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SLU to Teach Skills to Intervene When Child Discipline Crosses the Line

ST. LOUIS – You’re at the store and you see a parent hit and scream at her child.  Should you intervene?  Research shows that most people would look the other way.  In fact, experts don’t yet know the best way to handle these types of situations.

A grant to Saint Louis University from Missouri Foundation for Health will help find answers.

Nancy Weaver

Nancy Weaver, Ph.D., teaches health communications at Saint Louis University's College for Public Health and Social Justice.

“We’ve all been there. A two-year-old is kicking and screaming in the middle of the grocery store and Mom reacts with a temper.  Dad is in a hurry, forcefully tugging his child down the street,” said Nancy Weaver, Ph.D., associate professor of behavioral science and health education at Saint Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice and principal investigator for the project.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of reacting with judgment and anger, bystanders would reach out a hand of support? We just don’t know what that hand looks like at this point, but this project will help us develop and promote the most effective strategies.”

The $341,000 grant from Missouri Foundation for Health will fund a two-year pilot project that examines the effectiveness of a training program for bystanders that offers strategies on how to intervene and guidance on when to turn to authorities if they see children being treated severely. The training will be accompanied by a social media marketing campaign that reinforces messages during training and bolsters approaches for bystander interventions, such as how to distract a child to assist an overwhelmed parent.

Our goal is to get bystanders to take action, and give them the confidence that they don’t have to watch in silence as children are being mistreated."

Nancy Weaver, Ph.D.

Weaver said she got the idea for bystander training from health professionals who said they were uncomfortable watching some parents interact harshly with their children in a hospital setting, yet didn’t know exactly what to do. “Hospitals and other community settings have begun to institute ‘no hit’ policies, but we really don’t yet know if those will work, if they might backfire or how to best support parents who are struggling,” Weaver said.

A total of 40 employees at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and affiliates of Family Resource Center and Safe Connections will receive the initial training, which will be guided by principles developed during fact-finding focus groups and adapted from a successful sexual violence prevention approach.

“We plan to train people in the community who have expressed a need for prevention strategies. We will address personal barriers to intervening and ask participants what types of parent/child interactions they observe most often that make them uncomfortable,” Weaver said.

“We will then teach and model how to respond safely and effectively. Our goal is for bystanders to become allies who create opportunities for parenting support.”

Each of the 40 employees will train 10 others, expanding the network of those who are equipped to address child mistreatment. They will learn to identify parenting behaviors that pose a threat to the child, connect with parents in a comfortable and non-threatening way to de-escalate the situation that doesn’t jeopardize their own or the child’s well-being, and share available resources to help parents who are overwhelmed.

“There are ways to diffuse the situation. It could be something as simple as saying, ‘It looks like you’re struggling. Going to the grocery store can be a real challenge with a toddler. Can I grab your diaper bag so you don’t have to juggle that?’” Weaver said.

“You have to understand why people parent the way they do. Parents have different philosophies about using physical punishment to discipline a child who misbehaves and different values about parenting that are shaped by personal experience and community context.  Our goal is to get bystanders to take action, and give them the confidence that they don’t have to watch in silence as children are being mistreated.”

Child mistreatment is a significant problem, Weaver noted. A recent study shows that as many as a third of U.S. children are the subject of an investigation for abuse or neglect before they turn 18.

“Evidence suggests that parents who are physically aggressive toward their child have a greater potential for child abuse. Public maltreatment is a critical opportunity for intervention,” she said.

 The Saint Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice is the only academic unit of its kind, studying social, environmental and physical influences that together determine the health and well-being of people and communities. It also is the only accredited school or college of public health among nearly 250
Catholic institutions of higher education in the United States. 

Guided by a mission of social justice and focus on finding innovative and collaborative solutions for complex health problems, the College offers nationally recognized programs in public health, social work,  health administration, applied behavior analysis, and criminology and criminal justice. 

Missouri Foundation for Health is a resource for the region, working with communities and nonprofits to generate and accelerate positive changes in health. As a catalyst for change, the Foundation improves the health of Missourians through a combination of partnership, experience, knowledge and funding.