Mother comforting her teenage daughter. Photo courtesy of Family Resources.

We’ve all been there: You’re out in public, and someone is losing patience with their kid. At first, you’re annoyed. Then, perhaps, sympathetic—you know the feeling. Perhaps, you even remember being that kid.

But sometimes it gets ugly. The volume goes up. Threats are made. Hands are raised in anger.

What do you do?

Family Resources, an Uptown-based nonprofit that combats child abuse, offers training for this exact situation. It’s called “One Kind Word.” Often, that’s literally all it takes, they claim.

“You can do things to distract,” says Jennifer Polly, director of intervention services for Family Resources. “Like, ‘Hey, I’m looking for this item—have you seen it?’ Use compliments. ‘That’s a lovely dress she has on. Where did you get it?’ Use humor, if that’s what comes naturally.”

Often, that’s enough to cool tempers by itself, without wading too deeply into a family conflict.

“It’s not to resolve their situations in their personal life,” adds Lisa Costa, special projects coordinator for Family Resources.

“Even doing the smallest things can influence the outcome,” says Polly. “The goal is not to step in and be a savior.”

Family Resources, which began in 2000, offers One Kind Word as a workshop for organizations of all kinds. Local organizations as large as Giant Eagle and the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium have participated.

“It’s a program we developed with Family Communications, now known as the Fred Rogers Company,” says Polly. “We’ve partnered with church groups, schools, retail. It’s for anyone who’s in a high stress situation, like shopping.”

But stores aren’t the only place this can happen, of course. Polly says doctor’s offices are another common setting. “You’d think that most medical staff would be trained to handle negative interactions between patients, but they usually aren’t.”

Family Resources offers a broad array of programs besides One Kind Word, all aimed at keeping children safe and helping families deal with conflict. They have 22 locations in Western Pennsylvania, and typically help 3,500 children and families per year.

The Parent-Teen Conflict Program is one that can be particularly intensive. It includes assessments and 90 days of counseling sessions, with no limit on the number of individual sessions with the child or family. The goal is to help the family establish rules and boundaries, taking seriously the child’s fears and troubles—and listening to what’s said on both sides.

“This program has been a godsend for our family,” says Carol Wagner of Carrick. “I don’t know where we’d be without it.

“More often than not, my son and I would end up in a screaming match: ‘You’re not listening to me!’” recalls Wagner. “Truancy was a problem. Conflict with the siblings was much more extreme than what you’d usually get.”

But the Parent-Teen Conflict Program helped them find ways to work through issues “without screaming at each other,” Wagner says. They learned skills for taking a softer approach, but “still be parents.”

These are problems that aren’t always easily solved, but when you start talking—as the Parent-Teen Conflict Program and One Kind Word help people do—at least the lines of communication are open.

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.