Q: My wife and I live in a duplex below a divorced single mom and her 9-year-old son. He seems to split time with his father, but spends most with Mom. Several times a week, we overhear Mom shouting and swearing at her son for minor things: not wanting his hair cut, making silly noises, school-related issues. We rarely bump into her and haven’t exchanged more than simple pleasantries. She is not warm. We have never heard the son speak in the two years we’ve been neighbors. He avoids eye contact, but I can’t tell if that’s only because we are strangers.
I’ve never suspected physical abuse, but it seems like the yelling has picked up in frequency and intensity, though we may just be listening harder. My wife and I don’t have children, but the angry cursing at her son weighs on my conscience heavier and heavier.
I don’t know what course to take. I’m worried about the boy’s emotional well-being, and maybe Mom’s too. I grew up in a stressful household, and I often wished someone would intervene.
A: Then intervene, please.
Start with a call to Childhelp, 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453); it’s a child-abuse-prevention nonprofit and a good source of guidance on getting involved. You want to make sure you hit that important middle spot between ignoring a crisis and indulging a savior complex.
Depending on what you report, the Childhelp staff might recommend notifying child protective services, and if so then don’t hesitate. That’s what it’s for, to decide how to act on facts you provide.
Don’t be afraid to take small steps, too, that feel right to the unhappy child you once were. It wouldn’t be odd for a downstairs neighbor to make, say, too much pumpkin bread one day and run the extra loaf upstairs. Pumpkin bread, the universal language of giving a damn.
Or maybe you oh-shucks missed the drop-off for your office toy drive — would her boy like some Lego?
Do you have a small job for him, like walking your dog?
I don’t know your capacity for involvement, and perhaps you don’t either, thus the referral to a guiding authority. But there can be value in the kindly disruption: Sometimes an overwhelmed parent needs but a small pause to collect herself. Are you willing to become that friendly knock on the door?
Washington Post Writers Group