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Watching a parenting train wreck

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Can you say anything? Should you?

Parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world. Even the most measured, thoughtful, positive parent goes through tough times and can make not-so-great parenting choices.

Sometimes things get really stressful and we watch parents become completely dysfunctional in managing a parent-child dynamic. It’s a parenting train wreck in slow motion.

It’s a tough thing to watch an acquaintance, friend or loved one devolve into dysfunctional parenting. As subjective and personal as parenting is, and as much as we need to respect others, there are times when it becomes obvious that a family needs help. Even then, stepping in is a dicey proposition.

Families under stress

Families come under stress for many reasons: money, illness, jobs and relationships all compound. When you see a family struggling with parenting, it’s likely that parenting isn’t the only issue.

Kids in danger

If the situation is leading to kids being in unsafe and/or dangerous conditions, you must step in — but don’t do it alone. Call your local child protective services for assistance and guidance.

Can you say anything?

Beyond obviously dangerous situations, can you say anything when you think someone is making disastrous parenting choices? The answer is... maybe. It depends on who it is, and how you approach the issue — and other unknown factors. You’ve heard how only a small percentage of an iceberg is visible above the waterline? Exactly.

If it’s a family member, you may be able to work with others in the family to step in and help get the situation under control, and likewise close friends. If the parent is not close to you in this way, you probably can’t say anything at all. It may feel excruciating to watch, but it’s not your business. You have to stay out of it.

Should you say anything?

You know the adage, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should?” It applies here. Tread carefully and thoughtfully, and always consider how you would want to be treated and talked to if the situation were reversed. Think hard before you act: is it truly the best course of action for all involved? Or will you just be serving your own interests?

Prepare for consequences

Parenting is tricky in the best of times, and highly individual. If you try to intervene in another’s parenting choices, you must be prepared for strong, swift backlash; defensiveness; anger; and even a burnt bridge. Have you considered all the possible consequences for stepping in? Are you ready for that?

Parenting is a hard job, and sometimes harder than others. It’s hard enough getting back on track when our own parenting takes a detour — step carefully if you see a tough parenting dynamic in someone around you. As hard and sad as it is to watch, you might just have to let that train wreck.

Tell us

Have you ever intervened in someone else's parenting? What happened?

More on parenting stress

5 Tips for stress-less parenting
Reduce family stress with the SWEEP technique
Don’t let stress harm your children

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