Tag Archives: suspecting child abuse

Living Empathically

A thoughtful reader responded to my Teaching Empathy to Children post with this comment:

So often I’ve seen parents making the mistakes you list at the top of the article. It’s sad because some of the children who have grown up with my own children have indeed become emotionally stymied and unhealthy. Since it takes a village to raise emotionally healthy young people, can you suggest ways in which you can intervene diplomatically and with skill when you see a situation going bad in which parents make those mistakes and lose sight of the big picture?

It’s such a great question I wanted to use it as the focus for this final post on the subject of empathy.

I’d also love to open up a conversation – I am sure there will be readers who have ideas to add. Hit the Leave a Reply link at the beginning of this post. We’d all benefit.

As a licensed therapist I’d be remiss not to note the obvious: there’s a triage to be considered in these parenting issues.

  1. Active Abuse – get involved, because the situation is out of control and the family system needs professional attention
  2. Parent out of control – get involved, because the parent has lost it and the child needs your help
  3. Child out of control – get involved, because the child has lost it and the parent needs your help

1.  Active Abuse

Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 12.13.57 PMChild abuse is taken very seriously in most countries around the world. For US readers, here’s a Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse guide, as a short handout from the government’s Child Welfare division. It’s worth a read if you’ve ever found yourself wondering  “is this abuse?” and “should I report this to someone?”

In brief,

The Definition of abuse ~ varies, but in most areas it’s along the lines of conditions that would reasonably result in harm to a child . However, to be sure, and to empower you in case you witness something that has you wondering, check the legal definition in your area. US readers can search their State’s definition of what constitutes abuse .

Who can report child abuse? ~ Anyone may report, and some people must report. Once again this varies by region but certain professionals are mandated to report child abuse and this is a comprehensive list. It includes at least –

  • social workers
  • teachers and school personnel
  • doctors, nurses and all health care workers
  • school counselors, therapists and mental health professionals
  • child care providers
  • medical examiners and coroners
  • law enforcement
  • and can include the directors, employees and volunteers at places which provide organized activities for children such as day camps, youth centers and recreation centers.

In no state it is wrong to report your suspicions of child abuse.

So, IF you have “knowledge of, or observe a child being subjected to, conditions that would reasonably result in harm to the child” (excerpted from the Mandatory Reporters publication linked above) you should call the police, or if in the USA, you can call your state-specific child abuse hotline,

If you have witnessed a nasty, vicious incident and can report it, you’ll at least feel you did something. But if you know nothing about the people involved, and can’t give names, addresses or even any static geographic area where the police could reasonably be expected to find these folks again (you’re at an airport, on a train or bus etc) you can at least take some comfort in knowing that if there is chronic abuse there is a good chance the child will be witnessed by one of the numerous mandated reporters.

2.  Parent out of control

Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 12.19.47 PM OK, so you’re right there when a parent looses it. They yell, handle the child roughly, use abusive language, make threats and even slap or swat the child, but awful as this is for the child (and for you to witness) it does not seem “bad-enough” to report to the authorities.

What can you do?

Apparently lots of folks have opinions about this, and a quick internet search brings up some pretty dismal ideas, mostly along the lines of shouting at, and shaming, the already beleaguered parent. I was horrified!

Think about it.

What’s happened?

The parent is out of control. They’ve [temporarily we hope] lost touch with their mature, capable, resourceful self. They are behaving childishly, in an unskilled, reactive and volatile way. They are – essentially – throwing a grown-up tantrum, except it’s not their parents they are throwing it for, it’s their child. Truth is, we’ve all been there! Maybe for us we’ve been fortunate enough not to loose it when we were out in public. The last thing we need at times like these is public shaming.

I’ve come across a wonderful resource for just these moments that I’d love to share, called OneKindWord. This is a public education program developed by Pennsylvania-based Family Resources  and Family Communications, thanks to Mr. Roger’s on-going legacy

With a mission to raise awareness about parent-child conflicts in public and empower people to step in helpfully when they see a stressed parent or a child who is unsafe, they offer three simple steps which go a long way to help us dump the judgment and connect empathically.

Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 12.26.35 PM

And you can download a One Kind Word Overview  as a PDF, and here’s a short Tip Sheet.

Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 12.43.25 PM

3.  Child out of control

Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 12.18.42 PM

If the parent is on their game and can handle it, great.

If not, making eye contact, saying something kind, and helping the parent keep the child safe can all make a huge different to the outcome.

Here’s another list from OneKindWord .

Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 12.30.44 PM

Living empathically can become a habit. Enjoy!


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut