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To really help kids, don't mind your own business

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  July 29, 2012 07:38 AM

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We've all been there. 

We've been in the grocery store, or at the park or the mall or the schoolyard, and seen a parent say something to their child that made us wince. Maybe it was an insult. Maybe it was a threat. Maybe it wasn't what they said, but something about the way they ignored the child. 

And we've thought: should I say or do something? After all, we tell ourselves, they aren't hitting them or anything. Maybe we should mind our own business.

Here's what I think: we should say or do something. It could make all the difference for that child.

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a clinical report this week in the journal Pediatrics entitled "Psychological Maltreatment." In it, they talk about how children who are psychologically or emotionally maltreated--which can include things like ridiculing, insulting, terrorizing, isolating, ignoring or corrupting--are at risk for serious emotional problems. Some of these problems, such as aggression, antisocial behavior or mental illness, can be lifelong. It's especially bad when children are maltreated in the first three years of life, because the brain is still literally developing and making connections. Without nurturing, those connections can go permanently wrong.

There are a couple of important caveats, though, when it comes to intervening.

First, you want to do it in a helpful way. Saying something like, "Don't talk to your kid like that, you jerk," may make you feel better, and may even be a wake-up call to the parent--but it's more likely that it will make the parent angry and defensive and not be helpful. If you see something egregious going on you obviously need to react--you might even need to call the Department of Children and Families if you think abuse or neglect is going on (which you can do anonymously). But in most cases, a better approach is a more friendly and supportive one. 

"Parenthood is so hard sometimes, isn't it?" you might say as you offer some concrete help, like holding the crying baby so the parent can attend to the toddler, or carrying bags for them, or offering to get everyone some ice cream. We all need help sometimes. Strike up a friendship, even. It may make all the difference to the family and child.

Second, as the report points out, psychological maltreatment is more about the relationship between the parent and child than particular events. We all have bad days when we snap and say or do things we don't mean--that doesn't necessarily mean anything about our overall relationship with our children. So while intervening nicely is good, it's important to cut people slack, too.

The flip side is that there can be maltreatment going on in families that seem completely fine from the outside. Those children are much harder to help. But we can create opportunities for them to have healthy adult relationships and get support outside of the family, such as through sports and community activities--or just by opening our homes to them. So support and volunteer for youth and family activities in your town--and encourage your kids to invite their friends over. You may create a haven for someone without even knowing it.

If you ever suspect that something is going on with a child, don't try to handle it alone. Get advice from a professional, like your doctor or the school guidance counselor.

It's becoming a trite expression, but that's because it's true: it takes a village to raise a child. That's why minding our own business doesn't really make sense. Our children are our future. They are everyone's business.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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