful, but gives them an opportunity to be together as a family.

5. Stay with an unattended child or an obviously frightened and upset child until the parent returns or calms down.

6. Ask the parent how you can help right now.

7. Never say unKind, shaming, or negative things to the parent or other adult caregiver. These will lead to escalation of frustration and anger.

8. Do not give nasty looks to or roll your eyes at the parent or other caregiver. Again, these will only make matters worse.

If you feel the child is in danger, call the police or 911!

I hope this gives you some useful ideas for reaching out to the stressed and distressed. Happy Holidays to you!

Related Resources:

Prevent Child Abuse America
HelpGuide.org (Child Abuse Hotline Information)

For more information:

Go to the Children's Health health topic, where you can:

Response by:

Mary M Gottesman, PhD, RN, CPNP, FAAN Mary M Gottesman, PhD, RN, CPNP, FAAN
Professor of Clinical Nursing
College of Nursing
The Ohio State University