I just really, really hope I never have to see this again.
November 8, 2012 7:49 PM   Subscribe

How to confront a stranger being very, very, verbally abusive to their child?

Hopefully, I won't ever have to witness something like this ever again. But a couple nights ago I was waiting at a train stop and could hear a woman screaming at the top of her lungs. I look in that direction, and see a woman saying the most horrible, scarring, inconceivably abusive things to (I presume) her child. During the course of which, it apparently was revealed that the child had Downs Syndrome. Though the kid didn't really look like they did, so it may have just been the mom being abusive. I don't even want to repeat some of the things she said, but if I had had to deal with that sort of thing even once in my childhood I would NEVER be the same. And I have to imagine the kid has been through it a bit more then once. When he would try to get a few feet away to cry without having his mom screaming in his face, she would demand he come back. He was just standing, sobbing, and I did not know what to do. Only one other person saw it, and they just walked away. I can't blame them, they probably didn't know what to do either and couldn't just watch it happen.
posted by mediocre to Human Relations (29 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry you had to see this.

Whatever you decide to do in the future, you may want to keep this story in mind.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:52 PM on November 8, 2012 [21 favorites]

Call 911.
posted by cairdeas at 8:03 PM on November 8, 2012 [11 favorites]

And you know, you can still make a police report now, even if you don't remember everything about the mother or the child. You don't know what records there already are on them, or could be in the future, and it could be a drop in the bucket to give you a bit more peace of mind.
posted by cairdeas at 8:06 PM on November 8, 2012 [6 favorites]

It's tricky because if you get involved, she may use it as an excuse to abuse the child more/later. I think calling the police might be your best bet. I really don't know. I wonder if "excuse me, that's really inappropriate" would work.
posted by windykites at 8:12 PM on November 8, 2012

What I've heard suggested is that you get the parent's attention and say something like "having a hard time, there". Something neutral to sympathetic and NOT confrontational. The reasoning is that it stops their momentum, doesn't escalate the situation, and doesn't open the child up to further retaliatory abuse.

In terms of calling the cops...I guess you could, but they're not going to do anything for verbal abuse. You never know if that's all that's going on, of course. I just wouldn't expect much more from them than a shrug and I'd worry that it would make the kid's situation worse in the long run. Wouldn't fault anyone for doing it.

Also, in terms of the kid's life never being the same, probably not, but there are a lot of victims of childhood verbal abuse who do go on to lead happy and fulfilling lives. I'm not minimizing it, but I just want you to know that there is hope there.

Thanks for caring.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:12 PM on November 8, 2012 [31 favorites]

Cops aren't going to help.
posted by rhizome at 8:13 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Call 911.

Yes, seriously. Call 911, without making any attempt to hide what you're doing, and say something like "I am frightened for a very young child. There's an adult, maybe his mother, screaming at him in a very uncontrolled way, and I don't know what's going to happen next. She seems completely out of control: I've never seen anyone shout at a child the way she is doing. I'm afraid she might physically hurt him. I've never seen anything like this."

There's obviously no point trying to reason with her, so the best you can do is call the authorities. Even if they don't do much, you're making your shock and upset clear to the mother. Maybe it will wake her up a little, or maybe she will mockingly or angrily tell the story to someone else later, and they will wake up. People do sometimes do that, if they're prodded by another person's honest reaction.
posted by Susan PG at 8:13 PM on November 8, 2012 [18 favorites]

I also wonder if you could just approach the child and ask if the child needed help, or at least try to reassure them in some way or something. I don't know, I really don't know how creepy/weird that is. But I'm wondering if it's important for the kid to have experiences where they, if nothing else, witness that the outside world does not think that this treatment of them is ok. That actually makes me wonder if you should actually be confrontational, just to do a tiny bit to prevent the kid from internalizing that they deserve this treatment. I dunno. I really wish I knew the answer. Maybe videotape her with your phone camera and tell her that she's being recorded, and tell the kid that it's not ok for people to treat him/her like that?
posted by windykites at 8:21 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm unsure whether I would recommend calling 911 or not, but I can tell you that in many (most? all?) states, based on what you described here there are some very short, simple, and specific phrasings you can use on the phone to 911 that would obligate some action be taken. Now, obviously that doesn't mean that some 911 operators won't still blow you off, but you can at least invoke some phrasings that would mean they aren't allowed to.

Your question was specifically how to "confront" the stranger. Handing the confrontation off to someone who is trained to do it might be a better option, if you aren't. In some situations, especially with family dynamics, it can sometimes be better to have the right long-term solution applied than a right-seeming but ultimately less effective short-term approach.

Having said all that, the flatter answer to your question is that it's hard to know what confrontation method is best. Depending on the dynamic and personality type, sometimes coming over the top with more volume is successful. More often that isn't the case and a measured, even approach is wiser. I'd suggest that you ask yourself what the goal of your confrontation would be. If you aim to teach the parent a lesson, I think you're in for an uphill battle. On the other hand, if you aim to distract her and defuse this particular tantrum to give the kid a moment's peace, you might find it's easier to think of tactics.

I'm sorry you witnessed that, and sorrier for the kid.
posted by cribcage at 8:28 PM on November 8, 2012

Maybe you can just point out she's screaming in a public place, disturbing the peace?

You are not going to stop her from continuing to be abusive later, but at least she'll be aware that the world is not just her and her kid.

Actually, you could also call the cops for the same reason. Disturbing the peace is a real, unambiguous and easy-to-explain complaint to which the police will respond.
posted by ignignokt at 8:36 PM on November 8, 2012

Interesting that you should ask this because I encountered a similar situation today and wondered the same. OP said that they were in a train station, so A) it's possible they were underground in a subway where one cannot call the police unless one goes up to the booth and gets them to call by which time B) the mother and child are likely to be gone from the location within minutes on a train to who knows where, which leaves zero time for police to respond to a call.

Those were the obstacles I faced when witnessing serious verbal abuse today. What then?
posted by greta simone at 9:06 PM on November 8, 2012

Call Child Protective Services in your area. That's what they are for. Give as accurate a description as you can of what you witnessed, any identifying information (license plate, first name if you overheard it, physical description), and let them handle it. If your description matches someone already in their system, or if you gave them enough information to track the family down, they will intervene, assess the situation, and provide support to the family. As a last resort they might remove the child, but you shouldn't let that stop you from reporting.

As a parent, I have to admit I felt an instinctive and blood curdling rage towards strangers who accused me of abusing my child at bus stops. (In my case, they were kind of dunk and very concerned because he wasn't wearing a hat. In my defense he was wadded up asleep in a baby wrap inside my coat, and I had taken the hat off because he'd been sweating.) Though I completely agree that the behavior you witnessed was appalling, I think a confrontation (ostentatious police calling, polite scolding, etc) isn't going to be practical if your goal is to stop the yelling.

Intervene by distracting the parent. "Hey, excuse me, did the number four go by yet? Oh, okay, thanks. By the way that's a nice coat. Yeah, I have a purse that color. I got it at TJ Maxx, do you ever go there? Lot of good deals there. I'm Amy, by the way." Distract them, and then report that shit to CPS the second they're out of earshot.
posted by milk white peacock at 9:17 PM on November 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Seconding the young rope-rider with diffusing the situation with distraction.

Last year we were on a flight with a woman who was increasingly angry at her two children, both quite young. They were remarkably well behaved, but had nothing to occupy them during a two hour flight.

It was uncomfortable. Felt awful for the kids, but it didn't get to a point of yelling or abusive talk. Just anger and aggressive statements about wait until they get home. After a while, the woman in front of me did an amazing thing. She just came over and in a completely non judgmental way said "It isn't easy with two kids on a flight, can I lend a hand?"

The mom didn't react badly at all, just surprised and said yes. So this woman sat in the empty seat and paid attention to the little boy for the remaining half hour of the flight.

As we were leaving the plane, the younger boy was wandering away from mom, who definitely had her hands full. So I gently helped him back into line with us, carried his child seat he had in his hands, and got them into the baggage claim area.

It didn't go well there either, with more yelling and threats about later. A completely different woman came up and used the same tactic. Now those kids won't have an easy life. But in that stressful situation, it seemed to give some relief just offering a hand instead of escalating.
posted by shinynewnick at 9:40 PM on November 8, 2012 [46 favorites]

I once witnessed a similar situation and likewise felt saddened and disturbed but also very uncertain whether there was anything I could do to either diffuse the situation and/or let the mother know that such behavior is not cool and/or let the kid know that the mom's behavior is not appropriate and he shouldn't be treated this way. Just thinking out loud, I wonder if just standing in between them but saying nothing, like the guy in that viral video a year or two ago on the subway who stepped between an arguing couple, might be a productive approach. It seems to achieve all three of the above mentioned goals in a very subtle way yet without being confrontational or threatening to anyone. That still of course leaves a feeling of sadness that the kid will have to put up with verbal abuse for the rest of his childhood. That really sucks and makes you wonder whether people should need to have a license to be a parent. Which leads me to another thought. A puzzling question posed to the mother could break the situation and also possibly get her thinking, and one such question could be "Excuse me, do you have a parenting license?".
posted by Dansaman at 10:56 PM on November 8, 2012

Something very, very similar happened on a bus in my neighborhood in Seattle (and we probably can't even begin to imagine what this kid has to deal with in private. The person witnessing it asked a question pretty much exactly like yours on the local EveryBlock site, and a well known neighborhood police officer commented that this is the kind of thing she needs to hear about ASAP. Next time, call 911.
posted by halogen at 11:07 PM on November 8, 2012

I'm going to give you a combo of the advice above. This happened to me before once before metafilter existed. I didn't handle it well that day, but I did my best, with the hopes that the child involved registered what her mother was doing was wrong.

Do the kind distracting thing. That works to diffuse the situation at hand. That's important.

Gather all of the information you can. Introduce yourself, try to get a first name, any identifying info.

Afterwards call Child Services.


In your specific recent situation, PLEASE CALL CHILD SERVICES!

You say you were on a train platform. I guaranteeeeee you there was surveillance video. This mother and child are hopefully trackable.

Do it even if it leads to nothing.

You might try going in to your local police precinct and reporting it, too.

Have the date, place, and time handy for both reports.


I grew up abused like this.

The one time I saw this happening I spoke out and admonished the mother, hoping that the daughter might remember my reaction to her mom as a young adult, hoping it might help her one day make sense of her childhood in therapy or whatever.

I was aware at the time that I might be inciting the mom to be even worse to the daughter once they got home behind closed doors, but I was in my 20's, and didn't know what else to do at the time.

Back in the day, if I had known being kind and crafty enough to gather information for later reporting was a possibility, I would have done that!

Thanks for asking this question.
posted by jbenben at 12:51 AM on November 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

Nthing everyone making the suggestions to defuse and offer compassion. This will also register with the kid: they will see that compassion can be just as powerful as abuse. Anecdotally, that sort of example is one of the huge reasons I came out of a similar childhood all right. Then yes, call the police or CPS; you could also phone the police now and ask their advice about whom to phone in such a situation. The police are there for that as well. I grew up with some kids who became police officers (in the US), and they all without fail assure me that they want people to ask so that they can share the most effective ways to communicate with them. This has shown true where I now live too, in France, the police have really always been helpful and open about who to contact, what to say, how to say it, and so forth.

During the course of which, it apparently was revealed that the child had Downs Syndrome. Though the kid didn't really look like they did, so it may have just been the mom being abusive.

I know you know this, wanted to say it for others as well – even if it's true that a child has a disability, it does not excuse, justify, or explain abuse. I point it out because admittedly, this is a huge red flag because it is how my own mother got away with her overt abusive treatment of me a lot of the time, and it was also how a second cousin of mine with Down Syndrome was abused. My mother claimed I was schizophrenic, psychotic, whatever trigger word was the most effective to get people to back down and let her scream at me. If a parent ever pulls this with you, compassion still works. "That must be stressful", for instance. It can be helpful to think of it rationally rather than getting triggered by scare words, too: even if the child is disabled or mentally ill, is yelling at the kid going to help their disability/illness? Is a load of impassioned invective and threats going to help the child handle their difficulties, or is it going to add to their burden? This helps remove your own self from the emotional fallout and respond more compassionately. By that I mean, you can tell, in your gut, when a claim is scaring you into dehumanizing another person. Recognizing this tactic that triggers that gut feeling of "oh, less human than I am, so the bad treatment might have an explanation" allows you to see it when it happens, take a step back and remind yourself, "there is no justification for dehumanizing anyone". Period. (Abusive parent included, btw, which is why compassion is so effective.)
posted by fraula at 1:47 AM on November 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

A friend of mine says "Let me hold them while you hit them." Makes for some interesting interactions.
posted by at at 2:45 AM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I was pregnant with my second child, I had dropped my older child off at daycare and got on the bus as part of my regular commute. A woman on the bus who I had not seen before was talking incredibly loudly on a cell phone and disrupting other passengers. A man asked her to lower her voice. The woman ignored him and continued to talk loudly. The man then less politely and with a bit more force asked her again to keep it down. And then what happened is something like out of a Law & Order episode.

The woman got out of her seat and approached the man and started yelling such things as, "I will take you out! You can't tell me what to do! You do not mess with me!" and threatening to kill him. She was literally in his face. She made mention of knife and willingness to use it (though no one ever saw the knife). People tried to get her to calm down and to recognize her behavior as being over the top, which just escalated her further. At some point someone pointed out that she was behaving this way in front of her daughter, which just upset her more. She continued to yell and make threats against everyone on the bus for even bringing her daughter into this ---- and these weren't the threats of someone who was unstable in the sense that this was symptomatic of an illness which people would normally be uncomfortable with but ultimately have some sympathy for -- these were very real, very scary threats.

As this was going on, her daughter, who was probably around three year, got out of her seat and started walking toward her mother on the bus. She had a look on her face that I will never forget --- a look that this was normal. She wasn't scared. She wasn't alarmed. And not once on that bus ride did she make a single sound. This is what she lived with. And I can't imagine what she must face at home if this was a public display she was used to.

It was all I could do to not scoop her up in my arms and run off with her to some place safe. But I was five months pregnant. The woman was all but next to me yelling about having a knife, and much as I really wish I could have somehow intervened, I really didn't believe I could in a way that would be safe for me.

This entire ordeal went on for close to 10 minutes, if not a bit longer, when the bus driver finally stopped the bus and had the man who asked her to stop talking so loudly come up to the front of the bus (which was the right choice under the circumstances), and I imagine he had to file some report with his supervisor. There was a transit officer waiting when the bus pulled in.

I still think about that little girl. I think about what I could have done, if anything, and I have a lot of guilt that I did in fact have to put myself and my unborn child first by not drawing attention to myself. I can only hope that social services was already involved in their lives. And I took some hope that the girl was at least clean and appropriately dressed for the weather. I didn't call social services because I had never seen the woman before and had never seen her again. I had no name to go on, no evidence of where they lived, etc. I'm sure they would have kindly taken my report, but I also knew there wouldn't be much they could do without any specific identifying information. When I got to work, I was so upset I related the incident to someone who is excellent at dealing with volatile situations (and was also the first person I happened to see when I arrived), and even she said that there probably was not much I could have done to have helped deescalate that situation or much I could do to help her daughter.

My point is --- it's excellent you want to intervene. But you do need to be cautious about how you do it. I'm not saying don't do anything, but be prepared that in these situations you are limited.....diffuse the situation if you can, of course. Make a report to appropriate authorities if you can. It's a good to thing to do if you can.

But also remember you can only do what you can do........and that doesn't make you a bad person.
posted by zizzle at 4:30 AM on November 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Call 911.

Please don't call 911. This is absolutely not a 911 situation. No one is going to die or be assaulted. It does not need the time of emergency operators, or police dispatch. Frivolous 911 calls end lives by making the wait longer for genuine emergencies.

If you feel that you absolutely must call something, call 311 or their equivalent, but know that it will mostly be for your benefit. It is really hard to understand what level of response to give, though, without knowing some of the things that were being said.

Is a load of impassioned invective and threats going to help the child handle their difficulties, or is it going to add to their burden? This helps remove your own self from the emotional fallout and respond more compassionately.

Maybe, but I think it's important to keep in mind compassion for the mother as well as the child. If the child had Down's, the mother is undoubtedly incredibly, incredibly stressed on a daily basis, in a way I cannot even begin to conceive of. Does that excuse screaming and being potentially verbally abusive? Absolutely not, but it also means that it is important not to dehumanize the mother as well, who is likely in an extremely difficult situation. Will calling CPS actually help in their lives? Or is a moment of compassion what you can offer without making a bad situation worse?
posted by corb at 6:53 AM on November 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

I recently saw a child being beat savagely as I was in my car, I called 911, But kept driving (child was also in a car)*

I think the information gathering + social services call is a great idea if you feel you can pull it off.

*I have learned the hard way from a previous incident that intervening with anything other than the 'forced politeness' suggested above will likely result in you also being arrested or worse.
posted by French Fry at 7:32 AM on November 9, 2012

Keep in mind: Depending on what was said, this may not be illegal.

My wife worked in CPS and often times with verbally abusive parents they have to write people up on Noise Violations to bring any type of criminal charges. This depends a lot on where you are and the local laws... But sometimes trying to prove that 'totally legal' crazy screaming has crossed the line into criminal abuse is next to impossible.
posted by French Fry at 7:43 AM on November 9, 2012

Agree with having a hard time comment.

however, with my style and history, I would have got in her face and started an argument. At the very least, then it's between adults and if the cops came, you can explain to them that you are defending a child. Sort it out from there.
posted by stormpooper at 10:17 AM on November 9, 2012

Thank you for this discussion, I've been witness to ugly scenes like this but unsure of a positive and effective way to proceed. Then felt guilty about my inaction.
posted by Rash at 1:51 PM on November 9, 2012


In this situation I think you would have been justified in calling the police on a non-emergency line and reporting a noise disturbance and/or repeating Susan PG's script above. If there were signs that she would escalate to physical abuse, however, I don't see what's wrong with calling 911.

If the mother had been more quietly abusive, then I think the "Sometimes having to take care of a child alone is hard" line might have worked, or simply "Need any help?"

I have read that in dysfunctional families, an adult child can sometimes ward off a rant that is brewing by asking a distracting, completely off-topic question like "Where'd you get that hat?" or "What did you hear the weather was going to be like today?" But with a woman already screaming at her child, I think it might have been too late for that sort of intervention.

We don't know what happens to a child at home, but it is also traumatic for a child to be abused in public and learn that either no one can be bothered to intervene, or that onlookers empathize solely with the parent.
posted by ziggly at 2:59 PM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

"What a beautiful child! You're so lucky."
posted by OmieWise at 6:17 PM on November 9, 2012

What you described happened to me when I was a kid. One time, when my parent was screaming, a stranger came up to me and asked me if I was OK, if my parent physically abused me, and if they needed to call the police. I told her that I was OK (not true) and that I wasn't being physically abused and not to call the police. To this day, I look back on that interaction as one of the most important events of my life. It was the first time it occurred to me that the way my parent treated me wasn't OK. Even though the stranger didn't stop the abuse, the fact that someone recognized it and cared and said something to me that indicated that what my parent was doing was not right was of huge benefit to me.
posted by grayber at 1:07 PM on November 10, 2012 [10 favorites]

Grayber, you have settled this for me, anyways. If I witness something like this in the future, I'll intervene.
posted by windykites at 2:46 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, reading my earlier answer, I see that I spaced and didn't include the second paragraph, which was the real point:

A friend of mine says "Let me hold them while you hit them." Makes for some interesting interactions.

You might say "It must be exhausting caring for a child with special needs! Do you ever get a break? Is there anything I can do to help? "
posted by at at 6:02 AM on November 11, 2012

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