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Dr Karen Phillip
About Dr Karen Phillip

Dr Karen Phillip is a Counselling Psychotherapist & Clinical Hypnotherapist and the Parenting and Relationship Expert on television, radio and print media both here and overseas. She is an International Author and Key Note Speaker.

Approx Reading Time-10When is discipline abuse? When do you feel that as a stranger you need to step in? We have some expert advice on how to help as a third party.


There was a recent picture that went viral on social media showing a frustrated father dragging his 6-year-old daughter around the supermarket by her hair as he held onto his shopping trolley.

A fellow female customer apparently challenged the father to release the grip on his daughter. He told her it was none of her business and he would discipline his daughter as he, the parent, felt appropriate. She snapped a photo, placed it on social media and, you can imagine the torrent of comments generated.


What should a bystander do if they feel a parent is behaving in an unacceptable way toward their child?

Parents live with their child 24/7. They know their personality, challenges and behaviours; the bystander does not. This is where many parents become offended when a stranger “butts-in”, thus the parent ignores the comments and refuses to listen. We would all likely ignore a “busy-body” trying to tell us how to raise our child. If we witness a parent hurting or humiliating a child, of course, we will wish to step in. We want to ensure that the child is protected from the dreadful behaviour of that parent who, perhaps has yet to learn better ways to manage their child’s challenging behaviours. But how do we approach a parent displaying these types of actions to their child, and is our definition of hurt and humiliation the same as theirs?


What is it a bystander wants to achieve by approaching a parent?

Most people would answer that they want the parent to wake up and understand that their treatment of their child is not appropriate. But how can a passing comment by a stranger have an effect on a parent? It can’t, can it?

Do you want to defuse the situation or escalate it? We need to defuse. How then can we step in kindly to avoid any aggression directed to us as the bystander, or toward the child who the parent is already frustrated with: there are a few ways which may assist you; remembering we do not know the family, the history or the background of the family.


  1. Quietly walk up to the parent and quietly say to them that it appears their child is giving them a hard time. This way you are not embarrassing the parent or undermining their authority while getting agreement from the parent
  2. Acknowledge their frustration
  3. Ask the parent if they need anything or if you can help them
  4. Empathise with their situation
  5. Kindly offer an alternative to the current behaviour they are displaying toward their child, e.g.: maybe your child is reacting to your anger, if you spoke quietly, they may listen better…
  6. Tell a brief story (real or invented) of a similar situation you were in and how you managed it. This way you can influence the parent positively without telling them what to do
  7. Have a solution you can offer to support the parent, not just disapproval


The last thing any parent needs is criticism. Parents need support for the difficult job that have. Simply making a passing negative comment makes it worse for the parent, the bystanders and the child. Anyone witnessing a parent struggling with their child can help in a kind and supportive way.

The best thing to have, before we say anything, is a solution for the parent. It is so easy of us to watch and judge, expecting the parent to know exactly what the right thing to do is, but if we don’t know, even though we have no emotional attachment or involvement in the situation, how can a parent find that higher ground when they are immersed in the emotion?

If a child is throwing a dreadful tantrum, perhaps the third for that morning because they can’t get what they want, the parent is doing their best not to give in and to ignore the screaming pleas, perhaps holding the child’s hand while the child continues trying to struggle away. Does a bystander have the right to demand the parent give in to the child’s demands, let the child free or whatever else the bystander demands? Of course the parent will react badly; the bystander has no idea of what is going on, the history of behaviour or frustration felt by the parent. What may assist is if the bystander applies the top 7 tips.

We all want to protect children while also wanting to support all parents. It is a thin line. Challenging a parent usually won’t work; supporting them and offering an alternative can help. Parenting is the toughest job anyone can tackle, so let’s support our parents and not continue to judge them without at least stepping up to help, empathise and understand.

As we know, parenting is like a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs, and sometimes, we just want to scream.


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