Public Child Abuse: Why and What?

Elizabeth Ann Wolfe, 38-year-old mother, was arrested after she allegedly beat her two year old daughter in a Walmart Supercenter parking lot. You can read the whole article here.

I don’t know much about this particular mother other than that she was in a Walmart in Oklahoma and probably frustrated with her child following an evening shopping trip. It is so very tragic that this mother harmed her child and it is also tragic that she likely felt overwhelmed and ill-equipped to deal with her toddler. As we await the outcome of this sad story we can open up a more global discussion about parents everywhere who get frustrated with their kids in similar circumstances. I am, of course, not condoning slapping or punching children, but we are all aware that this does happen.

Why Do You Think Parents Lose Their Cool?

There are several reasons why parents lose their cool particularly in public places. We have all witnessed this. Consider some of the reasons:

1. Parents are dragging their kids out to overstimulating environments when their kids are exhausted and should be home. They then get upset when the kids don’t behave properly. Who, I would like to know, can be expected to behave “properly” when tired, over-stimulated and likely frustrated?

2. Many parents don’t have the skills, time and/or the support to deal with competing demands. Consider the following scenario: there is a need for food and there is no one to babysit. The outcome is a tired parent and child both at risk for falling apart in different ways and together.


3. Parents often have unrealistic expectations of their little kids. They expect them to behave in more mature ways then the kids are capable of. Couple a parent with low frustration tolerance, anger control issues and unrealistic expectations and yep you have a recipe for disaster.

The summer is upon us and I am very concerned that we are going to see more incidents of depleted and angry parents hitting their kids in grocery lines, supermarket aisles etc. The kids are out of school and the heat starts to get to everyone so parents are spending more time with their kids in the wrong places. These places are often “hot” emotionally and physically.

What Should We Do If We Witness This?

1. Get help ASAP. We are a community. REMEMBER?

2. Don’t aggravate the situation by scolding the parent. Ask either store security to help or call the police. Remember that you are helping the child and the parent.


3. By all means do not walk away and assume that someone else will handle the situation. There is a tendency for people to avoid involvement because they think that someone else will get involved. As a result no one gets involved. This is known in the psychological literature as “diffusion of responsibility.”

What are your thoughts about how to intervene?