How should I have dealt with witnessing child abuse?

by LG
(Location Undisclosed)

Today, I was shopping with my baby at my local grocery store, when I saw a father whack his daughter--about 6 or 7--over the head for stepping away from the sit-down cart. The girl immediately saw my jaw drop upon his hitting her.

I got so furious that I marched up to him and called him a bully and told him he had no right to hit his daughter like that--he mumbled something like--don't tell me how to...but I just yelled at him, "Learn how to be a parent!" He was visibly shocked by my confronting him. I was so angry--it took me a while to calm down.

How should people react in these situations?

My mother-in-law told me that I was crazy to confront a stranger like that--especially with my baby in the cart, that people carry guns and could be nuts. Part of me agrees with her, but I couldn't control myself. I couldn't just stand there and pretend I didn't see anything.

Note from Darlene: The above was originally posted as a comment under a commentary written by a visitor titled I Witnessed Child Abuse in a Wal-Mart Parking Lot. I've taken the comments above and created its own commentary page here in order to use it as an opportunity to provide more information to LG and my other visitors.

Reply to LG from Darlene: I applaud that you intervened to further protect this child. Your motives were definitely honourable. I can relate to being desperately angry, almost to the point of being out-of-control, at witnessing a parent physically abusing a child. It is human nature to be so outraged. Children DO need to be kept safe from harm; and it is EVERYONE'S responsibility to do their part in ensuring that children are kept safe. Having said this, it is also important to understand that OUR actions as an observer of abuse can further affect the child we are attempting to protect.

It is possible that what you said to this man was enough to shock him into appropriate parenting mode, but that could easily have backfired. As your mother-in-law pointed out, your safety and that of your own child could have been in jeopardy, but the safety of HIS child was at stake as well.

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Comments for How should I have dealt with witnessing child abuse?

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Jul 29, 2008
Intervention in such difficult cases...
by: Darlene Barriere - Webmaster

Children of 6 or 7 internalize everything. When they see their parents in some form of distress, or they realize that their parent is angry at them for some reason, or when others berate their parents in front of them (the children), they believe they are responsible for it all: If I hadn't been bad, then Daddy wouldn't have had to hit me. OR If I hadn't been bad, then I wouldn't have made that lady yell at Daddy. And in ALL cases, It's all my fault. I'm bad.

Although the little girl may not have screamed out at you and pounded on your leg, begging you to stop, she was likely screaming in her mind, "Please don't hurt my Daddy. Stop yelling at him. I'll be good. I promise I'll be good." This is the nature of children. Furthermore, young children will ferociously protect their abuser(s). They do this for a number of reasons:
  1. They are wholly dependent on their abuser.
  2. They believe they themselves are responsible for the way the abuser is behaving. They believe their actions directly impact the actions of others.
  3. They lack the cognitive ability to reason out what is actually happening.
  4. Sometimes, besides 1, 2 and 3, it's because they also know that they will get much worse when they are behind closed doors with that parent; and they are attempting to smooth the waters beforehand.
The above is by no means a comprehensive list.

So how should one intervene in such cases?

It is imperative that we stay calm in these situations. Yes, that is an almost impossible task; but for the sake of the child who in turn is witnessing OUR behaviour toward his/her parent, we must stay on an even keel. Instead of an accusatory stance, consider approaching the parent using words of understanding, an approach that states the obvious: "I can see you're having a difficult time right now; is there something I can do to help?" or some such sympathetic or thoughtful statement. Your goal is to diffuse the situation at hand without name-calling or making the child feel further responsible, and keeping yourself and others safe at the same time. If at all possible, make note of the license plate of the car the parent and child go into so that you can report what you witnessed to the proper authorities and your local child protective agency. TIP: Sometimes, a parent's actions are caught on tape by supermarket security cameras, and end up on the nightly news in hopes of identifying the child and offending parent. I must also say, CPS or the equivalent, depending on where you live, are more likely to act when they believe the child is in immediate danger.

Your actions were noble, LG, and your intervention could very well have saved the child from further harm. Again, I commend you for stepping up. Too many adults don't.

Darlene Barriere
Violence & Abuse Prevention Educator
Author: On My Own Terms, A Memoir

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