Overhearing neighbor's verbal abuse to his kids - what to do?
April 19, 2016 7:29 PM   Subscribe

I live in a nice suburb of Chicago, and our house is very close to neighbors on both sides. In the summer, when windows are open, we can occasionally hear one neighbor (male, lawyer, not that it matters really) yell and swear at his young kids, such as "Don't drop the f-ing ball again!" really mean.

Ugh, it breaks my heart and angers me to hear it, and I am sure he doesn't realize he is being overheard because he acts all nice when they are playing in the yard or in the front. As the weather gets warmer, and windows are open, I heard it again a few weeks ago, and now I am debating about what to do. It's very upsetting for me to hear, and I can't imagine how the kids must feel. 4 kids, ages newborn to 7 or 8. My husband, and 2 kids have heard it too, and also find it disturbing. My daughter has heard really loud screaming and crying (she described it as "blood-curdling") in the middle of the night, but that's not a regular thing. The swearing at them in an insulting manner is pretty frequent though. Otherwise he is nice, and the whole family is friendly; we get along very well. The kids sometimes seem fearful. The mom has been know to drop a few F bombs at the kids (2 years old, seriously), which I just find awful, but she's not nearly as mean and demeaning as the husband to them and otherwise appears as very nice and caring mom. I have no professional experience with this type of thing and not sure if talking to him directly might make it worse for the kids or maybe talk to his wife? Send an anonymous printout on the effects of verbal abuse? I have to do something. Any thoughts or experience with this?
posted by j810c to Human Relations (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Please describe "pretty frequent." A few times a day? A few times per week? Because my answer is based on something that's more often a few times a week, not a few times per hour or even per day...

You should close your windows or turn on some music when it starts? If you asked, "We try not to use explicit language, and sometimes our kids hear you and your wife dropping f-bombs."

IDK. That sounds like they are having a hard time. I'm sure it's super unpleasant, but sadly, it doesn't really rise to level of emotional abuse I think is worth going to the mat over. You should find other subtle ways to let them know you hear them. Like turning up the tv or music the minute it starts.

No. I don't think you can call children services or even approach them yourself because they have a newborn + 3 other children, all under the age of 10 years old, and their home life is likely very very stressful. It does matter your neighbor is a lawyer, btw, because he can make your life an unbridled misery if he feels threatened.

Pray they get a nanny. It sounds like they need one.
posted by jbenben at 7:48 PM on April 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

Send an anonymous printout on the effects of verbal abuse

I would suggest not doing this. Who would they think it came from? People push back even when they ask for advice, let alone unsolicited advice (and they might become subtly more hostile towards you and your family while not changing their own behavior.)

One idea that you can do if their kids are similar in age to your own children (and they get along as friends, or playmates, or whatever). Let the kids visit your place and give them positive interactions (aka interact with them without the swearing, etc.).
posted by Wolfster at 7:56 PM on April 19, 2016 [17 favorites]

Yell "What?" as if you almost heard someone talking to you from inside your own house, except also I can totally hear you, asshole.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:16 PM on April 19, 2016 [19 favorites]

I very well may have told my kids to not do some fucking thing when they were younger. Your neighbors may well yell and use profanity and then apologize and cuddle them. If you don't know them, maybe now is the time to introduce yourself and get better acquainted. I wouldn't start off with mentioning the yelling, though.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:19 PM on April 19, 2016 [8 favorites]

I think this is a bad situation, but I think you should do nothing. Essentially you are questioning their parenting style/ability and wanting to give unsolicited advice.

I think your best bet is to low-key, next time you see them after a bout of screaming tell them something along the lines of, "Hey could you keep it down a little when you are admonishing your kids. It can be heard in our house and is upsetting our kids. Thanks."
posted by AugustWest at 8:21 PM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would suggest continuing to "monitor" this situation and see how bad it is. Can you offer to babysit the kids (to give them a different experience)? Can you become closer friends with the parents? If at some point you think these kids are really suffering, you could then consider possible options.

I am in a similar situation now. My daughter's friend's mother yells at him a lot. He's a nervous wreck. Terribly indecisive. Notoriously passive aggressive at school. He often asks me whether I yell at my daughter. He's obviously trying to make some sense of the situation he's in and he's clearly struggling with it. I tell him I don't yell at my daughter and I explain to him why I don't. I tell him that if his mother is yelling at him and it makes him uncomfortable, he could try to talk to her about it. I have a lot of concern for him because my own mother yelled at me excessively and I know personally the damage it causes. And frankly I wish some other adult had intervened! I'm considering talking to his mom if I see he's really continuing to suffer a lot. But the big difference is that his mom is a friend, whereas your neighbor is a neighbor only.
posted by Dansaman at 8:32 PM on April 19, 2016 [19 favorites]

Does it get any worse than "Don't drop the fucking ball again?" Because that sounds really cranky and rude, but not necessarily abusive or insulting. I think you need to see if it goes beyond that, Your description that the kids seem "fearful" sounds like it might be you projecting.

If it does get worse, to me it sounds like this is as just as much about how it impacts you as it is about thinking this guy needs to stop being a jerk to his kids. I would say not to interfere in how this guy talks to his kids for the sake of wanting to tell him how to be a parent -- I would not drop off a lecturing pamphlet -- but if it is negatively impacting you, you could consider a note or something along the lines of, "Hey, when you scream at your kids and swear at them, everyone in the neighborhood can hear it and it's really upsetting for my kids" or whatever it is.

It might be best to deal with it in the moment. If he goes off on a rant and you can clearly here it, maybe that's the moment you go over and say you wanted to check on things because you heard a lot of yelling and were concerned. Maybe he'll get the hint that people can hear him being an asshole.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:19 PM on April 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

Gosh, I hope we're not minimizing anything here for you. I grew up very very emotionally abused, and like Dansaman mentions, I prayed for adult intervention that never came.

I have a friend right now with a few children under 10 years old + an infant. She yells a lot now and confided in me she's very embarrassed about how it comes across. The older children are acting out a lot and there's a lot of adjustments going on and it's just really really hard. About once a week during a certain stage, maybe once a month now or less that my own is 5 years old, I drop an f-bomb at home to let him know this is really really serious. Then I sit with him on the couch and explain why it's important for him not to throw his toys around or whatever. Prior to the f-bomb, I asked him 6x nicely not to do X thing, which my neighbor's did not overhear. My friend is in the same boat, but she's wrangling multiple children of different ages and when one refuses to comply, it all falls apart... My husband is learning, but he would just raise his voice from the get go and oh, how I would shut that response from him down. It still took him about 2 years to "get it."

Which is to say... Maybe we can't judge from this description? It sounds on the spectrum of "lots of small children/adjustment period." And you have children. So you know better than us what's going on?

Please update the thread because there's not enough info to go on. I'm sensitive to this issue, and it's interesting to see it from the other side now that I am a parent, and only a parent of one average behaved child. We had serious problems around the age of 4. My friend is having problems because the 7 yr old is having a total flip of personality, and it's trickling down. We both yell sharply when it gets really bad, but then comfort and talk about the issue right after.

If you are hearing long, character assassinating type rants - that's call child services time. For real.

This dad doesn't sound warm and fuzzy, so sadly I think he's being an authoritarian asshole. In this case, I really really like Lyn Never's advice!

Like I said, pray they get child care help. They definitely need it.

And might I add... I'm so so sorry your children have to hear this. It's OK to redirect your children and do stuff like call them inside when this happens next door. Have fun things to direct them to so they don't notice you are being protective. Don't make friends with the folks next door until/unless this situation resolves. Stay out of it unless there are ugly rants at 5 year olds. Know what I mean?

I really hope this helps you parse things. It's hard to understand.

Thank you for caring. I wished you had lived next door to me when I was young, but that was another time and place, when folks did not speak up at all because "disciplining" your child meant raising your voice and being excessively harsh all the time *sigh.*
posted by jbenben at 12:19 AM on April 20, 2016 [8 favorites]

It's the kind of thing that if you caught it in situ, plausibly loud right near where you are at the time, you could say 'Oh hey! An F-bomb at the kids?? We can hear you all the way over here! Are you having a bad day? Would you like some time out for a little bit?'

Stern-ish, like you mean it, yet still with a veneer of sympathy.
posted by honey-barbara at 2:17 AM on April 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

If it were me, I'd probably get my spouse to babysit and invite the mom out to the local mom's book club/parenting group the night that they are doing a discussion on Positive Parenting or a similar title, with wine after.

(Honestly, these days, I'd be terrified of confronting an angry person in the midst of their rage. That's an Everytown for Gun Safety FB story waiting to happen.)
posted by instamatic at 4:34 AM on April 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Update with more detail: Frequency is about 1-2 times per week from him, and it's not "character assassination" rants but it's more than just anger; hard to explain but it is when he is needlessly criticizing them (which he does a lot in public, without the swearing and yelling.) My kids are much older, so no concerns about them picking it up :), and I do understand the stress of parenting, totally. And, I like to swear! But not in a yelling, mean way, more just for emphasis, and not to my kids. I think the advice about letting them know I can hear them without being judgey or confrontational is the best, but any other additional feedback is welcome. Although all of us in my family find this upsetting, it helps to get confirmation from others that I am not being overly judgmental or critical of a parenting style - to me, this could be simply a bad habit with very negative consequences. And, lastly, they are both super friendly otherwise, and involved parents.
posted by j810c at 5:59 AM on April 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

You're certain the verbal abuse is directed at the kids? I read a story of neighbors overhearing a woman yelling at Haley, and thinking she was emotionally abusing her child. Haley was actually her dog. People also yell in frustration at inanimate objects sometimes. I did that yesterday.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:53 AM on April 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

You're certain the verbal abuse is directed at the kids?

My first thought was, does this coincide with the start of Cubs baseball? My dad yelled at the TV for decades.
posted by WesterbergHigh at 7:37 AM on April 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

Is there a sports event on when he starts swearing? My in laws has neighbours ask if everything was OK at home because of my FIL's yelling when he watch football (well and pretty much any other sport). He would yell things like don't drop the Fucken Ball etc.
posted by wwax at 8:27 AM on April 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

j810c: "it helps to get confirmation from others that I am not being overly judgmental or critical of a parenting style"

It is indeed harmful to children and adolescents:

The surveys revealed that when harsh verbal discipline is used during early adolescence, teens are more likely to suffer detrimental health outcomes later in life. Teens who were screamed or cursed at by 13 years old were found to suffer more depressive symptoms between ages 13 and 14 than students who were not disciplined this way. These participants were also more likely to display bad behavior in school, lie to their parents, steal, and fight.

I would intervene with the neighbor.
posted by crazy with stars at 11:14 AM on April 20, 2016

If you were my neighbor and you dropped by to let me know your concerns about how I was raising my children in my own home, you would get at least one F-bomb from me, and a not-so-pleasant invitation to get off my property.

However, if you dropped by to let me know that "hey, just wanted to make sure you are aware that we can totally hear everything that's happening in your house when all the windows are open, so I'd appreciate it if, for the sake of my kids, you'd watch your language" you'd get a mortified apology.

Short of the long rants described above or physical violence, you can't reasonably get directly involved. I mean, you could, but I doubt you'd have much success and you'd risk the kids being further abused, really.

But what you can do is get indirectly involved. Start inviting those kids over to your house. Invite them to do some weeding in your garden to make a couple of bucks. Invite them to help you do a little organizing. Or wash the car. Or the dog. When they go back home, talk about them in front of them to their parents, especially dad, in a positive way "oh, little Timmy was so helpful today! I really appreciated his (attention to detail, work ethic, pleasant attitude, etc). Thank you for letting him come over. We'd love to have him anytime."

You're doing two things there: providing a safe haven for a short while for the kids, providing a little stress relief for the overwhelmed parents, and most importantly, planting a seed in those kids' psyche that they are better than what their abusive parent(s) says they are. That's invaluable, and I speak from experience when I say those kids will remember your kindness for the rest of their lives.
posted by vignettist at 12:42 PM on April 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

Verbal abuse, which is absolutely developmentally and psychologically damaging, isn't taken seriously by CPS. Unless a child is in physical danger, i.e. being beaten or sexually assaulted, CPS won't do anything. Knowing how damaging it is to these children, I'm sure it's difficult to hear. But in my opinion there is no proper course of action here. If you say something, you'll be on their shit list, or worse, you'll be their 'enemy' and they may pull a stunt like reporting you for physical abuse that is nonexistent, as a preemptive strike so-to-speak. Because you've [hypothetically] made it clear that you think they are unfit parents, or at least that their parenting is improper, they may end up being paranoid that you might call CPS on them, so they might 'do it first.' Some people are nuts like that. These days we live in a hyper-vigilant snitch-like culture with people capturing every little thing on their smartphones and crying out about injustice everywhere they look, and commenting self-righteously about everything they observe. It makes people a bit paranoid, especially in a situation where they're being scolded for immorality. Unless you witness or hear physical abuse going on, you should stay out of it. There are millions of children being psychologically damaged every day by parents who just don't know any better, or who are damaged themselves.. it's a cycle. You can't stop it. One person's idea of tough love is another person's idea of a traumatic childhood experience. I don't think any 'soft deliveries' would help. Anything you say will be perceived as a criticism and a potential CPS threat. These patterns of explosive anger being exhibited by the father (and occasionally the mother) are heavily ingrained- only a conscious effort by these individuals (that they arrived at on their own accord) and probably extensive therapy, would truly alter the situation.
posted by Avosunspin at 1:45 PM on April 20, 2016

and echoing jbenben, the fact that this guy is a lawyer is another reason to mind one's own here. Depending on his expertise, he could absolutely pull a stunt and meddle with you. Some people have very sensitive egos.. particularly successful type A folks. You don't want to underestimate how threatening an (even warmly) delivered, "I can hear you, please be mindful" speech can be. He may immediately and astutely know that you are aware of his angry outbursts at his children.. and get pretty angry and bruised about your knowing about those moments. I would not involve myself unless it escalated and I knew for certain that the children were in harm's way.
posted by Avosunspin at 1:54 PM on April 20, 2016

I think saying something (anything) would make it worse - for you. If it's physical abuse, that's a totally different situation. But it's not, and I think this is just one of those things in life that you have to let go and be grateful you're not that way.

If you want to get to know the kids better or show them another side of things (?) then maybe you can arrange a playdate, or excursion with their family or a fun activity in your yard, like tie-dying or something.

fwiw, an angry upbringing sometimes leads to better stories in adulthood. :-)
posted by watrlily at 6:41 PM on April 20, 2016

Maybe CPS doesn't take verbal abuse seriously because it would be difficult to prove in court? Physical or sexual abuse can leave marks that can be seen. With verbal abuse, it's much more one person's word against another, unless the abuse is happening in front of witnesses. Many abusers have enough intelligence or self-control to not do that.

"Don't drop the f*ing ball again" sounds more like something one might yell at the TV during a sporting event than something a parent would yell at a child.
posted by Anne Neville at 9:05 PM on April 20, 2016

Yell "What?" as if you almost heard someone talking to you from inside your own house, except also I can totally hear you, asshole.

I'm not exactly sure what i should tell you to do/try, but do not do this. This is something i would do, and i'm someone who can be an impulsive goading asshole when i see someone acting aggressively in an insecure way.

This is escalating, and involving yourself. This is asking to be fucked with. This is the kind of stuff that incites someone to slash your tires, or come up with ways to fuck with you.

Is that your fault? No, but you're waving a flag in front of the bull. You're also not making anything any better.

I'm seriously not sure what to do here, but oh my god don't do that. This is the kind of thing i did to a neighbor once and it ended with constant landlord-assisted harassment, bags of shit smeared on my door, fucking with my car...
posted by emptythought at 2:03 PM on April 21, 2016

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