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Turquesa 06-22-2013 07:00 AM

I don't really know which forum is best for this issue, but I'll start here.


The other day, I was in a restaurant with my 4-yr-old and witnessed what was overtly and undeniably a woman emotionally abusing a child. She didn't scream, but enough people heard her to turn around and stare. She turned beet red and angry while scolding a little boy who was about 7. "You do NOT eat with your fingers. You use a fork. A FORK! You embarrass me, you embarrass yourself. I am SICK AND TIRED of you acting like a baby. You KNOW BETTER. Now PICK UP YOUR FORK. Ugh! I can't just can't believe you..." This went on and on and on and on as people (including me) stared appallingly at her and the poor little boy sniveled, cried, and sunk into his seat. The more he teared up, the harder she dug into him. Gee, bullying this little boy must have made her feel really strong and powerful. eyesroll.gif


Believe me, I'm not alone in thinking that this was just horrible. A lady at a table behind me exclaimed, "What a bitch!" But the angry lady, (she was either an older mom or younger grandma), either didn't hear her or ignored her.


Look, 100% of us have gotten so far at the end of the rope that we've snapped and said something stupid to our children. Hopefully, it's followed by a hug and an apology. I'm extremely compassionate toward stressed out parents because I've sooooo been there. But what I witnessed wasn't definitely wasn't impulsive snapping. I simply can't be non-judgmental in a situation like this. My heart just ached for that poor boy.


I felt the urge to do the same thing as the other restaurant patron and call the woman a bitch. But I refrained because I worried that it would make the woman lash out even harder, maybe even at the little boy. But since she was clearly making a scene, it's hard to put this situation in the nobody's-business category because she made it everybody's business.


Have you ever witnessed anything similar? What did you do? Is there an appropriate response in a situation like this?

mama amie 06-22-2013 07:08 AM

Gosh, that is a hard one. I have seen this before, and have never gotten up the gall to address the person. Usually, I see this while alone with my two littles, so it is tough to even consider addressing, as my kids would likely run off as I am trying to talk to this person. But, my experience also tells me that once someone is in that "zone", it is hard to talk to them, as they are in the throes of lizard brain and it could so easily escalate. Looking forward to hearing suggestions, as well.

One_Girl 06-22-2013 08:41 AM

I have been that mom a few times and it isn't a deliberate thing, it is a completely fed up hormonal driven thing that once started is hard to pull back from. It has also been about an issue that I am incredibly fed up with but haven't been effectively insisting on a change. There is also definitely an apology later and work on getting time for myself, reconnecting, and also on effectively making a change so the issue doesn't come up again the next time I am hormonal and it happens.

We also have discussions about anger and how it can carry us away. It isn't something I am proud of but I wouldn't judge another mom for going there based on one observance. One time every few years is about as often as I have snapped this badly.

mama amie 06-22-2013 08:51 AM

I should add that I am right there with One Girl in having my own bad days. However there have been times that what I saw was undeniably verbal abuse, unwarranted cruel remarks toward a child.

The best single statement I have thought of is " remember, this is the person who will have to care for you when you get old". It isn't harsh, judgmental, or particularly confrontational. I haven't actually used it, though.

limabean 06-22-2013 09:58 AM

I don't know, the particular quote you posted is a gray area for me. It's certainly not kind language, but I don't know that it goes all the way into abusive. It sounds like a stressed out, end-of-her-rope mom who could use a break, and who hasn't been there? I would feel bad for the boy (I hate when kids look ashamed like that, it breaks my heart), but I wouldn't assume that was the mom's typical way of interacting with him. Poor kiddo, and poor mama.

I was that mom once on an escalator with my DS. I don't know what about the situation made me snap, but he wouldn't get off the escalator properly and this horrid voice emanated from my throat, surprising me, him, and the two women behind me who gave me (deservedly) dirty looks. I was so ashamed of myself, and spent lots of time after that reflecting on the situation and taking steps to prevent it from happening again. But those two ladies don't know that -- to them I'm just that awful mom they saw one day.

dalia 06-22-2013 10:19 AM

I saw someone say something so awful to a little child once. I didn't do anything but look appalled, feel disgusted and totally helpless. I was sick to my stomach.

Obviously, I have no advice. I try not to judge as well but in my opinion this example is a little beyond what I would consider a good mom having a hard day. I don't have a seven year old yet but geez. My husband would probably slap me (not really, but he would want to and if it was him I would want to slap him too)!

mama amie 06-22-2013 10:21 AM

In my opinion, it is less the quote from the mad mom, but the way she continued "bullying" after the child grew ashamed and was crying.

Sometimes I have to use my sternest tone to get my son to hear me, and that may have been the end of her rope, last resort voice speaking. But once the behavior stops and child is in tears, it makes sense to stop, reflect, and repair- not berate, bully and antagonize. Does that seem to accurately describe the line between showing frustration and verbal abuse? It certainly can be a skinny little wimpy line to notice, if we arrnt careful.

One_Girl 06-22-2013 10:36 AM

It might seem easy to go back to calm once your child is crying but it isn't always the case. There was an NPR discussion about the physiological changes that go on during anger that was very interesing. A sudden stop from a position of fury is very very hard to force because you are working against your body which is chemically in fight mode and basically egging you on. That is part of why fights between spouses go on a lot and past stuff gets pulled up even if the fight seems to be pointless.

Yes that kind of lashing out is bullying but it isn't something that is necessarily that mother's typically way of interacting.

4evermom 06-22-2013 10:46 AM

Originally Posted by limabean View Post

I don't know, the particular quote you posted is a gray area for me. It's certainly not kind language, but I don't know that it goes all the way into abusive. It sounds like a stressed out, end-of-her-rope mom who could use a break, and who hasn't been there?

Yes, I have heard MUCH worse language at children in public... I wouldn't be happy to overhear it but I'm not sure that I'd say anything. I have told random strangers that "that is no way to talk to a child!" when I've overheard serious verbal abuse with full on cursing. And I've prayed that I wouldn't get punched in the face for it.

Turquesa 06-22-2013 11:43 AM

Since it looks like everybody draws a different line between parental frustration and all-out verbal abuse, and since I'd rather not get bogged down in a debate over whether she crossed that line, (perhaps you just had to be there), let me say this another way.

Suppose a parent crosses your own threshold, ie they behave publicly in a manner that you consider verbally abusive. What, if anything, is an appropriate response?

Mummoth 06-22-2013 12:19 PM

Usually my kid (we call him Mouth) will say something like "WOW! I'm glad she's not my mom!" before I can say anything at all. 


Once at a barbecue, a grandma was trying to force her grandchild to eat while all the other kids played, and telling the kid there weren't ingredients in the food that there were. I had made a salmon pasta salad and she was telling her it's just peppers, you like them. I was like "No, I made that it's salmon." and the grandma shooshed me. I felt so bad for the girl and my husband was like "Just let her go play with the other kids, she'll get something when she's hungry!" This girl was 8 or so, plenty old enough to know if she was hungry or not and everyone had been snacking all afternoon. But the poor kids had to 'clean her plate'. 

mama amie 06-22-2013 12:24 PM

Here's an article I just found that offers a few suggestions that are non-shaming and supportive:

starling&diesel 06-22-2013 01:09 PM

My go-to line is:


"Excuse me, is there anything I can do to help?"  Might not have anything to do with what happened, but it provides a break in the tension, and a social cue that they're acting out of the acceptable box.


Usually, the parent/caregiver snaps back, "No, thank you!" but it does work to make them aware that they're not acting in a vacuum.  And most often, that means that they shift their behaviour.

If it's blatant abuse, ie. spanking, or yelling obscenities in a shaming/blaming way, physical or verbal assault, I put on my biggest voice ... "HEY! Whoa!  What are you doing?"

And then they can tell me; either to eff off, or how their kid supposedly deserved it, or how they got carried away, or whatever.  Again, they'll at least know that I SEE them.  It either diffuses the situation, or turns the assailant's attention to me, which I can then deal with, or heck, call the cops.  I sometimes have my cell phone in hand when I confront them.

One_Girl 06-22-2013 01:17 PM

If I truly thought something was abuse I would write down a license plate number and report the incident to cps. If it was physical abuse I would call the police. I have used sympathetic phrases a few times, things like "I don't miss that age" and a friendly smile when passing in the grocery isle.

Jennyanydots 06-22-2013 02:26 PM

I really don't know what an appropriate response is. As PPs have pointed out, many of us have had moments when we've lost it and behaved in ways that can be construed as abusive.  If it were outright physical abuse... I don't know, I might have to say something, or as someone else suggested, report the incident perhaps.  Verbal... I would probably just feel very bad for the child, embarrassed for the parent, hope it is an isolated or rare occurrence in their family, and reflect on just how bad that situation looks from the outside.  That perspective has been helpful to me at times when my own kids are driving me crazy.  Also, I know that as a young mom I was often prone to losing my temper and treating DD1 ungently, and I remember the terrible guilt that followed- it helped me get ahold of myself and become a better parent.  I guess I'd hope the parent I was witnessing might go through a similar evolution if he/she were mired in an angry and abusive cycle.


Its a great question and a great topic for thought/discussion.  I guess it would have to get to the point of immediate serious endangerment before I know for sure I would intervene.  Nobody's perfect.

justmama 06-22-2013 04:07 PM

I don't think there was a way you could assist without turning the mom's anger/frustration on you.  I'm glad you see that she could have just been at the end of her rope and it's quite possible she left and int he car told her child, "hey listen, I snapped and I was wrong.  I was getting frustrated with you and it was not okay to take it out on you.  I'm sorry."    Sometimes when I see a parent in the store with a toddler who keeps taking off or mom is overwhelmed with multiple kids and I can assist, I do.  Maybe it's just even playing peek a boo for a moment iwth a toddler while mom is in the checkout lane.  I grabbed a climbing toddler at the zoo last week who was milliseconds from falling face first into a pond while mom was yelling at her in a REALLY frustrated tone from about 10ft away.   Actually two days ago I was grocery shopping with all 3 of mine and there was a mom just LAYING INTO her son for getting so messy with a muffin and making himself filthy and mashing it into a new shirt and getting it all over the floor.  I think she was more embarrassed than anything but I pushed my cart over, smiled at her, and said, " you should have seen my youngest one yesterday.  Mud.  Head to toe.  She was so proud of herself too.  lol.gif  Good thing they are only little one, huh?  I have a baby wipe in my purse, let me get it out for you."  Sometimes just commiserating with a fellow parent is enough to distract them and remind them that it's not the end of the world.  No one is judging them.  We've all been there.  In the restaurant like that, unless you are right next to them and can smile in that knowing way and make a comment about your own experiences like that, there's no much you can do.  It's not like she was beating the snot outta the kid.  And it could have been something that kid had been doing over and over and she was just really frustrated and had had a bad day.  Hopefully she handled it better later on when she cooled down and the kid had a good lesson in apologies and treating people with respect.

zenaviva 06-22-2013 04:25 PM

As much as I wish everyone treated their children (and spouse, and everyone else for that matter) with kindness and respect, I do think that it's a disservice to children who are truly abused and in need of intervention, to interpret less-than-kind (and yeah, even outright mean) comments as abuse.  It's a spectrum.  There's a difference between the definitely non-GD spanking approach (which I definitely don't advocate, but don't see as *abuse* necessarily) to people genuinely torturing their precious children, maiming them, breaking bones, scarring etc.  I think the same goes for verbal abuse.  Being sarcastic, mean, etc... Is it nice?  No.  Will it harm the child long-term?  Sadly, it's a possibility... but then again, it MAY just be an off-day for the mother and there is a big apology coming, etc.  Truly CPS can't go around taking kids from every "bitch" of a mother.  You might feel righteous about calling the authorities and reporting them, but for all you know, the family would be placed under MORE stress (a TON more stress) by being reported, and things might get worse.  Or, the child might be removed altogether, and I don't know how going to a foster home and being ripped away from all you know would necessarily be better than staying with your parents who may or may not be less-than-kind on occasion.


I am a firm believer than most people who lash out are suffering on the inside, and need compassion more than judgment.  Getting the law involved on someone else would be a last resort for me.  I would rather try to see if I could help if it was feasible.


What I would do, in an ideal situation like that, is to try to be discreet in talking to the mother.  For example, instead of walking up to their table all conspicuously, I might try to "head to the restroom" at the same time they were leaving, or something like that.  Maybe say something sympathetic, or tell them I've been there, or something.  Once I was in a store and another mother was clearly yelling at her son.  He was maybe 10-11 and clearly embarrassed.  She was going on about why he couldn't be like other people.  I said something to her about how I have that conversation with my kids every other day, and smiled.  I wasn't trying to encourage her, but it did distract her.  She started talking to me about how frustrating it was for her to have an ADHD son, and she went on to vent about how she's exhausted and his new meds aren't working, and this and that.  It was a total stranger, but it seemed she really needed to vent to someone.  I listened to her for a minute or two, and then she just sighed and apologized to her son, and went off, a lot calmer.  I ran into them a few minutes later again and they were smiling and having a good time (it seemed) by then.  I think that situation went just about perfectly - she didn't get offended, she got to vent, I think she realized that she wasn't acting "right" - and I would hope that if I ever acted like that in public, that's the sort of reaction I would get.  Someone to maybe remind me to take a step back, sympathize, etc.  It's a different situation if someone is too far gone, though, and those methods wouldn't help them.  I don't know.  It's a tough call.  I think I would rather err on the side of caution though before judging someone else's less-than-stellar parenting moments.  (Unless there was outright and undeniable abuse going on, in which case I'd consider that an emergency and would treat accordingly.)

Turquesa 06-22-2013 06:07 PM

Mama Amie and S& D had what I was looking for. Thank you! In a situation like this involving verbal abuse, a call to CPS isn't even on my radar. But you both provided some productive but compassionate responses. This woman was so volatile that I don't know that following her to "talk it over" would have been a good move. The same applies to cute, humorous, ice-breaking comments. There's definitely a time and place for those, but they only exacerbate explosive anger that this woman was showing. I guess situational context is everything.

OK, that's the topic that I wanted to address. But this thread has opened up some others.

Again, I'm not really interested in the topic of whether or not my impressions of what I witnessed are valid or whether or not it's considered "legitimate" verbal abuse. You either believe it or you don't.

I did have an interesting thought, however. What if it had been a man and his wife or girlfriend? What if he verbally tore her down, publicly humiliated her, and even revved up his efforts as she teared up and shrunk down in her chair?

Would we be having this discussion? "We shouldn't judge." "He probably had a hard day." "Well, I've heard worse." "Well, it's not like he was beating her."

Or do we have different standards that change with each victim and aggressor?

Interesting questions.

Sometimes I think that we tow a fine line between explaining someone's behavior and excusing it. I agree that this woman needs empathy and compassion. So does that little boy.

dalia 06-22-2013 06:13 PM

VERY good point. If it were a man yelling at a woman like that I would be like "OH HELL NO!" and would probably have said something. For some reason it seems like people feel they are intruding when they comment on someone's parenting.

And absolutely the little boy needed compassion. 100% agree.

zenaviva 06-22-2013 06:22 PM

For me personally, it wouldn't make a difference as to whether it was a woman or a child.  Or a grandmother or pet.  If someone is setting off my danger alert, I would treat that the same.  If there was a clear emergency, I would do SOMEthing.  If in a large group, try to stand up to the aggressor (and hope others would back me up), or call the cops, or something.  But no, I can't imagine myself interfering if there was just an uncomfortable conversation going on.  I guess it does depend on being there in the moment, and is hard to tell over the Internet and generalize.


ETA:  The point in showing compassion to the parent (in that situation) is not the end all and be all.  It's a method of diffusing the situation.  Of COURSE the child needs empathy too.  But ramping up the tension with the parent while shooting sympathetic looks to the child (or whatever) isn't going to help them in the long run...  What might help them is to help the parent calm down, step back, maybe re-evaluate their incorrect response, and let them fix it.  Hopefully.  Otherwise the parent might just take out more aggression out on them later.

Jennyanydots 06-22-2013 06:22 PM

Yes, that is a good point. However, the relationships between spouses and parents/children are very different. Even the normal commands we give our kids would not be acceptable if issued by one adult to another. For example: please sit down; stay right there; stop touching that; come back right now, etc.

zenaviva 06-22-2013 06:30 PM

I get what you're saying, sort of... but I'm not sure I agree.  It's not OK to tell a spouse to sit down, if you're polite about it?  I tell my spouse to sit down all the time.  ;)  And he does the same to me, and I don't mind.  Or I'll tell him to quiet down if he gets really loud in public, or he'll tell me to xyz, whatever.  It's not a parent-child relationship, but still.  I'm just not sure I understand your point.

dalia 06-22-2013 06:44 PM

Originally Posted by zenaviva View Post

I get what you're saying, sort of... but I'm not sure I agree.  It's not OK to tell a spouse to sit down, if you're polite about it?  I tell my spouse to sit down all the time.  wink1.gif  And he does the same to me, and I don't mind.  Or I'll tell him to quiet down if he gets really loud in public, or he'll tell me to xyz, whatever.  It's not a parent-child relationship, but still.  I'm just not sure I understand your point.

I think the difference would be the "shaming" part of it. For example if I said to my DH, "Sit down you fat idiot! You are an embarrassment to me!!" Then that would be pretty bad. But just telling him to sit down or arguing is a whole nother thing. I wouldn't interfere.

One time I was at Starbucks and the guy in front of me started being really rude and mean to the employees because their steamer wasn't working. I told him to leave them alone and that it was not their fault. It turned kinda crazy and we ended up yelling. I am not proud of that part of it but I do feel that people need to be defended. The girls were so grateful to me that one of them teared up and they gave me a free drink! I can't help but try to defend people I feel are being bullied but for some reason I feel very powerless when it comes to people mistreating children.

zenaviva 06-22-2013 06:51 PM

That, yeah, I've had happen before as well.  I've never had it get to the point of actually arguing with the customer, but I will try to say something nice to someone if I feel they're being treated unfairly.  I guess I'm not very confrontational in that way - maybe I should be! - but I would rather just say something positive to the clerk or whoever when it's my turn, to let them know that I saw what happened and that it wasn't fair to them, or what have you.

Jennyanydots 06-22-2013 07:06 PM

Originally Posted by zenaviva View Post

I get what you're saying, sort of... but I'm not sure I agree.  It's not OK to tell a spouse to sit down, if you're polite about it?  I tell my spouse to sit down all the time.  wink1.gif  And he does the same to me, and I don't mind.  Or I'll tell him to quiet down if he gets really loud in public, or he'll tell me to xyz, whatever.  It's not a parent-child relationship, but still.  I'm just not sure I understand your point.
my point is that although it is a useful perspective, the relationships are not analogous. in one relationship you're the other's equal, and in the other, you're their caregiver. I don't command my DP, and he doesn't command me. I would never dream of telling him to be quiet or sit down and my feelings would be very hurt if he did so to me.

zenaviva 06-22-2013 07:25 PM

To stir the pot a bit, let's say my DH and I are eating at the restaurant table next to yours, and you overhear DH "command" me to do something... where it doesn't register for me to be upset, but it wouldn't fly in your marriage.  Would that be perhaps distressing to you in some way, even if it wasn't to me?  Obviously, you would be able to see whether or not I was crying in the corner, so that would make a difference too, but would you perhaps judge regardless?


OP, I think we keep coming back to the idea of what is and what is not abuse because it's relevant to the nature of the discussion.  It's not just our own personal definitions of abuse that matter, but in a way, what IS the common definition of abuse.  There's a really muddled middle ground between "definitely abuse" and "definitely not abuse" and it is very hard to generalize how one would act in that sort of situation.  (Or to imagine how one would like to act in said situation - which obviously takes some courage to do so.)  If a law is being broken, that's an easy and clear-cut thing.  But yeah, it is such a difficult topic to figure out.  When should we mind our own business, just how much are we responsible to the people around us, how do we do the most good and the least harm?  I don't know how to answer these questions hypothetically, but thank you for bringing it up.  It's good food for thought.

One_Girl 06-22-2013 07:49 PM

I do think it would be different if it was an adult talking to another adult this way. They would have been asked to leave and the police may have been called if they were outside and one seemed loud or threatening. Adult relationships aren't typically as draining as the parent /child relationship so there tends to be less tolerance of disturbances that involve only adults. Adults do sometimes have really bad days and they make each other cry, deliberately or not, but that also isn't something I think is worthy of judgment unless safety is a concern.

limabean 06-22-2013 09:12 PM

Adult partners have the option of walking away. The angry partner could walk away if s/he needed a break, and the other partner could walk away if s/he felt mistreated.

Parents and children don't have that luxury -- they have to stick it out whether they're at their breaking point or not. Which is hard and sad for both parties -- the parent can't take a break to regroup when she feels herself getting out of control, and the kid can't say, "That's it, I'm outta here" if things go too far.

mama amie 06-22-2013 09:25 PM

In regards to my own relationship with my son, I have actually told him he can call us out if we're getting too "hot". Of course it is most important that we keep ourselves in check, but DH and I both lose patience a little too easily at times. I wanted to empower DS to stand up for himself when he feels others are being disrespectful or unkind. He know he can always tell us to calm down or ask why we're so mad. These statements coming from him help us remember that he is a young person, not something to be controlled or disrespected. We do the same for him when he starts losing control. I reinforce this in play situations by reminding my son and his playmates that they can and should let their boundaries be known, and to ask for help if needed.

mamarhu 06-22-2013 11:53 PM

Thank you for bringing up this interesting discussion. I too have intervened with compassion for the mom in situations like this. While I agree the kid really deserves the compassion here, helping Mom calm down and regroup seems to be the best benefit I can hope to bring about. One time, I was that out-of-control parent. I still feel justified in my anger (but not in how I expressed it). I had gone to pretty extreme lengths to set up a once in a lifetime, make-or-break opportunity for ElderSon, then 15, and he sabotaged it. Clearly, in retrospect, it was my goal for him, not his. But he could have said "no, thank you", rather than publicly humiliating me. Long story, but I made a scene as we were getting out of the car. No idea that anyone had seen it. But when we got back to the car, a stranger had left a note under my windshield wiper, saying "I know you love your son, and want the best for him. I don't know the whole story, but I do know that the way you were talking to him will only push him away, not strengthen your relationship. Please tell him you love him. That is all he really needs to hear right now." I wish I could thank the kind stranger. That was exactly what I needed to hear right then.

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