Apologies for this kind of depressing post, but I really want your input here. Yesterday, I was on the subway, distracted because I was late to therapy, when my attention—and that of everyone else in the car—turned to a youngish mother yelling profanities at and threatening her small child. She’d stop for a few moments and direct her attention to her phone, then start in again, and every time she did, her child’s hands went up reflexively to protect his face. It felt like he had been through this before, maybe many times. I wanted to go up to her and read her some version of the riot act, but I didn’t. I’m ashamed to say I stayed silent. I’m not sure why, but maybe because the mother seemed legitimately menacing, and I didn’t want to further scare the child, and there was no police officer to report her to, and even if I did that and that led to her being judged an unfit mother, the kid would be sent to foster care, which can be its own awful can of worms. Nobody else said or did anything either. But I keep thinking about that poor kid, and wondering what, if anything, could have been done in that moment to improve the situation. I’m curious how you would have handled this, or what you have done under similar circumstances.
This is such a difficult position to be in. What would be the outcome of saying something to the mother? Would she then have turned her vitriol onto you, and then would she (probably) have taken it out on the kid, more? Ugh.
I’d like to think I would have said something to the mom, like maybe, “Hey, can you take it down a notch?”
But realistically, I probably would have tried to make comforting faces to the kid. Which wouldn’t have helped in the long run, but in the short, might offer them some kind of slight….relief? Comfort? Understanding that someone else can see what the mom is doing? But then, that may damage the kid more: the fact that it’s seen by other people and nothing is done about it.
SUCH a tough situation.
This is a tough one. Maybe sit down next to the mom, just hang out there and see if an opportunity for conversation arises. Maybe play with the kid ever so slightly?
Exactly – I was thinking that every parent needs a “time-out” now and then…maybe offer to put the child next to you on the seat while she was allowed to check her phone without an interruption (?) I don’t know – it’s so difficult…but thank you Kim, for noticing and being aware of what’s going on!
There have been little phases of my life when I thought about becoming a foster parent. Most states have a temporary foster program where you only have children for a couple days or weeks… Maybe I will really go for it when I have a better job again.
This sounds excruciating. I googled “what to do when a parent is yelling at a child” and this came up: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/29/us/should-you-intervene-when-a-parent-harshly-disciplines-a-child-in-public.html
The situation is not exactly what you described. Because I have a child, I might feel comfortable saying something to the mother to make her feel calmer like, “Oh, I remember when mine was that age… quite a handful!” Or, as the article suggests, I might have tried to engage the child to give the child a little bit of relief.
This is exactly what I would do — support the mom in feeling calmer and more understood so that the child does not continue to be abused by an overwhelmed parent. A little wink or a smile to the child is also helpful, but making sure the parent is calmer and is aware there are adults who are “with” her may help diffuse the immediate situation.
This is verbal child abuse. I would have confronted the mother about her treatment of the child, and I would have spoken calmly and reassuringly to the child. Then I would have followed the woman and child until I was in a place where I could ask for someone to help and I would have gotten the police involved. While there are bad stories about foster care, and separating families is problematic, no child should have to put up with verbal abuse from a parent or caregiver, or anyone else. Foster parents are (theoretically) screened and vetted to provide a stable and safe environment. In situations like these, kids need an advocate and sometimes it’s up to a stranger on the subway. If nothing else, your intervention would have shown the child that his mother’s behavior is not ok.
While there are innumerable amazing foster parents who, on a daily basis, perform nothing short of miracles, I am not sure this is a situation that would merit a child’s removal and its attendant extreme psychological disruption on the child. This sounds like the young mom could use some immediate supports and interventions such a program in parenting skills and anger management.
I agree with this approach. God knows what has been going on behind closed doors. I think all the emphasis should be on the child. If the mother is able to make such a scene in public, she’s probably dealing with some kind of mental illness. There may be family who could step in before foster care.
Calling the police in a situation like this is an unnecessary escalation that could have devastating consequences for both the mother and the child. The mother was in need of assistance with anger management and understanding how to parent, not the criminal justice system. Stepping in to offer verbal support to the child is a more appropriate intervention for a moment where, truly, the rest of us don’t know what’s happening.
I’m not a Mom but I was that child. I think if someone interfered my mother would have made the later punishment even more severe. Also–I grew up in the 70s-80s when hitting and screaming at kids was not uncommon, at least in the NE.
Agreed. I think intervening to support the child likely has negative repurcussions for the child later, when not in the sight of authorities. Intervening to support and/or doffuse the mom’s anger and stress will most likely have positive outcomes for the child.
I was that child too. I can’t say I would know what to do in this situation — probably just sit there feeling anxious and useless. But I will say I always wondered as a child, especially as I got a little older, why no one ever did intervene. Once, when I was about 12, a lady from our church did talk to me about the welt on my face (a solid hit with a wooden spoon), which made me feel so hopeful until later when she told me she’d prayed on the matter and knew Jesus would look out for me. From the child’s perspective there is such confusion and helplessness and fear. But I still don’t know how to navigate around parental power.
This makes me so sad…but happy that you are an adult now and away from it. Love to you!!
this broke my heart….hugs to you
i’m sad for your little-girl-self. i wish that lady at church had been more supportive of you, and offered concrete help. i am sorry that happened to you.
I probably would have done nothing in the moment, and then beat myself up over it later. Thank you for bringing this up. From this blog conversation, we can now all think of what we could say in the future if we see something like this in our own lives. Then we will have the words ready instead of going into brain freeze at that moment. By practicing saying the words out loud now we will be better prepared for a later date, if ever needed.
Yes i feel exactly the same way
I had a similar experience a few years ago, and was also not sure what to do in the moment and did nothing. Afterwards, I decided what could have helped was to try to find a way to engage the mother in conversation to try to distract her and diffuse the situation a bit. I thought I should have moved over to be near her, a little in between her and the child if possible, and said something to show a little empathy so she didn’t feel attacked but then try to work in a little advice if possible. I think there are many things that can go wrong with directly confronting a person in that situation but it might be possible to shift the dynamic for that moment and maybe give them an idea or tool to use the next time they reach that level of frustration.
Your heart was in the right place & your instincts were correct, in that you may have only further infuriated the mother and thereby inadvertently instigated further abuse directed toward the child. I wonder what a child psychologist would say, in terms of how to best handle this kind of situation?
My brother worked with children in care and this happened to him. He walked straight up to the mother and said “how can I help you?”. Explained he worked for local authorities but also said he could watch the child for a minute right now if the mother wanted to finish her shopping (they were in a supermarket). It might have been a slightly different situation, because I think the Mum’s yelling was prompted by a toddler meltdown, but I just remember thinking that this is a great way to intervene and disarm anger at the same time.
Came here to say this too. I think the best thing to do would be to look the mother in the eye, smile kindly, and offer to help. It might not make much a of a difference but it shows that you’re watching and is unlikely to make it worse for the child.
What a scary and terribly upsetting situation to have been close to, Kim. The NY Times link above that Jenny provided is quite good. I have no idea what I would have done, but it gave me some possible approaches I might try if I were confronted with such a scenario in the future.
I was that kid too–also not a mom now. (Quite possibly related!) If someone had intervened in that situation my mom would have blamed me for embarrassing her and probably beat me worse later. However, witnessing another adult tell her (and me) that what she was doing was not ok would have been awesome. It would have taken more than one person to make a real difference in my life, but growing up believing you deserve to be treated like garbage can really fuck a kid up.
I like to think that I would have asked the mother if she needed any help. I probably wouldn’t have, because I would have been too scared, but I think asking if there was something she needed instead of trying to reprimand her could have (might have… probably wouldn’t have) helped diffuse the situation.
Honestly long term what can you do? I doubt most foster placements are positive, permanent situations. Now that I am a mom (twin toddlers) I hope I would have offered if I could help the mom in some way. Help her get to her next appointment or take her for a meal and play w the kid and give her a break?. Sometimes we adults have tantrums bc parenting a young child is exhausting – and I say that having a husband who is an equal parent, financial security & an awesome nanny. There is little to no support, we are on our own and it is lonely. Not that this excuses her for verbal abusing the kid but it reads to me she needs what we all do – help. But maybe I’m naive.
And she’s no doubt repeating what was done to her. Nothing you do can correct the behavior. But maybe you can get her thinking. I like the idea of trying to help. Saying are you OK mama. Can I help? And definitely trying to make the kid smile. Because if this is what happens in public, I shudder to imagine how that child is treated behind closed doors.
I would approach the mother and say something like, “you seem to be really upset about something right now. Would you like me to sit here and watch your child for a few minutes so you can deal with whatever is going on?
I did a version of this…..well, version is a stretch. A mother and young son (5ish) got on my flight. From the get-go, the Mom was ragging on this kid and being awful, shockingly awful. Once in flight, the child wanted something and kept asking his Mom who was ignoring him. Finally, she stood up and said something along the lines of “I’ve had it with you. I don’t want to see your face or hear your voice” and she proceeded to get up and move several rows back to sit by herself. The young boy walked backed and tried to get her attention and she deliberately ignored him. The whole situ was more dramatic than I’m describing and was super uncomfortable for everyone on the flight. No idea where the flight attendants were….
Anyway, the little boy walked past my seat and I reached out and touched his arm and asked if he would like me to sit with him and read him a book. He nodded. So i got up and moved to his Mom’s original seat, got a book out of his backpack. Rang the flight attendant and asked if we could have some milk and cookies. I honestly expected that Mom to come up and start in on me for daring to interfere with her family, but she just stayed where she was. Peace reigned for the rest of the flight. A few fellow passengers thanked me as we deplaned. I was happy I could give that boy a few hours of comforting company. No idea what happened afterwards, but I often think of that boy and I hope he didn’t suffer too much at the hands of that awful mother.
That made me tear up. Thank you SD James for being so kind. I’m sure he remembers you too.
You were a lifesaver in that moment for that boy. What a kindness you did for him.
I’m curious on what your therapist offered. I maybe would have only engaged with the parent. Something, like “excuse me, is there any way I can help you right now?” The answer would have been a yes or no then you have your answer to intervene or not.
Agree w/ CW on using the disarming approach. Had this same scenario in a Starbucks maybe a year ago with a dad dressed in an army jacket wearing aviators (no one had sunglasses on – it was a darkish interior) who gave off a sniper vibe and ready to snap, just berating his maybe 5 year old sobbing daughter, who also flinched. I did nothing and as I drove off, had that moment of OMG, I should’ve bought his coffee, got her a cake pop and said I remember those days and how hard it can be. That little girl’s face is seared in my memory,the air was filled with jagged energy that just blasted that she was not safe and I failed her. It did make me realize this could happen and to be prepared next time if I can and if it feels safe enough and not harmful to the child, to try to disarm that parent/adult. Sending the universe’s love to all children facing these scenarios.
I might have sat down next to the mom and asked if there was anything I could do to help. She probably would have said no, but it would have sent a signal to both the mom and the child that people were paying attention
Yes, I would have done something to make that mother stop yelling at the child. If you could have sat down next to the mom and ask her if there was anything you could do to help. Even if she said no, she would have realized people were noticing her actions. If she said no, at least maybe try to say something positive to the child if there was a moment to do that. You just can’t say anything that would make that mother get defensive, then she will take it out on the child later.
Asking the mom “Are you okay?” with calm compassion. It opens dialogue and also signals to the child that the mom’s behavior is recognizably not normal.
I’m wondering if anyone who has responded here is actually a parent? It’s very easy to judge other people’s parenting from afar. Although it sounds like this was a more extreme situation, you have no idea what is going on in this woman’s life and what kind of mother she is. Unless the child was risking physical harm, it is none of your business and calling the plice here is a reaction that screams of white privilege.
I am a parent, a lawyer, someone who has worked on the policy/legal side of domestic violence and child abuse. I’ve also been in this situation personally several times, the last of which was with a white, late twenty-something couple. They had a young child – two-ish, strapped in a stroller and were screaming in his face on 3rd Avenue on the Upper East Side, repeatedly. They were tag-teaming abusing the child. – literally inches from an tied down kid’s face. An older woman and I exchanged horrified glances and she said something about how hard that was on the child and the mother just wheeled on her and verbally started attacking her too. I stepped in and said something like, yes I’m a Mom, and that can be really scary for a child. Then she went after me and the father started looming – physically menacing – and just then one of NYPD’s finest pulled up. We all looked at him, and they turned heel and went down the sidewalk. I asked the cop: can’t you do something? And he just shook his head, looking oh so regretful.
Child abuse is an issue that spans all races. It is widespread and incredibly common. Kids are some of the most helpless, least protected, least believed people. Adopting a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil approach has allowed child abuse to be privatized -“none of your business” – as if a child is a piece of property, belonging only to his or her parents. In my experience, courts, cops, social workers etc. will do their damndest to “keep the family intact” even if the price of that is the child’s suffering. Because the system is biased towards keeping kids with even the worst parents – and I’m including sexual abuse here – because it does not have the resources to adequately address the problem.
And while we may not know what kind of stress that mother was experiencing, we definitely do know something about what kind of mother she is. Physical harm is not the sole standard by which abuse is measured – neglect also harms a child, as does verbal and emotional abuse. The mother certainly sounds like she needs support, but the child desperately needs help and although they may be inter-related, those are two different levels of need, and the latter is by far the more critical.
I think it is very hard Kim, to know what to do in those situations. While some of the interventions mentioned above might help to sooth the situation, another approach would be to take a photo of the Mom, wait to see where she gets off, follow her, and call 911. I’m sure Hayley will feel like that is an aggressive tactic using an often unfair system to penalize a probably pretty powerless young woman. But then she is flagged in the system – if you get a decent cop who actually isn’t lazy – and Child Social Services may then come and check in on the kid and the Mom, possibly offering some real assitance for both.
The child has rights seperate and apart from the Mom, legally and morally.
Yes. Not only aren’t children property … but when that small portion of abused kids who grow up to abuse others does grow up … we *all* pay for it, one way or the other. And there can be years of internal suffering for the ones who don’t turn it outward.
Ideally it is neighbors and teachers who do most of this reporting. It is hard to know what to do when you just see someone so briefly.
I feel like, somewhere, somebody *knows.* They *aren’t* in doubt. The child is a person too.
Nope, not a parent. I didn’t want to be one because I feared passing on the generational trauma.
When I was in the emergency room with an arm broken in 3 places (my mother pushed me down the stairs) I wished that one of the adults I encountered would have asked me what happened. I guess they (like you) thought it was “none of their business.”
kimbersam, how awful that in a place where it WAS all of their business, the ER, no one asked after you. I’m so sorry that happened to you.
I was five. I do sorta remember in the ER them trying to separate me from my mother for a test (maybe)–and she went crazy, so the doctor let her stay with me the entire time. My memory of the hospital visit is hazy at best. With an adults perspective, I “think” they wanted to talk with me w/o her in the room. I don’t know if there was such a thing as a mandated reporter back then, I doubt it.
For me, it’s donating time and money to organizations that support women and political candidates who fight for systematic changes that break the cycle of suffering.
I saw a similar incident in the subway when I lived in NYC, with a similarly angry and aggressive and hostile mother. She slapped her child. The entire car froze. She could not have missed our horrified faces. This was before cell phones, and short of stopping the whole train, what could we do? Wrestle the child away? Would that have helped? I do think if it had gone farther than that people would have stepped in. I think it would have taken one person to speak up, maybe me, maybe someone else, and the mother might have stopped — for that moment. I should also point out that In this case the mother and I were different races and social classes. I had no idea how I could bridge the gap to make anything I said make anything better instead of blowing it up and still not helping that kid. I still feel terrible shame and guilt about this.
As a mom of three, I can attest that public outbursts towards kids tend to be driven by shame. The last thing you’d want to do is add to that state of mind (warranted or not). I would either engage the mom in a friendly, non-aggressive way to bring down her agitated state (like totally off topic – love your bag, shoes, etc) or engage the child in a kind, assuring manner that distracts them both.
I don’t know what I would have done, but if I did anything it would probably be to tell the mother that what she is doing is not OK and hope that it makes the child feel better and eventually more empowered. The child needs to see that behavior is wrong. My anger would be hard to overcome to try to play nice like some people are suggesting, but I understand that is probably the better way to go. We need to have free childcare and free healthcare in this country to try to reduce stress and anger and despair in our people. And free birth control and abortions so people can have control over their reproductive lives. And free parenting classes. There will still be bad parents, or good parents who have bad moments, but I think it would help.
“It takes a village to raise a child is an African proverb that means that an entire community of people must interact with children for those children to experience and grow in a safe and healthy environment.”
Everyone on that train failed that child.
I calmly intervened one time and the verbal vitriol was turned on me. Such a difficult situation, damned if you do & damned if you don’t.
I was raised by an abusive mother and in my case, a stranger intervening wouldn’t have changed shit. Don’t beat yourself up about it.
Kim, there is no shame in putting your own safety first. Anyone employed as an EMT or even those of us that have taken a CPR course know that the 1st thing the instructors teach you is “make sure the scene is safe before approaching the victim.” That being said, if you decide to intervene in such a situation, a non-threatening approach (exactly what WG suggests above) offering your assistance or empathizing with the parent is the most effective tactic. You might get a FU, but you would know you had tried. Not clear-cut by any means.
I would have wanted to say something, but I have read that when someone tries to stop domestic violence between a couple in public, the woman (or whoever is on the receiving end) will get it worse later at home (“how dare you embarrass me?”). I’m not a mom, but I’ve seen this and felt similarly powerless. I have a dog and I feel the same when I see an owner yanking or swatting an animal. You can’t intervene because 1) dangerous person and 2) an abused do will probably still protect an abusive owner.
The only time I have ever seen this type of situation turn out less than awful was when a very good friend, who suffered through some really horrific shit as a kid, focused on the mom. He thought that keeping his eyes on the mother/caregiver (literally, he make eye contact, which is anathema in the subway), might give her some reprieve, as she is clearly struggling, maybe with just a really sihtty day, but at the least the kid gets a breather. The mom was markedly less angry, and I had the great job of letting the kid play with my bracelet, which was an excellent outcome for a terrible situation.
I am a social worker, but not for children, and I am ill-equipped to handle this type of thing, which is why I too struggle with how to intervene. I find it much less traumatic to speak with adults, be they young men or someone clearly with mental health issues. Regardless, any type of intervention as long as it is not hostile (I cannot emphasize this enough) is a good idea. Passing on some resources might help, if the situation permits.
As a former elementary school counselor, I would now not have hesitated to call Child Protection Services and report this. I know some people above have debated about whether there was verbal abuse going on–it was–and whether that should be reported, but there was also the disturbing hands-in-front-of-the-face gesture of the child. Compassion for the parent, with the understanding that she was also likely abused, is certainly warranted–but stopping the harm to the child is paramount. That said, early in my career I had a hair stylist confess to me that he’d hit his toddler, and made her mouth bleed–and it didn’t even occur to me to call it in. I’ve always been sad and ashamed that I didn’t know better, and tried to do better ever since.
I had a similar experience. I heard a mom hit her child in the girl’s restroom at a roller rink. She was in the stall next to me and it took me what feels like a long time to even realize what was happening. I finally exited my stall with pants still undone and screamed at the mom to stop. They left the restroom and I looked for them in the roller rink (who could I call?, what follow-up measure could I take?, how could I save this child?), but I did not see them again. This happened years ago and continues to haunt me.
Criminy. I just remembered another time. This was in the local Target. Two young women had a very young boy in a cart. And they were making fun of him, in a mean way, right to his little face. And I could tell he understood it emotionally. I should have said something.
Again, birth control should be free. It’s not nice to say maybe, but I really think so. Why bother if you’re just going to be mean to it?
I saw exactly this on the 1 train about a month ago, morning rush/packed train. The mother was loudly threatening to beat the child, right there on the train. I calculated my fellow passengers would never let that fly, despite anything anyone has said here, if only because the mother couldn’t beat her son without swinging through other people. It never came to pass and was probably about the worst thing I have witnessed on the subway in 25 years living here. (#2: a man who got his leg severed when climbing out /off the tracks versus an incoming train). Both pretty seared in my mind.
As a daily rider of public transit in Washington DC, I see this more often than I’d like. Your options for intervention are similar to any intervention in public where there is abuse, and the potential for violence and retribution.
First, decide if it’s safe for you to intervene. This is a judgement call that only you can make, because it is a vulnerability. Next, decide if intervening is worth any retribution it might cause, both for you and the victim. Understand that intervening may result in punishment for the victim once they are no longer in public.
After you’ve decided to intervene, speak directly to the victim, and the victim only. Greet them and have a normal, cosmetic conversation. With kids, keep it super simple and positive. You can talk about the color of their shoes, their favorite TV show or cartoon character, or book. Stay away from asking about any identifying information, such as the name of their school or teacher, or where they live.
The point is to make the victim feel seen, and send a not-so-subtle message to the abuser: I see you. I see what you are doing. I will treat your victim like a human, even if you don’t.
For some abusers, in some circumstances, this may make them hesitate before abusing in public in the future. And it might not. There is a lot at play in public demonstrations of abuse of power, like the one you saw. This mother believes that she can abuse her child in public, and no one will stop her. She is sending a message to her child as well: I can abuse you, and even when other people witness it, they will do nothing.
Your brief intervention isn’t going to solve a lifetime of abuse or change an abuser’s behavior significantly. You can, however, offer a brief reprieve to the victim, and an opening for them to ask for help.
this breaks my heart….thank you for sharing and starting this conversation. some great suggestions here on how to deal. I hope I never have to use them but better to be informed.
I tend to agree with those who say it is good to speak up if it can be done in a way that doesn’t make the abuser more angry. (Which may not be possible, in which case, I don’t know what’s right.) Even just distraction.
And if you have the time, and if it’s bad enough, then yes … follow them and call the cops. Absolutely. The child protected his/her face bc the parent hits them. Drop a dime!!!! I doubt I would have time to do this though. Who does? Maybe just snap a photo if maybe the kid has a school shirt on. (Though … not to do that whole online shame thing. I don’t like that.)
As for all this help the parent needs … yes, I agree with that too. And providing that help is why we have … social workers!!!! But if no one reports them, they don’t know who to help.
I actually sort of did this once. I don’t think the parent was physically abusive but she was so ungodly awful verbally that I braced myself and spoke up. I took her aside and did the whole I-know-it’s-hard-taking-care-of-kids-thing … and she stopped me, knew what I was going to say before I said it, and she said, this doesn’t concern you. And I said it did. And that was that. The good thing was, her husband was there and he saw us, so, I hope he did something. It was very scary for me, I was paranoid for days after (but I tend to be phobic…) but I am glad I did it. Kid was 7 or 8. This was in daytime in a public place, lots of people around. Heck, there were several other women there who were all thinking the same as me. (it was in a bathroom and I talked to her after)
Lots of people need help, I’ve needed help – not for this, but for other things. I don’t know about doing it on public transit, but when possible, I say yes, tell someone. Bc we all ask ourselves, when we are questioning our own behavior, … is this really that bad? So, we can be those who say, yes, it is, and you need to do something.
As for this situation, I’m sure I’d have done exactly the same. It is up to the neighbors, someone who actually knows them. (And … let’s make birth control free while we are at it.)
While we’re talking about touchy subjects … we may as well talk about culture. I think another reason we don’t speak up is when the person is a different race/culture and we just don’t want to touch that with a 50 foot pole. **para** And I have no answers, but, I hope that we can all maybe start speaking up more about protecting the weak and small, in our own groups, and hopefully it will spread outwards. Cultural differences are very real, and yet, should they paralyze us? But, they do. It’s a tough one.
I don’t see anything in Kim’s post about different race/culture, and yes, if there were something, the differences need to be taken into consideration, for sure.
It’s true, Kim didn’t say anything about it.
I think though that it’s one more reason many of us don’t say anything (when we are members of a different (perceived) group from the abuser). And I’m not sure it’s good. But like I said … I don’t know that there’s going to be a good answer, or a clear one. But if small beings are harmed because the rest of us are afraid, that’s not a good outcome either.
A mother who thinks nothing of abusing her child publicly isn’t someone who will respond positively to well-meaning strangers. I might have tried the “having a rough day” approach. If I’m being honest, I probably would not have put myself in the middle of that situation, thinking it might backfire on the child later. I definitely would have tried to smile at the child to let him know in a small way that I saw his pain.
Ask your therapist what are the safe, legal ways to document abuse when you witness it in New York (I’m specifying your state because legalities can vary with individual states). If there’s a chance you might spot this person again on the same route, building up documentation that can suggest a pattern can be useful. I realize that’s not much use if you only see this person once, but that’s what my instinct is when I see behavior like this. Also, if you have friends who travel this route, I might ask them to keep their eyes out for this person and discreetly document any subsequent behavior. Meanwhile, lots of warm respect to all the commenters with their thoughtful strategies of showing care, and to the commenters who survived what they shouldn’t have to, I’m really glad you are here. I am so, so glad you are here.
OK, so I’m late to this conversation, but I had a similar experience about 10 years ago. At the time, I was a 3rd grade teacher. I was with my husband and our 7- or 8-year-old daughter at an off-season Fan Fest for our local Major League Baseball team. As we approached the escalator in the convention center, a father and his son—who looked to be about 12 at the most—were directly behind us. The father was berating the boy at very low volume, but in a surly, threatening tone. The kid appeared to be struggling to keep from crying and trying to pretend he wasn’t embarrassed. I was on high alert, trying to figure out how to intervene without making it worse for the kid or becoming a target myself. As we stepped onto the escalator, the father punched the kid on his arm so hard it sounded like a major league pitcher threw a grapefruit at a brick wall. I had almost an out-of-body experience. I saw and heard myself blurt out, “HEY!” I was LOUD and my tone was very sharp. People around us on the escalator were visibly startled and their attention was drawn to the father and son. The kid looked at me in disbelief. When he realized what I’d done, Father of the Year gave me a very threatening look, but he seemed to understand that we had all *seen* his behavior and found it unacceptable. He got control of himself, and that was the end. I wish I’d gone a step farther and reported him to one of the many police officers at the event. I hope someone else in that kid’s life intervened in a way that resulted in a safer, more peaceful childhood.
I read through these comments, so many different ways to handle a heartbreaking situation. I wondered if we were a different society, one where we collectively, instinctively would move toward that situation with love and concern, talk to the mother and child compassionately – engage in the situation – could we help? Am I living in a dream world? I think the comment closest to this was the suggestion to just sit by the mother and child and see if the oppurtunity arose to engage in conversation i.e. “Sounds like you’re having a rough day, can I help?”
Unless you were prepared to get punched in the face and take that child home with YOU after the mother was arrested, it’s best to always mind your own business in these situations. A lot of people get up on their high horse and want to intervene, but never stick around to deal with the outcome.
I completely disagree about “minding your own business” when it comes to the health and safety of children.
So, I have to say that many of these comments – while well-meaning – simply do not apply to a real-life situation on the NYC subway. Unfortunately, in a situation like this, I think intervening can make the situation worse for all involved – and can invite an attack on you. For your own safety, and that of the child and the other passengers, I would not directly confront the woman. Unfortunately, I think it’s very difficult to help a child in a situation like this… I don’t really have a great answer here.
What an awful situation. I read somewhere that a person who had been that child said the hardest thing was seeing adults look away when his mother was verbally abusing him, as if he were invisible and didn’t matter. So maybe engaging the child in a friendly way, if it’s possible. Sorry you had to witness that.
I too live in NYC and have seen this on the subway. It’s awful, gut wrenching. I often try to get the child’s attention with a smile and a little wave. I try, if possible, to inject a little love into the child’s day. Sometimes the child will smile and wave back. Sometimes the child is so shocked to see an adult being calm and loving they just stare at me.
Sometimes the parent will see the child looking to me, another adult, smiling and will stop. I worry that the parent will then be upset and take it out on the child later. We often talk about only intervening if the child is in imminent danger, but what is that? I was verbally abused and emotionally neglected as a child and spent much of my adulthood suicidal, anxious and ill despite years of therapy. Is that not dangerous?
2nd all of this. My heart races when I see this, because I am instantly that child again. I still can’t handle any kind of yelling, even on TV.
The closest I’ve ever come to that situation was in a suburban market, a Whole Foods, in fact, so the threat level for me and the child was far lower, and the entire community surrounded us to bear witness and – I hoped – shame the mother some. I didn’t speak to the mom actually, I talked directly to her son as they were ahead of me in line. I told him – kind of under my voice – that it was OK, that some grownups got mad at stuff, but other grownups didn’t mind and I was totally OK with what he had done.
New York subway cars are a wholly different setup. I probably would have just waved at the kid, from whether the mom couldn’t see me, hoping to signal that he was not alone.
That sounds like a terrible option. I would never be passive-aggressive to a rampaging parent.
Kim, I know it feels awful and I have seen it too. I’m also in the city and witnessed a young mom berating the hell out of a maybe 3 year old. My husband and I were stymied on how to intervene, especially when the mom turned and I saw she was pregnant; our kid was under a year and with a grandparent at that moment, and we felt ashamed watching because we felt clueless and powerless.
Thank you, poster upthread, for the link to the Times.
I empathize with this deeply.
I’ve been in a similar situation, a father screaming at his daughter and even slamming her against the wall, in a restaurant. Everyone gasped but nobody dared to speak up. So much went through my mind – in the end I was afraid that if I would say something, his daughter would suffer even more at home. I tried to catch the girl’s eye and gave her a little nod as encouragement and to let her known she was seen. But it still makes me powerless when I think about it.
There seems to be no way to intervene in these situations in public without risking endangering yourself or the child. I witnessed something similar on the subway, right next to me on the seat, just last week. To follow on what MaryAlice said, I think making eye contact with the child (if possible) and offering a reassuring smile is about the best one can do without raising the possibility of escalation. It’s so painful to be a party to these abuses in public, but of course the observers aren’t the ones truly suffering.
*makes me FEEL powerless
What I would have wanted to do was ask the mom if she needed some help or said something to her about how exhausted I was when my kids were little and I had to always remind myself to breath and be calm in an attempt to diffuse the situation. What I probably would have done is nothing and then beaten myself up for days over not having done anything. I wish we did more in this country to help people learn how to parent.
That is so hard to witness. I am not sure I would have done this in the moment but reading your post in a calm setting vs being in the subway made me think about trying to engage in a conversation with the mom but not in a judgmental or upset way about the verbal abuse. Maybe calmly ask if everything is ok and say it sounds like you’re having a rough day, try relate to my own rough days as a parent etc. . Ask is there anything I can do to help?
I’m a child psychiatrist. I hope the respondents–and the blogger–have had meaningful contact with anything about the foster care system before commenting about foster care. The emphasis on “family reunification” is politically correct but for many children in foster care the humane and sensible thing (and dare I say, ethical and moral) is to terminate parental rights early, when the child or children are still attractive to would be adoptive parents. When parental rights ARE terminated, the children are often traumatized and sadly, not desirable. It’s a terrible state of affairs that is worsening with the re-appropriation of women’s bodies by male politicians.
I actually served on the board of a nonprofit that advocates for children in foster care, so while I am by no means an authority on the topic, I am reasonably well-informed.
In a similar situation on the subway, I made eye contact with the abusive mom and gestured with both my hands to “calm down/chill out”. Lots of other people were around, which made me feel safe… and I think the gesture, while obviously hugely irritating to her, broke her delusion that no one was paying attention and that what she was doing was ok. She was clearly pissed at me, and the rest of the world, but she didn’t say another word.
Succinctly call the transit police, tell them which train you’re on, where it’s headed, a description of mom and child, and which station they get off at, if they leave before you? They have cameras everywhere, and can send officers to board the train. They will also let the driver know. They’ll want you to stay on the line until your stop.
I once had to do this on a bus about a different situation. The police had the driver linger at the stops until they got there. They were looking for the person already on another matter, as it happened.
Report to child protective services – the child may go to foster care, but more likely is that the child will go to family members. And while that is terrible, it also gives the mother a chance to learn to become a better parent. Otherwise, it is likely that the kid will continue to be abused. I work as an advocate for youth in state’s custody – and, at least in my state, the goal really is to keep kids with families and help make the family stronger.
Agree with others that I might have sidled nearby and, if I had a chance, ask her if she needed any help. I’ve taken de-escalation classes where the lesson was, when encountering someone whose behavior is heightened in some way, don’t ask what’s wrong with them, instead ask what happened. It’s about getting to the trigger, not blaming them for their behavior. In my neighborhood years ago, I saw a women pull her toddlers pants down and spank him several times. I was shocked and kept driving, then realized it was 100+ degrees out and she was probably overwhelmed. I turned around and offered them a ride home. She accepted. Once everyone was buckled up, she said the toddler had started running toward the road after they got off the bus. The heat, the fear, the frustration got to her.
Several years ago while in a security line at the airport I encountered a similar situation. Everyone in line witnessed a child being verbally abused by his mother. Several times I made eye contact with the child and smiled trying to comfort him, I stared down the mother many times as did others and finally when I had enough I said something to her. Well her vitriol turned on me. “Mind your own business. It’s my kid.” I was embarrassed that I was now the focus of her verbal abuse, but was happy to take it as it spared the child and took the focus off him. She continued to berate me as we went through the line. My husband I and walked away once thru security. Reflecting on it now, I wish I had reported her. The fear in that child’s eyes haunts me to this day.
Kim, I absolutely hear you on the feelings of helplessness and confusion. Having also lived in NYC for decades and seen a fair share of people living out their bad behavior in public, by far the worst is the abusive moments to a child (equally upsetting, an animal). I often wish I had the courage to say “No one deserves to be treated that way” to the abusive adult and if the anger is turned on me, which I’d fully expect, to hold my ground and repeat that. “No one, not you or your child or anyone, deserves to be treated like that.” I’d also hope that others around might support that moment. But overall I agree with what’s been said above about thanks for sharing since it opens up a real awareness. I’d like to think that there were others on the train equally as conflicted and if one person can speak out, others would join in.