'Help! My Mother-In-Law Smacked My Toddler'

A therapist weighs in on dealing with this tricky situation without escalating things further.
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A mother has spoken out about the shocking moment she watched her mother-in-law “spank” her toddler.

The parent acknowledged that her mother-in-law was tired and stressed when the incident happened, and her toddler had been to nursery for the first time, so was unregulated and misbehaving at home.

But while the mum held her six-month-old baby, her mother-in-law took it upon herself to spank her toddler for being naughty.

And, after being pulled up on it by the mum who calmly explained it wasn’t the way to educate her child, she then did it again.

“She got upset, said I am overreacting and left to calm down,” recalled the mother in a post on Reddit. “She then came again and said she was sorry for her reaction towards me and told me the phrase ‘it’s better for a kid to cry than for a parent to cry after a kid is hurt’.”

In a later amendment to the post, the parent clarified that the spanking in question was “hitting very gentle and lightly on the hand or bum, not with force”.

She then asked others what they’d do in this situation.

The responses were... varied. One parent wrote: “Honestly, if anyone laid a finger on my child, no matter how lightly, they’d be leaving with a crooked nose and would never see my child again.”

Another said: “Kids learn by example so your MIL [mother-in-law] showed him that when we are upset with people we use our hands instead of words and when we feel emotionally unregulated we should respond physically.

“This is a tough situation but I would tell her that she needs to respect your parenting wishes and if this happens again you will need to limit contact.”

What an expert thinks

Fiona Yassin, family psychotherapist and founder and clinical director of The Wave Clinic, says: “If we see a grandparent or family member disciplining a child in a hands on fashion ... it can be a double whammy shock.”

Firstly, because you’re dealing with the fact your own child has been hurt, frightened and had hands on them in an aggressive manner, she explains. And secondly because it destroys the feeling that your parents are going to be there to help and support you.

If this happens to you, Yassin recommends not escalating the situation in front of the child.

“No matter how shocked and disagreeing you are in the moment, a child that’s been smacked, hit or pushed is likely to be scared,” she says. “If a child hears an escalation, it can make the situation even more frightening.”

Stay calm and move your child away

Her advice in this situation is to stay calm (which can be difficult, we know), remove the child from the situation – you might want to just pick them up and take them to another room – and “nurture, care, support and fix whatever the child might be going through”.

It can be easy to assume or guess how your child might be feeling in this moment, but the therapist recommends looking to explore their feelings with them to help them process any shock or fear.

“The priority is to deal with what’s in front of us, bring the child close, put love back in where there was fear, and physically and metaphorically hold the situation,” she says.

If you didn’t witness the spanking

If a child has told you that a relative hit them, it’s important to listen to them. Yassin recommends asking them how they experienced it and ask what that means to them.

“Often when a child describes a situation it can mean something very different has happened to how we picture it,” says the therapist.

“So, without causing more injury, ask them to explain to you what they think might have happened, what they felt at that time, and what they think might have happened next. The aim here is to build a picture of the situation without blaming.”

Speaking to the family member about it

Once you’ve settled your child, now’s the time to approach the situation with the person who did the spanking and Yassin stresses “it’s really important to be gentle and calm in the approach”.

Especially as for previous generations, smacking would have been routine. What’s more, as it stands, in England and Northern Ireland it’s technically legal for a caregiver to discipline a child physically if it’s a “reasonable” punishment.

So for some it is normalised – but that doesn’t make it any more right or acceptable, says Yassin.

“It is essential to let the grandparent know that you do not agree with smacking. In order to set boundaries it’s important you outline what is and what is not OK,” explains the therapist.

“Very calmly explain to the family member that smacking is not something you accept, agree with or would accept on behalf of your family or child. Hopefully you can have a conversation about how it’s not useful or an intervention you accept.”

At this point it might be useful to explain some of the things that you do use within your family.

“When speaking with a grandparent or family member, stay away from accusatory ‘you’ statements and instead use ‘I’ statements,” she continues. For example you might say: ‘I do not feel smacking is acceptable in my family and I want to protect my child against feeling fearful of adults.’

She concludes: “Explain to the family member that you want your child to have a loving relationship with them and that you do not want them to be fearful, angry or resentful – you’re showing them the benefit of doing things in a different way.”