Intervening with Other People's Kids

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Screaming Neighbors

Sept 1998

I wanted to share with others in the group a moral dilemma I am faced with and get their suggestions, since I think a group of other parents is an ideal group to consult.

My family has rented a small house in a nice neighborhood in the Kensington hills, and we live next door to an affluent family with a beautiful house and yard, and two beautiful children, a 10 year old girl, and an 8 year old boy.

The dilemma is that almost every morning of a school day for the past year, this woman screams at her children from around 6:30am till 7:15am. The children scream back, sob, and wail. Some of it seems to revolve around piano practice (they practice every morning starting at 7am). The problem isn't so much the noise (it is a horrible way to wake up, however). The problem is that I feel I should do something to stop the emotional abuse of these children.

I have heard from a neighbor that a previous tenant some years ago left, complaining that she couldn't take the woman's screaming at her children; at the time, the children were preschooler/toddler age. This neighbor also told me that she has heard the father being very cruel to the mother.

I don't have any evidence that anyone is physically abusing the children. And to be frank, I am afraid of the family. I don't want to talk to them about it because I am afraid of what they might do to us. The mother is obviously emotionally unstable. And they live next door to us. I realize I am being a coward.

I think it is great that in America people have personal freedom, but I don't think they should have the freedom to emotionally abuse their kids. Can someone think of a safe way to help these children?

Thanks for listening.

From: Lynn

I feel sorry for the screaming in the morning mother--it seems like getting kids off to school in the morning brings out the worst in many of us, and adding piano practice to the melange can only be symptomatic of masochism. I myself had a little hissy fit this morning because at the last minute I couldn't find my car keys....

From: Dianna

Re: screaming neighbor. Make friends with the kids and let them know that what their mother is doing is wrong. Many successful people who had abusive, physically and/or emotionally, childhoods have been asked how they could overcome that feeling of worthlessness that abuse engenders in a child. These folks stated that there was always at least one important adult in their life that confirmed their own feelings about how badly, how wrongly they were being treated by their mother or father (or both, sadly, in some cases). This validating adult thus helped to prevent the child from internalizing the abuse, and thinking that they deserved it. It kept the abusive behavior external, and a situation that the child could look forward to getting out of someday. Good luck, Dianna

From: a Mom

RE: Diana's comment on how to help the children of the abusive neighbors: She stated:Many successful people who had abusive, physically and/or emotionally, childhoods have been asked how they could overcome that feeling of worthlessness that abuse engenders in a child. These folks stated that there was always at least one important adult in their life that confirmed their own feelings about how badly, how wrongly they were being treated by their mother or father (or both, sadly, in some cases). This validating adult thus helped to prevent the child from internalizing the abuse, and thinking that they deserved it. It kept the abusive behavior external, and a situation that the child could look forward to getting out of someday.

I couldn't agree with her more. My father came from an overly strict, abusive background and perpetuated it in the house especially on me, the only daughter. My mother was just the opposite, determined to let me be what I wanted to be, as she came from a background all too similar to my dad's. I was a total rebel. When I was 12 my mom took me to her therapist once. The therapist told me in no uncertain terms that if I wanted to be me I should move away from my house as soon as possible forever, as my parents meant well but were too damaged to ever change the behavior/situation in a way that wouldn't crush my identity. I took as many units as possible through high school and went to summer school and graduated at 15, went away to college 200 miles away on scholarship, graduated at 18 and moved 3,000 miles away. Eventually we reconciled, with my core identity intact. The therapist's intervention bolstered my self-esteem enormously and gave me direction.

From: a Mom

I can very well imagine how you feel. We encountered a situation a bit worse a few years back living in another town where a nearby divorced, single mom verbally abused her elementary school child maybe once a week or more in the most ugliest screaming attacks - she would call her c---, useless b---- and more insults you ever want to hear (or she had ever been called?). We had just moved there and I was boiling so hot when we could hear her one evening across the neighborhood with our windows closed, that I was ready to jump up and shut her up for good. How to deal with that anger and the helplessness I felt? I was certainly not equipped to judge if this child would be better off without father and mother, nor did I want to be part of this mess. I was able to shut her up completely for about two weeks (I guess that is the standard length for any temporary improvement) with a typed note I slipped into her mailbox that night that read something like If we ever, ever hear you screaming at your child again like you did tonight, we will have social services investigate your behavior. Be aware - the neighborhood is watching you! I thought it would be more effective in her case to be permanently patrolled by an unknown force than giving her a chance to simply make a personal enemy. (Don't underestimate the kind of friends some people have). It never got to the point again where I felt I had to call an agency, but of course, I couldn't save the child from all the past abuse and the future misery (and that would be impossible anyhow). What I had to do was to respond in some way. I just couldn't be passive. Realizing what is within your control and what is beyond, thinking through risks and consequences is what you can do, then take action. I'm posting this anonymously because this mother got a job at UCB and who knows - if she's still around after these years - she might be reading this message. Your case does not seem that bad, but I have occasionally asked neighbors in our new neighborhood to keep to wake up after settling down for the night - and they were very responsive to that. Unless they are totally obnoxious or undesirable, I actually recommend frequent communication with your neighbors about meaningless and nice things. Then, when you have a concern, they are more apt to cooperate and it won't dominate/overshadow the entire relationship. Six nice exchanges balance one critical exchange. From: sara

Personally, I think that something has to be done to protect the emotional safety of the children who live next door to you and who start their day like this year after year.

Personal liberty of the parent does not include torturing children. I don't care if there is no physical abuse--emotional abuse can be a lot worse than physical abuse, especially since it has been an ongoing problem. It needs to be reported to a social service agency as soon as possible. It is appalling that the children have suffered this for so long, and I understand your desire not to poke your nose in someone else's business and your inner conflict caused by your concern for the children.

I don't want to sound excessively melodramatic, but I want to remind people that many of us were severely abused as children and that the hands-off attitude of the adults around them has done a lot of harm. A good high school friend of mine was raped daily by her father from the age of five until the age of 19, when she moved out of the house and eventually reported the crime to a therapist in the interest of protecting her 12-year-old sister. Our teachers had suspected the abuse, and not even the doctor who had prescribed birth control pills for her when she was a shy and nervous preteen acted on his suspicions. I hope that more and more people will do something to help victims who are too young and afraid to protect themselves. It has nothing to do with the invasion of your neighbors' privacy. It sounds as though the mother also could use some help.

Your situation sounds very unpleasant, but it isn't necessarily child abuse. In the first place, some families just yell at each other as a way of communicating, which can be pretty shocking if you come from a quieter family, but it isn't necessarily harming anyone. I have screamed at my kids loudly enough for the neighbors to hear, I admit it. Not often though. Growing up, my family viewed a big noisy argument now and then as a way to clear the air, and now that we are adults, we siblings still enjoy doing it occasionally. We are a big family, and we're close, but we are loud bordering on obnoxious. I'm notsaying yelling is for everyone - don't get me wrong - but for some people, that's just the way they operate.

It does sound like your neighbors are an unhappy bunch, but the question is whether the kids are being hurt to the point where someone outside the family needs to intervene. Just based on what you've written, I'd say no, but I don't have the whole story. If you think intervention is called for, you can set things in motion anonymously. But, if you feel pretty sure that no one is being hurt, then your main problem is the noise. I think I'd write a note to the neighbor saying something like you know that mornings are a really stressful time for families with kids, but the noise is carrying over to your house, and starting to bother you, and could they please try to be a little quieter? I don't think I would mind if someone wrote me a polite note like that. I would be embarrassed, but I'd be glad they told me instead of passing it around to all the other neighbors!

From: Roxane

Here's a suggestion for the parent concerned about the screaming neighbors. At the Solano Stroll on Sunday, I picked up a pamphlet from Parental Stress Service, Inc, and although I haven't used their service yet, they have a 7days a week/24 hr. a day hotline:

Parental Stress Service, Inc. for Alameda County 1-800-829-3777 or (510) 893-5444.

One idea would be to have them send you a brochure you could leave anonymously in the screaming neighbor's mailbox with a note saying, Thought you could use this--a concerned neighbor, thereby informing them that you're aware of the situation without identifying yourself. Also, the hotline might be useful for you, too, as they could help you identify what else might be done, and what legally constitutes abuse (or perhaps direct you to someone who can help). They also offer short-term crisis childcare for up to 72 hours, and volunteer training. I asked what type of parents call; they said all income levels and types. I've located their card next to my phone--I'm sure I'll use them on one of those bad days, sometime! (My four year old has asked 'Why?' too many time today!) It's great to know there's help a phone call away.

Best of luck, and I feel for you. It must be hard to hear that every morning. I think you're doing the right thing to look into what can be done. --Roxane


Screaming, as well as physical actions, can be considered abusive and can be reported to Child Protective Services.

From: Babil

To Dilemma--- I can think of a few ways in which you can help:

1. You could find out where the children attend school and go there to speak with a counselor about your concerns. This option of course would be reported, however, the children will be able to speak with a counselor first...and possibly the truths about the situation will be brought out. Appropriate help can be gotten from there.

2. You could make an anonymous call to the child protection agency. They keep track of how many calls they receive about a family, and act in a manner to protect the children. Contrary to what you might think, they really do try to help families stay together and work together.

3. You could talk with a family counselor, they may have some ideas or be able to intervene in some way.

I hope this helps...good luck to you and those children.


If there is no direct action to be taken, one thing you might try is to sign these neighbors up for information from various centers that specialize in domestic and child abuse -- several of them. It may be that the neighbors will be annoyed at the influx of rather pointed junk mail, but it's also possible that one of them may pick up a pamphlet and actually read it some afternoon. Certainly, if it isn't already obvious to them, they will realize that whatever is going on over there is making an impression on the people who live around them. You are clearly not the only neighbor aware of the problem! You're right to feel that _something_ should be done. Otherwise, by the time the children make the home situation known to their schools, it will probably be too late to do them much good (that seems to be the way it goes -- the truth comes out, but often not until high school and serious acting out on the part of the children, and psychological problems it will take them many years to work through). On the other hand, it doesn't sound like a situation in which the state should come take them away -- i.e. they seem to be better off than in a state home or other institution/foster setting. Great opportunity for whole-family therapy, if the parents can just see that something like that NEEDS to be done, ASAP.

Good luck, please keep us posted (otherwise, we'll worry!)

From: Mary Carol

Re: the poster whose neighbor screams at her children every single morning ... I think raised voices once in awhile is not necessarily a bad thing ... but every morning IS problematic. It is also problematic to know how to approach a parent like that (even if the poster WAS willing to talk to her) without causing more anger to be (mis)directed at the kids.

What about slipping some very short, well-written literature under her front door? Perhaps if she knows she can be heard by the neighbors, she'll at least tone it down. (She probably doesn't realize other adults can hear her.)

Alternately .. or in addition ...what about calling the counselor at the kid's school ... and asking if they can provide any support to the kids? Those kids are old enough now that the caring intervention/support of a teacher or counselor might help them keep their self-esteem intact even if their mom doesn't change. (Presumably such a call could be made without giving one's name.)

Finally, I'd suggest that the person who posted to this net go to one of the very good free UCB counselors, both for support around the stress of having such a neighbor, AND for practical, professional help in strategizing how to safely protect these kids. I think some professional advice might be helpful here. -- Mary Carol

From: a Dad

In regard to the abusive neighbor. I am concerned about all the comment about calling Child Protective Services and other intervention services. I personally would be very careful with this route. To say that one can surmise the situation inside a family by listening from outside is stretching it. What is actually happening may be very different that what we may think or guess. I think the best neighbors are those who tend their own garden and don't interfere until they know, really, what the facts are. Child Protective Service is hardly a panacea. They also can be abusive and very bureaucratic.

From: a Mom

After reading the feedback from other members on the list, I want to put in my evaluation of the situation. A report made to Social Services of Child Protective Services is not in any way a terrible stigma against the parents or a threat to family stability. Rather, it is the first step in a (much-needed) evaluation of whether the family needs help. My heart goes out to mothers who are so troubled that they scream every day. However, if I may use a medical metaphor, it is a symptom of a complicated family illness. Ideally, outside involvement will help this disease from being passed on to subsequent generations. The fact that the screaming has gone on for several years is an indicator of a high possibility of trauma to the children as well as a likely witness to the trauma the parent has herself undergone and is channeling out in a very disturbing fashion. Keeping in mind that the mother is probably suffering much emotional pain herself, it seems fair to take steps to ensure that she, as well as her children, receive counseling. The first step needn't be a state agency, but it should be clear that involvement from neighbors, potentially extending to county and state involvement, would reflect in this instance a desire to break a cycle of family suffering.

Abusive Parents

From: a Dad

RE: the anonymous comments about having another adult validate a child's feelings about abusive parents. I'm in the role of the other adult for one of my son's life-long friends and am wondering if anyone has any advice that could truly help this kid now because I think by the time he can legally separate from his mother his life will be such a mess that it'll be very unlikely he'll be able to set it right.

He was adopted as an infant and his very sweet foster dad died suddenly when he was about four. Since he was about five his mother has repeatedly told him (typically in a frenzied scream) what an awful and useless person he is. I've been a witness to these sessions, and while in recent years he's also been less than an angel in them, for a long time he simply took the abuse. She told me once before about how she'd been raised this way and how awful it had been, but of course such patterns tend to repeat despite such awareness. Now, at 15, he seems hell-bent to prove her right and has totally destroyed his chances to succeed in school without serious

The mother's solution has been to send him away to boarding school both during the school year and the summer. All the other parents around this situation agree that this is the best thing for him because it gets him out of her house, but he's now refusing to go because he wants to stay near his friends, who are for the most part good kids & decent students. Several of us parents have talked to him and suggested that he'd be best off just going to boarding school and focusing on pulling his life together, but he's steadfast in the opinion that he can turn it around here. I think he's fooling himself and have told him so. So far as I know, none of us have confronted the mother directly because we're all pretty scared of her ourselves, although recent events have some of us now chomping at the bit for the opportunity to lay into her.

The other morning at 5:30 she had him kidnapped by two huge guys (according to the kid who was spending the night and was picked up out of his bed and deposited outside) to Idaho for a wilderness experience camp for wayward kids. I can imagine the approach taken... He will then be transported to the boarding school in Maine that he was sent to this summer with the (now broken) promise that he'd be allowed to attend a local private school this year. The whole idea of having your own kid kidnapped out of his bed by a couple of thugs is repulsive to begin with, and yet I do think in the end that he's best off as far away from her as possible. So the question is, what do people think I should do? Let it lie, finally confront the mother (although I can't imagine she'd really listen), do the Dear Abby solution and send her this letter, what?

Thanks in advance to all.

From: a Mom

Re: kidnapping
parents having their children kidnapped is not uncommon - it's increasingly used as a way for parents to deal with children who have become a behavior problem in one way or another. Maybe the kid is destructive and dangerous, or maybe he just disobeys overly-strict parents and they don't want to deal with him.

There is a whole cottage industry surrounding the treatment facilities the kids are taken to. They are usually sent off to camps or schools where they receive intensive therapy or live under very strict conditions that are basically like being in prison. Sort of a new twist on sending problem children to military school. Look in the back of a magazine like Sunset that is targeted to older, upper-middle-class people and you will see lots of ads for these camps and schools, under the headings Defiant Teenager? and Teen Help. They even take insurance and offer student loans.

I read several articles in the newspaper about this over the summer. There was a case in the Bay Area of a neighbor who went to court to try to prevent a 16-year-old boy from being shipped off to one of these schools (in Jamaica) against his will. This neighbor was himself a judge, and he claimed that the boy was not a problem, but that his parents were very strict & inflexible and that the boy's only behavior problem was sometimes not obeying his parents' strict rules. This neighbor was ready to have the boy come live with his family. But he lost the case and the boy was sent off to the school. The ruling was that his parents were not harming him and so therefore they have the legal right to make decisions about their child.

Personally I think this kidnapping stuff is bizarre and abusive. The parents must have at least as many problems as the kids, to do something like this. On the other hand, I know someone who had her teenage son kidnapped and sent off to boarding school in a different state. She said that he was violent, and had had a lot of drug and alcohol problems since early teens. He had made threats of violence against his parents - they were afraid to leave him at home alone and didn't know what else to do. He went to one of these places and apparently drastically improved, grade-wise and attitude-wise and otherwise. He's back now in a regular private school, doing well. So, it just goes to show you that there are all kinds of different ways to look at this, and it is really hard to know what the right thing is.

From: Mary Carol

First ... don't give up on the kid. No matter what happens, just try to find a way to stay in touch with him ... write to him at the boarding school in Maine, if you can. You don't have to have all the answers ... SIMPLY caring, consistently caring, and not bailing out on him WILL make a difference. Even if you don't know how to help, just keep telling him you care and you believe in him. His mother is NOT telling him that (as I hear your email) AND his mother is breaking commitments to him. You have an unspoken commitment to show him that you care; don't give up; model for him an adult who will keep a commitment.

He also has some options. Now that he's out of state, it's more difficult, but if he comes back to California say, for holiday, *he* could take himself down to Social Services and ask to be legally freed from his mother and put into a foster home. To do this for someone under 18 is very difficult and I really don't know what Social Services would say to him. I don't know if they'd try to get him a place to move or try to offer counseling to him and his mom or what. But if he made such a move, on his own, the authorities would have to do something to offer some sort of intervention. Of course, he'd also run the risk of his mother just getting more angry with him, but if he feels things are bad enough, he might be ready to take that risk. He could, at a minimum, receive some free, professional advice.

I want to tell you that my sister never went to high school at all. She was a troubled teen with serious dyslexia which, in the early 60s was not diagnosed (no one knew about it) so teachers always just scolded her for not paying attention. She grew more and more despairing and left school altogether, and at 16,17,18 seemed utterly bent on self-destruction. She worked odd jobs for many years, married, had children ... and then decided that she WOULD be a good role model to her kids, WOULD get a college degree. (She also got a diagnosis of dyslexia, which helped a lot.) It took her many years of remedial work and tutoring before she was ready for serious college work, but ultimately she got her BA with honors and is almost done with her Masters.

Don't give up on your kid's friend. He may pull himself together in one year or in five, but if HE is steadfast in the opinion that he can turn it around then there is still a lot of hope for him.