You can help: What to do if you suspect a child is being mistreated or abused

Published 7:00 pm Thursday, March 29, 2012

(ARA) – It’s a too-common scenario: you see a parent with a toddler at the store. The toddler misbehaves and, suddenly, the parent flies into a rage and screams at the child. The reaction only causes the child to cry louder, which leads to even more yelling by the parent.

What can you do? Without knowing any of the family’s history or its struggles, is it OK to step in at all?

There is an effective way to intervene to help a child who may be in trouble, says Dr. Darlene Silvernail, a professor of psychology at South University‘s West Palm Beach, Fla. campus.

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“Approaching someone who is having troubles can feel daunting, and caution is advised,” says Silvernail. “But there are ways to help save a child from mistreatment through brief intervention techniques.”

Although Silvernail holds a Ph.D. in psychology and is a licensed mental health counselor, she says that formal training is not required to identify neglect, mistreatment or abuse – or to do something about it. “There are no prerequisites to perform these services,” she says. “Any caring human being is more than qualified.”

How do you approach the parent of a child you think may be verbally or physically at risk? Silvernail offers these suggestions:

1. Start a conversation with the parent.

“Let them know that you understand that little ones test our nerves, and while this is part of normal childhood development, it can be very stressful,” says Silvernail.

2. Avoid negative remarks or looks. These reactions are likely to increase the parent’s anger or embarrassment and make matters worse.

3. Offer the parent assistance or resources. Silvernail suggests saying something such as “Children sure can be frustrating, can’t they? Can I do anything to help?” Another approach might be to offer resources: “Are you aware that we have wonderful resources in our area?” Even if you are not an expert in local assistance organizations, you can always refer a parent to the Administration for Children and Families’ (ACF) parent hotline at 855-4APARENT (855-427-2736). The ACF is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. More no-cost resources are available at

It may be difficult to confront a parent you don’t know, but it is important to remember that you can make a difference. Far from being judgmental, a genuine offer of assistance and understanding can change the course of a family’s life.

“Remember, not all abusers are intentionally harming their children,” says Silvernail. “Many have been victims of abuse themselves, and they don’t know any other way to parent. Others may be struggling with mental health issues or a substance abuse problem.”

Silvernail has seen the results herself. She has volunteered her services with Florida’s Circuit 19 Child Abuse Prevention Planning Team and The CASTLE, an organization that promotes safe families in Florida. “I have seen parents turn themselves around with the right resources,” she says. “Sometimes all it takes is a well-placed offer of help.”

In some situations, you may not be able to offer assistance, or your offer may be dismissed by the parent. If you suspect abuse or neglect, you should report it to the Child Abuse Hotline at 800-96-ABUSE (800-962-2873).