To Intervene or Not? Deciding When and How to Get Involved in Another Parent’s Situation

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

To intervene or not?We’ve all seen it – a mother losing her temper toward her child in the grocery store, or a father treating his child in a detached, ignoring or even hostile, way at the park. What should we do? What do we say? Perhaps the parent is usually loving and understanding and is just having a tough time at this moment. Or, maybe this is the parent’s standard response to his child.

For some people, they wouldn’t hesitate to intervene. Many attached parents are so passionate about children’s rights that they simply cannot turn a blind eye to another child. For others, like me, I can think of lots of reasons why not to get involved with another family’s affairs. I tend to think the best of others and believe that this moment of weakness is not characteristic of their usual parenting approach. We all have those moments when our minds are on something else, perhaps our to-do list or another stress, and we aren’t as understanding of our child as we normally are. How would I react if another parent chose that moment to criticize my parenting style?

But child advocates, such as mental health counselor and former social worker Laurie Couture, call it everyone’s duty to protect children. And we all have our breaking points – situations that would trigger us to say or do something on behalf of the child. Obviously, most of us wouldn’t hesitate to intervene should we see outright child abuse, but most situations that we’ll witness don’t qualify legally as abuse, although they may still be damaging to the child’s emotional development.

To Intervene…

The Scene: I recall a scenario between a father and his child when I was at a birthday party with my children at a local museum. The father, carrying a large load of fold-up chairs and a cooler, told his approximately four-year-old daughter that it was time to go outside for the children’s concert, but his daughter wanted to continue playing with the exhibit. He was speaking a language I didn’t know but I could see frustration in his face, and finally, he yelled something and threw the chairs down on the floor. The girl startled but did not move toward her father, and her father turned around and walked away, coming back in a few moments for the chairs and his daughter.

This is a situation I would think about intervening in had I known his language, but I would focus on the parent. Thinking about my own probable reaction if I was in his shoes, another person saying or doing anything that I would see as siding with the child would only irritate me more – and for someone who is not usually attachment-oriented, it could escalate the situation. Besides, it was the father who was obviously stressed-out. His daughter wasn’t protesting; she just wanted to play a little longer. The father could’ve been tired, had a hard day at work, had something else on his mind, or had inappropriate expectations of his daughter’s behavior.

Offering to carry the chairs or cooler would’ve been seen as helpful rather than intrusive and could’ve given the father time to readjust his expectations. As you’re helping with the chairs, you could say something empathic, such as “It’d be nice if they could have a Saturday morning concert sometime. They’re so fun to go to, but holding them in the evenings after people have just gotten off work can be tiring.” It may open up the conversation, or he may just nod or barely acknowledge your words, but perhaps it’d get him thinking about the real reason he’s irritated with his daughter. And, if you know of a local Attachment Parenting International Support Group, it’d be fitting to end the conversation with an invitation.

To Not Intervene?

There are other situations, though, that I would like to intervene in but that are so complex that it can be intimidating.

The Scene: While on vacation, I talked with a mother of a one-year-old daughter who complained bitterly of her husband and would joke that if I wanted a third child, I could take hers. The thing is, this isn’t a joke to the child who may grow up hearing these comments. I could tell by her comments about her husband, which were told in a rather loud voice so that everyone around else could hear them, too, that their marriage was struggling. When I met the man, he seemed quiet and when he spoke to his wife, she ignored him. He focused more and more of his attention on their baby.

What would you say?

The Scene: The other day at the park when a couple stopped by with their 18-month-old son to play on the swings. On the surface, they seemed to be a loving family but the longer they were there, the more uncomfortable I became. Anytime that the boy wandered away from his mother, even only a few feet, she would scoop him up and put him back on the grass near her. He wandered near the slide, where there weren’t any other kids, and she ran after him, threatening him that he better get away from that or else. The way she talked to her husband was also telling; she didn’t trust her husband to keep their son safe.

What about this situation – what would you do?

Both of these situations are enormously complex. There are major relationship issues on all levels. Saying something supportive could be construed as judgmental to the parent. Her thinking is warped; she believes that the way she is relating to her child and spouse is normal. The vacationing mother is yearning to find someone who understands what her marriage is like – how unhappy she is, that having a family isn’t what she expected it to be. The park mother is likely doing exactly what her mother did with her and her father, or perhaps she and her spouse are having a difficult time adjusting to parenthood. Approaching either of these situations as with the museum father could backfire badly, but not saying or doing something only perpetuates the situation.

My strongest tool in this situation is to be sure that I am modeling Attachment Parenting with my family and, especially with the woman I am already in conversation with, the vacation mother, to not side with her against her child or husband. I try to be a listening ear, to offer encouragement, and then to interact with the rest of her family as if there was no tension – and of course, invite them to a local API Support Group meeting. My goal is to bring the family closer, not to drive them farther apart. With the park couple, it may be the only thing I can do is to model Attachment Parenting with my family, as we didn’t get a chance to talk. But exposure to Attachment Parenting isn’t just someone telling us about it – it can be seeing something that makes us think. And by modeling Attachment Parenting with our children, we have as much power to influence other parents – and in some situations, perhaps more.

How to Intervene

Susie Walton, a parent educator with the International Network of Children and Families, emphasizes that parents need to be empathic when considering intervening with another family interaction. We should take into consideration other factors – tiredness, marital conflict, etc. – that may be playing into the parent’s behavior, and not assume that the parent is usually like this with his child. She also reminds us that in public, parents are concerned with what others think of them. Say, your child has a meltdown in the middle of a busy aisle at the grocery store and you’ve got a crowd witnessing how you’re going to deal with this situation. Anything said in judgment is the last thing you need right now.

Intervention “is about creating closeness and not proving something,” Walton said. Parents want validation and support as much as children, so providing that listening ear while offering encouragement is helpful. Think about what you’d want to hear in the same situation – someone telling you that what you’re doing isn’t right, or someone saying that they understand? Offer help to the parent. And when you’re offering suggestions on parenting, do those as nonjudgmental as possible. Talk to the person as gently as you would a friend.

I’ll give you an example from my own life. A week ago, I went to the county fair with my children and my parents. I really wanted to see some of the artwork exhibits but was getting frustrated because my children wanted to touch everything and this was strictly forbidden. Sensing my frustration, my mom said: “There’s just not that much for these kids to do in here. Let’s go get some ice cream, and you can come back this weekend without the kids and we can look at the exhibits then.” She first recognized that I was getting frustrated and then gave me my children’s perspective on the situation, before offering an alternative. It was exactly the reminder I needed, and it was offered in a supportive, nonjudgmental way.

Jan Hunt, director of The Natural Child Project and a member of API’s Advisory Board, explores this topic in her article, “Intervening on Behalf of a Child in a Public Place.” Here are a few of her tips:

  • Don’t ignore the situation – Walking away does send a message: that you don’t care!
  • Empathize – “It can be difficult to meet your child’s needs when you’re so busy.”
  • Offer help – “Can I help you get your bags in your car, or put your cart away?”
  • Offer the child something small, like a sticker, to distract him from his tiredness or boredom.
  • Consider giving a suggestion on dealing with a difficult situation, coming from your own experience – “When my child was a baby, she cried all the time. Here’s what I found that helps” or “My child throws terrible tantrums. Sometimes, this helps her to calm down.”
  • Do step in when a parent is obviously harming her child through physical or emotional abuse. Adults who came from abusive homes but whose self esteem was left intact recall at least one person who stood up for them, validating that their treatment was out of line. The parent may be offended, or the parent may wake up to the effect of her behavior, but regardless of the parent’s reaction, your intervention will empower the child.

Do you intervene when you see a parent not treating her child well? How do you decide whether to intervene or not? What do you say or do to help the parent or child in the situation?

4 thoughts on “To Intervene or Not? Deciding When and How to Get Involved in Another Parent’s Situation”

  1. Thank you for addressing this important issue, and for including an excerpt from one of my articles. We have several more on this subject at .

    My son Jason and I are preparing a new collection of stories on standing up for children in public places. If you have intervened successfully on behalf of a child in public, and would like to submit your story for inclusion in the book, please send it to All contributors whose stories are used will receive a gift copy of the book.

  2. I work in retail and unfortunately see parents emotionally abuse their children all the time. Can you give me some examples of what I can say to these parents? My interation with them is usually very brief.
    For example, I may hear a parent name call. Such as “Hurry up, you are such a slow poke.” Or “No, you can’t have that candy bar. You are such a fatty already, no wonder you don’t have any friends.”
    I also see parents walking around the store with their children screaming at the top of their lungs and the parent is ignoring them. I feel so sorry for these children!

  3. This is an excellent article. I think it is a good idea for people to prepare ahead of time so that when a situation unfolds, you’re ready for it. I had a situation come and go suddenly, and to this day I wish I would have said something. I was at Target and a woman was walking by with a baby in a carseat (in the cart). The baby had that familiar sounding newborn cry and was screaming – obviously in distress. The woman did nothing – she just walked up and down the aisles in the baby area and didn’t even peek under the blanket that was draped over the top of the carseat. I wanted to stop and ask her, simply, “Do you need some help?” What stopped me was the fact that she had a friend with her. Had she been alone, I would have been more likely to try and intervene. Because she had someone already there (I assume to help), I said nothing. In retrospect, even though she had a friend, it would have been the right thing to do. The baby was *so* distressed, and I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t scooping him/her into her arms.

  4. Last week while I was in the children’s section of the library I heard a mother loudly threatening her four/five year old son that he’d BETTER start playing that computer game the RIGHT way or they would leave. After three or four rounds of this ( he was repeatedly trying to type his name), she told him she’d had enough of his goofing off and they had to leave. Rather than address her on the topic, I asked some inane question about library cataloging to try to distract her (or give her pause to think about how she was behaving) but she went right back to berating the child. She told him if he didn’t follow her , she’d leave him at the library , they’d turn off the lights, and a stranger would come to get him. The poor child put his head on the desk and moaned. Based on her cold reaction to my question, I really felt that I might be putting the child in more danger by addressing her – that maybe she would take her further ire out on him at home! Now, I really regret having failed to intervene. I have offered help to frsutrated parents in public many times, but I hesitated in the face of this woman’s big anger. Any advice for the future? I could have planted a seed……..

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