Dealing With Aggressive Parents

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

frowning expression

How do you deal with other parents who behave aggressively toward their children?

My son is in kindergarten and it is necessary for him to ride the school bus. My daughter and I walk with him to the bus stop each morning and wait with him. While there, the other kids play around. This is normal, and all of the kids do it. There is a mother there who screams at, yells at, and threatens her children constantly. Usually, the children are doing nothing wrong, and they completely ignore her because they are so desensitized to her.

Most of the time when she is yelling at them to “knock it off, you’ll see, you’ll see, wait until tonight!” I look at her kids and wonder what on earth they are expected to stop doing. They are just standing there!

It’s getting to the point that I just dread going to the bus stop. My kids seem confused and will often look at me when the other children are being told off for things that everyone else, including them, is doing. I am trying to be a good example, and I pointedly allow my children to do things that she is screaming at her kids for, or I gently ask them to stop if it is something they shouldn’t do, but she looks at me like I’m the crazy one!

Any advice?

 

Here’s what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Amy: It can feel disconcerting when we witness a way of parenting that we disagree with. It sounds like in this situation you face two potential challenges: deciding how to respond to the mother (if at all) and how to talk with your children about the other mom’s comments. Along with those external responses, there’s the internal experience that can be valuable to take a look at as well.

Parents generally parent they way they were parented or with the skills they have available. It’s a very unconscious, habitual, and often times reactive process for many, at least until we make it conscious and consider other ways of parenting. As a parent who has transitioned from a more authoritarian mindset to a partnership mindset (and who is still working on it as I go), I have noticed that compassion goes a long way for myself and others. This is partly because when someone who is angry is met with judgment, it will often carry them further into anger and reactivity. We all do things differently than we’d like at times. Compassion recognizes this and moves to help with love.

While it may be human to judge, we can also see judgment for what it is (a thought that may or may not be true) and choose to find what may be similar or positive about a person as well. It may be a place to start as you consider whether you would like to talk with this mom. You could offer her someone to chat with or other ideas for how to deal with the kids, or you could simply continue standing at the bus stop while not talking at all.

What do you want to model to her? What could change if you change the way you think about her? It could go like this: “Wow, she seems really frustrated. Maybe she’s doing the best she can. I wonder if she’d like to talk. Maybe if I stand near her and love my kids unconditionally as I accept her where she’s at I could somehow affect her positively. I could start by smiling at her.” A smile and a quick comment about how mornings can be such a busy/fun/interesting time could make a difference and open the door for more conversation.

While you are at home with your kids, it could be very beneficial to discuss the same things you choose to think about the parent. Notice any judgment and consider being open about the fact that while we judge, we also have the ability to transition our thoughts to be compassionate and caring. Talk about how you choose to parent, how many people may have past history that prevents them from parenting without yelling, and that you are passionate about doing your best.

Mainly, you are an example of loving parenting. Allow that to speak through you while you are out and about with your family. A loving presence does make a difference in our world, with children and adults alike.

 

Jennifer: Hello, mama! This is a very tough situation for gentle parents like yourself. I know how painful it can be to feel like you are just sitting there, watching a mother destroy her children through her words.

First, unless you know this mother well, I would not approach her and start offering unsolicited parenting advice. If she is ever abusive (verbally or physically), however, that is a different case and something you need to report. I think you are doing the right thing by modeling peaceful parenting practices. Even if she is giving you odd looks now, something you are doing might just be sinking in. It takes the human brain seeing a behavior modeled a minimum of seven times before receptors are truly open to the information. So just keep modeling a more gentle, loving, respectful approach to parenting in hopes that it hits home eventually.

As for your children’s confusion, obviously this is expected. Honesty is the best policy. There is nothing wrong with explaining to your children that every mother and father parents differently and you parent in a way that you feel is respectful of everyone. This could be a really good time to get a dialogue going about your parenting style. Have your children share what they like and don’t like about the way they have witnessed other parents parenting their children. While they may not understand why another parent would want to treat a child so harshly, they will at the very least walk away knowing that they can trust you to be fair.

One thing I believe you will want to emphasize is that your children are not doing something wrong just because another parent reprimands a child for doing the same thing. Make sure your children know that they should always come to you and ask you if a particular behavior is inside or outside the boundaries you have in your family. Help them to learn not to assume that every parent is the be-all, end-all authority. On the flip side, it will be important to discuss what sorts of behaviors are universally outside of acceptable boundaries (physical assault, bullying, name calling, stealing, and so on).

It is a harsh world out there and our children are exposed to many conflicting ideals and ways of approaching life. At the end of the day, all you can do is be there for your children, making sure that you model the behavior your family embraces as moral, ethical, and kind.

 

Moorea: I haven’t known one parent who wasn’t at least a little bit nervous about his or her parenting in public. Just as you notice the parent looking at you like you are crazy, so is that parent misguidedly showing off her strict (or just threatening) parenting out of insecurity about her parenting. In some cases it is a cultural difference, in other cases real abuse might be happening, and yet other times it is just a total clash of parenting styles.

It sounds like you are absolutely doing everything right, setting a gentle example by parenting the way you know to parent while not assuming that you will change her. The only other thing you can do in that situation is to have a chat with your own children to give them a context for her vocalizations so that they aren’t confused. You can admit that you are also befuddled and that you disagree with her parenting, but that we have to be kind to our neighbors even if we don’t understand them. You can assure them that if you saw anything that led you to believe the children were being harmed at home, you would try to get them some help.

 

Photo Credit: Stuart Miles

7 Responses to Dealing With Aggressive Parents

  1. Amy  

    I love the blend of responses here. Thank you Jennifer and Moorea. :)

  2. Janet Dubac

    Very informative post! Really helpful indeed! Thanks a lot for sharing this piece to us. I really enjoyed reading it and I learned a lot!

  3. Jennifer Shelby  

    children don’t naturally think in the context of ‘parenting’ – it’s a good place to set the seeds of empathy. Rather than teach your children that these parents are aggressive and mean, consider discussing with them the reasons that this parent might be this way. Did she work all night and she’s exhausted? Is she in pain we don’t know about? Is she constantly being yelled at by someone else and this is her release? Then take the opportunity to steer your children towards a healthier form of releasing these possible negatives they too might face one day.

  4. Julie

    Great advice. I agree. As someone who comes from a cultural background where screaming at your kids for being kids is acceptable, judgement will get you nowhere fast. In fact it may direct her anger toward you. In that case you may be left having to call the authorities for a fight you instigated. That would be counterproductive. She would see you as looking down your nose at her. Certainly not someone she would want to model or take advice from.

    I also think Jennifer, above made some extremely important points. You haven’t walked a mile in her shoes and therefor could have no clue what she has been through or may be going through now. The best thing is to treat her as an equal and continue to model patience and understanding to your children and to her. She’s human too.

  5. Michael

    Thank you all.

    You all give me hope that the world really is okay…

    Thank you for being the ones to have this conversation…

  6. Kellie Barr

    My kids and I read a lot of classic books together and corporal punishment is often in them. We have discussed several times that people used to believe that this was the best way to parent and that when I was a child, my parents would smack or spank me if they didn’t like what I was doing because they believed that was the best way to deal with it. Then I tell them that now we know there are better ways to teach children. If we were around people acting like this, I would continue the conversation to include that some people don’t know or believe yet that there are better ways to handle things.

    Another thing that sticks with me is that when I was a child, I was told all of the time that I would spank my kids or otherwise treat them as I was treated. So I make a point of telling my kids that I hope that they treat their kids even better than I treat my kids and that they are able to learn new ways to handle things that I don’t handle well.

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