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SLU Is Training People To Intervene With Empathy In Tense Parent-Child Interactions

Nancy Weaver joined Thursday's talk show.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

When news breaks about a dangerous situation, it’s natural to wonder what one might have done in a similar scenario: Tried to help? Been courageous? Perhaps made things worse?

Running into burning buildings and shielding others from active shooters may be the sort of dramatic situations that come to mind. But far subtler opportunities to intervene on behalf of fellow humans come up more regularly than one may recognize — right in the grocery checkout aisle, for example, when witnessing a tense parent-child interaction.

That’s the sort of scene Nancy Weaver and her colleagues at St. Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice have been helping others around the region visualize and then learn to respond to in positive, practical ways.

In partnership with several local organizations and through a Missouri Foundation for Health grant, Support Over Silence for KIDS trains community members, university students and hospital personnel how to “confidently defuse challenging moments between caregivers and their children in public,” bringing both empathy and thoughtful, decisive action to situations that arise.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Weaver joined host Sarah Fenske for a look at what makes this program distinct and shared useful tips for helping children and parents alike in stressful moments.

She also recounted a couple of her own attempts at intervention in recent years, describing one situation that took place at a local pizza parlor and ended up with a positive outcome for all involved. It also helped prompt the Support Over Silence for KIDS initiative.

“I came back from my pizza parlor incident, and I started asking my colleagues, you know, ‘Did I do the right thing?’ And most of the people I asked couldn’t give me an answer,” Weaver explained. “And I realized that science hadn’t yet caught up with us, and that as a behavioral science, someone who’s interested in parenting, this was something that I had an interest in.”

She added that she “really wanted to know how we create communities of people that can be supportive in ways that are not judgmental, in ways that aren’t harsh or hostile, and in ways that really helped businesses, communities, organizations be places where parents aren’t afraid to bring their children.”

The “KIDS” acronym in the training program’s title doubles as a mnemonic device to help bystanders remember various options for responding when such a moment arises. The K stands for “keep to yourself or share kind words,” the I stands for “intervene directly, the D is for “distract,” and the S is for “seek help.”

Weaver acknowledged that there can be situations where a bystander suspects actual child abuse is occuring, and that seeking professional help definitely comes to play in those cases.

“Part of the program and the training is really helping community members notice events,” she said. “We walk around in the world not noticing as much as we used to notice, and so even just being aware of what’s happening is a great first step. And of course if you’re aware, you realize that it’s escalated.”

The conversation also touched on the collective sense of judgment that so many parents feel, and Weaver noted that the purpose of the bystander training isn’t at all about offering unsolicited parenting advice.

“Parenting is a private thing, and certainly we become parents based somewhat on how we were parented — our culture, our families,” she said. “And so this program isn’t intended to tell people how to parent. And so as long as we are training our communities and our bystanders to be open and supportive and not hostile and judgmental, then we’re finding that people are very open to that kind of participation.

“An example I’ve used lately is that we train people to do CPR, for instance, right? And yet if we were called to do that, that’s not the time to give a lecture on exercise and fruits and vegetables. That’s an acute moment that needs some really supportive intervention, much like really stressful times that might happen out in public with our kids.”

To learn more about the training, visit the Support Over Silence for KIDS website.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.