A Family Member Spanked My Toddler: How Should I Respond?

As a parent, challenges and new experiences are a normal part of everyday reality. However, sometimes you come across situations that feel so surprising, unusual, complex, or damaging that you’re not sure the best way to react. In these situations, it’s important to reach out for help, both to ensure that you are supported and as a source of advice.

Sharing her experience on an online platform, one parent has spoken out about such an event. They shared how they had watched their mother-in-law “spank” her daughter for misbehaving. After calmly pulling the child away and explaining that this was not an acceptable way to educate a child, her mother-in-law did it again.

The mother then asked again for her to stop, and, this time, they listened, returning sometime later to apologise for their response. However, she followed the apology with the phrase, “It’s better for a kid to cry than for a mother to cry when a kid is hurt”.

The mother clarified that her daughter was spanked gently and not with the intention of causing pain. Nevertheless, she saw any spanking as a form of violence that could easily escalate in future scenarios. She emphasised that children are not the property of their parents and should be protected from such harm by adults.

Advice from an Expert

Fiona Yassin, family psychotherapist and clinical director and founder of The Wave Clinic, has offered her expert opinion on how a mother should respond to such a situation. Speaking to the Huffington Post, she empathised with the emotional response of the mother, explaining how “if we see a grandparent or family member disciplining a child in a hands-on fashion … it can be a double whammy shock.”

On the one hand, you’ve just seen your child experience frightening, aggressive, and hurtful behaviour. On the other, you have lost the security that your parents can support you in raising your child.

Moving forward, she shared some important advice. Firstly, you should avoid intensifying the situation in front of your child. However shocked, angry, or upset you may feel, it’s likely that your child is feeling frightened or scared. If they witness further conflict, it can make the circumstances even more distressing.

Keep Calm and Nurture Your Child

Yassin recommends that you stay calm and move your child to a different space, away from the place of the conflict and the person involved. Give your child care, support, and attention, so that they feel safe and loved.

While you may feel like you can guess what your child is experiencing, it’s important to pay attention to their cues and signals. Exploring your child’s feelings with them can help them to process difficult emotions such as shock or fear.

Listen to Your Child

If you weren’t present when the incident happened, it’s crucial that you listen carefully to what your child has to say. Yassin explains that when a child tells us something, it can mean that something very different has happened from how we might imagine it. You might want to ask them about their experience of the event and how it made them feel.

It’s important not to cause more hurt to your child through their recounting of events. With this in mind, you may want to sensitively and carefully ask them what they think happened, what feelings and emotions they experienced at the time, and what they think could have happened next. You should try to understand how the situation unfolded without making them feel any sense of blame or shame.

Addressing the Person Involved

After you’ve comforted your child, you can move on to addressing the person who did the spanking. It’s usually best to approach them calmly and gently.

Yassin explains that while spanking a child is never acceptable, it may be perceived as normal by someone of an older generation. Spanking used to be common practice, and they may not be aware that what they did was wrong. 

Yassin emphasises the importance of explaining to the person involved that you won’t accept or tolerate them spanking their child. It’s essential that you set boundaries, clearly laying out what is and isn’t okay for you.

You may also want to explain how you usually respond to your child’s misbehaving and discuss alternative ways to cope with such a situation.

During the conversation, you should avoid speaking with an accusatory tone and try to use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. That is, rather than telling them, “You should not spank my child”, you could say, “I do not feel that spanking my child is acceptable”, and “I do not want my child to be scared of adults”.

You want to communicate to the person involved that, in essence, you want them to have a loving relationship with your child – and that spanking will be a barrier to that. By intervening, you’re sharing with them a better way of handling misbehaviour that benefits both the child’s well-being and the relationship between them.

Fiona Yassin is the International Clinical Director at The Wave Clinic in Kuala Lumpur, working with teens, young adults and their families. Fiona is a UK registered Psychotherapist and Supervisor of Clinicians. EMDR trained and a member of EMDRIA, Fiona recognises the role of complex trauma in eating disorders and is currently developing Trauma-Focused Eating Disorder Services in Asia and the Middle East. Fiona is an International Chapter member of IAEDP, CBT-E, and RO-DBT trained. Fiona is also a Fellow of APPCH, and she loves her cats.