Try One Kind Word

March 13, 2014

A question posed by an audience member at a recent CHOP Roundtable on youth violence had many of us saying “great question.” All of us have been there. You are in a hospital reception area, riding public transit, in line at a mall food court, or some other public gathering space. You see a parent telling a young child they are stupid or to shut up or is yanking their arm forcefully. It’s not rising to the level of “child abuse” for reporting purposes, but in your heart you know that those small, daily acts of violence can add up and have a real impact on that child’s development and well-being.

You want to intervene for that child but you don’t know how or what would be helpful.

According to roundtable panelist Joel Fein, MD, MPH who also sees this parental behavior in ED treatment rooms, our first instinct might be to firmly or angrily tell the parent what they are doing wrong or how to do it better. But we probably don’t know the context of that parent’s stressors, be they chronic, severe or both. Adding to that stress by triggering the “bad parent” feeling will not help anyone. Empathy and support usually work best.

It’s best to remain calm and empathetic in such situations. 

There is a website that provides great tips on how to be helpful and supportive to both parent and child. One Kind Word suggests that you take these steps:

  1. Stop and Recognize that this is a situation where you might be able to help. Is the parent overwhelmed, preoccupied, angry?
  2. Take a moment and get ready to step in. Do whatever you need to do to remain calm, such as a take deep breath, or smile, or think about what you might say.
  3. And then try one kind word or gesture by connecting with or distracting or assisting the child or parent.

Such words might be, “It’s not easy, is it? I remember my children doing this at that age.” Even a smile or wink lets the parent know they have your empathy and the situation may de-escalate. Perhaps you can distract them from the situation and talk about the weather or compliment them about their child. Offer to assist with cleaning up a child’s mess or to distract one child while the other is calmed down.

These kind gestures can defuse most situations, and can be easily backed away if they are received poorly. In the infrequent case where you perceive a real physical threat to the child or even to yourself, remember that you can always discretely contact the facility’s security staff or even the police. But first, consider if one kind word could make a difference.