How to Help When You See a Troubled Child


We’ve all been alerted to school shootings, children alone appearing lost, or kids acting out with insults or violence towards authority. When a tragedy perpetrated by children occurs at the school or a local place of business, citizens often witnessed the child prior to the incident noting erratic, angry, hostile, or depressive behavior but resisted taking action because they felt uncertain. If you encounter a troubled child or children acting out, you may worry about reporting them. Sometimes the child is blatantly acting out and you may fear engagement will cause physical harm to you or others in your company. In these instances, too many times we choose to ignore the circumstances, discuss the incident with a friend, and feel on edge until distracted by our own life and family events.


It's difficult to know if you’re reading too much into a situation. Might a child be in danger if you witness a rough exchange with their parent? When picking up your child at school and you notice someone sitting on the curb crying and looking forlorn, should you interact? How do you approach them? The last thing you’d want is to cause another parent’s bad day to worsen by involving an authority figure, but it’s better to be safe rather than sorry. Knowing how to address the sensitive circumstances when you see a child in trouble may save someone’s life and put your mind at ease. I have suggestions from psychologists, police officers, and child advocate experts that can help you feel more confident with getting involved.


1. Your child expresses concern about another child. Your child’s life revolves around school. If they are concerned or scared about another child, it’s important to open a dialogue with them to gather details. Being honest and asking them for information can help you discuss the situation with your child’s teacher in confidence. In all likelihood, if your child is concerned about another child, they are not alone.


2. You witness a child threatening another child. It’s important to observe the context and location where the threat was made. If on school property, most schools assign law enforcement officials to their campus. Speaking with these officials about what you witnessed can prompt them to survey cameras and enhance their presence on the school grounds. Most children who threaten others do so to more than one child. Be observant about the child’s interactions with others including how they treat animals. Children experiencing abuse at home may act out their pain by abusing animals.


3. You witness what appears to be aggressive behavior between a parent and child. Before engaging, observe to gain perspective. You may witness a screaming child being forced into their car seat, but that may not be indicative of abuse. Kids experience temper tantrums and lose control with kicking and screaming. Assessing whether the situation is dangerous to the child is important before you get involved or report an incident.


4. You see a child alone and visually upset or despondent. Talk to the child and take on the role of an observant witness. Where is the child located? Are they alone? Is the situation dangerous? Softly ask them if they are okay and if they are in a dangerous situation. The answer to these questions can help you determine if you should report the incident to authorities. Try to remember what they are wearing as well as any identifying information about them. This information is vital to authorities to protect the child. A helper must understand that their ability to assess the situation for danger is as important as a gut feeling.


It’s easy to get busy in life and focus on your own child’s education and social activities in school, but when parents are questioned after a catastrophic situation many of them report seeing and sometimes even knowing the child involved. Often, the child was a loner with few friends. However, humans have an instinctual drive for social interaction and connection. All kids want to be cared for and accepted. When you see a child that looks troubled and you feel concerned for their safety, be the person who steps up and gets involved. We all have the potential to help a troubled child be seen and heard.

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