Is This Child Abuse?

Dear MamasOnCall,

How do I deal with a brother-in-law who disciplines his kids in a way that I think is abusive? He screams and yells right in their faces when he is mad at them, slaps them hard when they “misbehave” and says mean and humiliating things about them when they are standing right there. Practically anything they do is misbehaving according to him and they seem to be in trouble all the time. They are nervous whenever I see them and really hyper. This is my sister’s second marriage and she doesn’t seem to get it at all. She is so into him but I think he is way off base. And he drinks a lot, too. The kids are only 5 and 6.

Worried in Florida

Dear Worried,

Your gut is right. This is abusive behavior and you are absolutely right to be concerned. I am too. If you have talked to your sister, shared your concerns and nothing has changed, you should consider calling Child Protective Services to make a report. If you are worried about how she may react, you can do it anonymously. I’m assuming their biological father either doesn’t know what’s going on, or is out of the picture. But if he doesn’t know, he should.

Just remember: children who are being abused have no power at all in the situation. They have no voice and are helpless to stop it, especially when they are so little. The long-term effects of abuse of this kind are enormous and the only hope your nephews have is that some adult in their life (you?) will do something to protect them. You are their aunt, know what’s going on, and as tough as it might be, have an obligation to act on their behalf.

I totally get that it might be difficult or even frightening for you to take action. But if you don’t, the situation is likely to get worse, especially since a drinking problem may be involved, too. Try talking seriously to your sister once more, right away. Explain your concerns and let her know that she is responsible for what is happening to her children. Offer to assist her in getting help for herself and her kids. Then, if she doesn’t do something fast, be strong and make the call.

Each state has their own website for Child Protective Services. To make a report in Florida, contact The Florida Department of Children and Families.

Good luck and thanks for caring.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.


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