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‘I have a friend whose parenting is hard to watch’

I know he is under a lot of stress, but that’s not an excuse to hurt a child

Question: I have a friend whose parenting is hard to watch. I don't know am I, as a friend, allowed to interfere. He gets really upset when his son does something that is quite normal for his age, like eat dirt, take a toy from someone's hand, etc. He gets absolutely furious and yells his lungs out. He grabs his kid sometimes very harshly and I don't even want to think what he does when he's alone with his son and when nobody else is watching.

I’ve talked about this once with his wife and she seems helpless and doesn’t know what to do. He never seemed like someone who would mistreat his own son and I know his family means the world to him. I know he is under a lot of stress, but that’s not an excuse to hurt anyone, especially an innocent child. As a friend and a dad it’s just too hard to watch.

Is there something I can do?

Answer: Seeing someone shout at a child or react badly to normal child behaviour is stressful to witness, especially when it is a friend or a close family member. On the one hand, you can feel terrible that a child is being treated that way in front of you. On the other, you can have some empathy with the parent, as you know that it is easy to get overwhelmed when parenting. It is always a struggle to know how best to respond.


If you say something you can fear you could make things worse or that you will invoke the wrath of the parent towards you. You might fear you will lose a friendship or drive the person away from you. You can also fear for the child and worry about just how bad things are for them at home. You can worry that if you stay silent you are somehow colluding with the child’s treatment or even giving tacit approval – this can make you feel guilty, especially if you frequently witness the behaviour. Below are some ideas on how to respond thoughtfully in a way that could help the child and your friend:

Respond empathically

When you witness your friend’s negative reaction, first respond empathically and acknowledge his stress – “You sound a bit stressed . . . can I help in any way?” Sometimes it helps to practically intervene by suggesting a break or offering to divert the child by taking him off to play for a minute. The first goal is to find a way to de-escalate the stress and your friend’s negative reaction.

Arrange a time to talk to your friend

Try to arrange a conversation with your friend where you can discuss what is going on for him. Think through what might be the best time and place to do this. For example, it might be best to call your friend and arrange a walk/coffee when you can chat privately without his child present. Or it might be best to have this conversation immediately after an incident, when things have calmed down and the child is diverted elsewhere playing etc.

Rehearse what you might say

As it is a very delicate conversation, rehearse what you might say. You want to communicate your understanding and concern for both him and his child. For example, you might say: “You must be very stressed at the moment…you have been losing it a lot with X…what is going on for you?... I have been quite worried… I know X means the world to you.”

Anticipate a negative reaction

It is quite likely that your friend might initially react negatively when you first raise the subject. He could attack you and say you don’t understand how hard parenting can be, etc. Indeed, if you raise the conversation when he is angry with this child, he could easily redirect this anger towards you in the heat of the moment. I would suggest you try to see this as a good thing. At least the subject is out in the open and you can talk about it. Don’t react angrily back and instead listen and encourage your friend to talk more about his stress and feelings.

Offer support

Once you are talking, explore what supports might help your friend. Parenting can be very stressful and lots of parents get caught into shouting and negative ways of trying to manage children's behaviour. These negative reactions are not only ineffective and damaging to the child, but they also increase the parents' stress and make the child's behaviour worse. The good news is that there are lots of positive parenting techniques that can really make a difference, though these take time and patience to work and require the parent to be well supported and not stressed. Encourage your friend to seek parenting support, either individually, as a couple with his wife or by attending a parenting course. See,, and HSE primary care for details of supports in your area.

Offer support to his partner

You also mentioned that you were also in contact with your friend’s wife partner. If she is worried, encourage her to seek support from services herself. She could contact the family support services listed above and/or attend a parenting course and this could be a gateway for the whole family getting help.

If your friend won’t listen

It could happen that your friend won't listen to your concerns and even cut off or refuse to talk to you. In those situations, think how you might be able to reach out to him. It might work to gently persist, perhaps following up with a message of concern for him and his child. If you remain concerned, you could also consider contacting the Tusla child and family agency who have a duty to protect the welfare of children and can offer supportive services to families under stress. Before making a report you can contact a social worker (see to discuss your concerns and to decide whether a formal report is necessary and whether there are other support options that might help.