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What is Child Abuse?
By Dr. Roger McIntire

Caught on tape hitting and punching her 4-year-old daughter, Mom X was charged with battery to a child, the local paper reported. Mom X’s lawyer said they would plead guilty and hope for mercy from the court. She could serve three years in prison.

Thank heavens the little girl is under age. If she were over 18, the sentence could be worse. And if she were under 2, the sentence for hurting a defenseless baby might be worse also. But between 2 and 18 there is a gray area, at least at first, before they get big enough to hit back.

Certainly the courts would not punish a parent for spanking a child unless the spanking left marks or bruises. Cuts and bleeding are out, and anything sexual is out. I guess the message is you can hurt them, but you can’t damage them.

Staying within the law, a parent hitting a child may satisfy his or her own frustration and may feel that justice has been served, but have we made any headway with the child? He or she would certainly learn how to mimic hitting and slapping. You could count on that coming back to haunt you.

We all face life’s daily stress. Mom X was shopping with an out of control 4-year-old who had run off twice. Before Mom “lost it,” what alternatives could we have suggested?

She could have called an early halt to a shopping trip that was getting worse by the minute: “I guess this was a mistake, we are going home.” I’m sure Mom wishes now she had done that. She would have to drag her balking child back to the car, possibly through a crowded mall, but at least the child wouldn’t be learning the bad habit that she could act up at will on shopping trips.

Some “Get Tough” advocates would defend Mom X’s hitting, but they are on the wrong track for several reasons. First, a child faced with physical punishment becomes afraid. Learning slows and creativity stops because it’s too risky to stick your creative neck out if you might get hit for your mistakes.

Second, the hard-line approach will be, must be, inconsistent. A parent cannot, and should not, be consistent with punishment. Without the inconsistencies of warnings, threats and postponements, the rules are too inhuman. Yet with the “verbal decorations” the inconsistencies change the focus from “What’s the problem?” to “Who will win?” The game and the power struggle begin.

Third, slapping, spanking or hitting a child is, of course, insulting. They belittle the child and lower his value of himself. That’s why adults are so insulted if you try these punishments on them. The child defends himself, attempts to escape, or tries to “win” the game. Parents can “win” the power struggle, but for every winner a loser is made. And losers eventually call in absent.

But even when they lose, children imitate. Mom and Dad set the example that physical abuse is a good (used by Mom and Dad) way to deal with people.
The adult alternatives are much better. For example, if you come to my house for dinner tonight and spill your drink at the table, you don’t expect me to say: “Hey! What do you think you’re doing? You’re so clumsy! Now pay attention to what you’re doing or I’ll send you home!”

What nerve! Treating a guest like a child! What happened to “making amends?” “The benefit of the doubt?” You expect me to belittle the problem.

“I’m sorry, do you have a towel?”

“No problem, I’ll take care of it…”

We deal with our mistakes together as a third thing, not you, not me.
Ignoring is also a better alternative, but with children, it has to be used carefully because the bad behavior has been part of a habit to get entertainment or attention from Mom and Dad. The plan can backfire when the inconsistencies creep in. If the usual amount of acting up will no longer get attention, the child may increase the volume. Parents may revert to punishment for this higher level and then return to the ignoring rule later only to go back to punishment when the volume again reaches pain threshold.

To make the ignoring plan work, you need to emphasize the positive things the child does to get legitimate attention.
When bad behavior can’t be ignored and opportunities for encouragement are not enough, time-out is a good alternative. A little cooling off on a chair or in his/her room as a kind of punishment can work well if the threats and arguments are kept to a minimum.

The trick here is to keep the time-out short. A dramatic long isolation will require too many threats and arguments. But short time-outs are no big deal, and parents are more likely to be quick and consistent.

Many parents have found the act of starting the time-out, putting the child in the chair or room, is the effective part. Ten or 15 seconds is enough for two-year-odds, and one minute is enough for older pre-schoolers. The message is sent when the prompt decision is made at the count of three (or ten if they need a little more chance to do right).

Some parents won’t like these alternatives because they will not produce instant change, but then physical punishment won’t produce magic either.

The best parental strategy will include praising the good, ignoring the tolerable, and reacting with logical, mild, and consistent reprimands to the intolerable. This plan will give the children a good model to follow as well as a way to learn and still risk the creativity we all want our children to show.

Dr. McIntire is the author of Teenagers and Parents: 10 Steps to a Better Relationship and Raising Good Kids in Tough Times.

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“Hey, don’t talk to your mother like that!” can be a high moment in a family day. It’s not a happy one but the parent on the firing line gets the message she is supported and the child needs the message that the divide and conquer strategy won’t work. Parent abuse will not be tolerated.

Kevin: I’m going to watch TV now.

Mom: How about your homework?

Kevin: Later, I’ve got plenty of time.

Mom: Didn’t you say your history paper was due tomorrow?

Kevin: Mom, you don’t know anything about how long the paper will take.

Aunt Eileen: Be careful how you talk to your mother. She’s had many years of school; I think she knows.

Kevin: I’ll do it when I’m ready.

Aunt Eileen: Well, I can’t ride you over to your practice until your mother says you’re ready.

Kevin: You didn’t even know about the history paper until Mom brought it up; what do you have to do with it, anyway?

Mom: Don’t talk to your Aunt Eileen that way; she’s concerned about you, too. Now get to that paper so you can make your soccer practice.

Your best protectors are your own relatives, friends, or spouse who come to your aid when it seems parent abuse is likely. They should provide parent protection when their best friend is being mistreated, even by a child.

Jenny: Mom, tie my shoe!

Mom: Just a minute. I’m talking.

Jenny: Do it now!

Eric: (Mom’s close friend) Take it easy, Jenny, let your Mom finish.

Two adults can be stronger than one and they can provide a model to children about how the members of the family should treat each other. Eric wouldn’t let a stranger barge in and make demands of his friend at a restaurant and he’s not going to sit by when her child does it at home either.

How does the parent abuse habit get started? Of course a child’s attitude
comes from many sources, but again the relatives, friends, spouses and extended family play a role from the beginning. They can make the effort to help, or, if they don’t, they can be part of the problem.

Eric: You can’t find your keys? I can’t believe it!

Jane: Just a minute, here they are.

Eric: I swear, you would lose your head if you didn’t have …

An adult game of “I-can’t-believe-you’re-such-a-klutz!” can be easily absorbed by the kids and it’s no help to have an adult friend or relative show the children how to abuse or show disrespect for their parent.

Eric: This car needs some work.

Jane: Why don’t you take it in Monday.

Eric: Me? You’re the one who drives it most!

Jane: I have to get to work early. You just lounge around until 8:00 anyway.

Eric: Hey, that cushy job of yours…

Jane: Wait, wait, let’s get the car fixed, OK?

You may think this argument is about car repairs and who should see that it gets done. But a child listening on the sidelines doesn’t understand – doesn’t care to understand – the details of dropping a car off for repairs. As with their own conversations, children have their “antennae out” and are more interested in what the conversations say about how the people feel about each other than in the content of the conversation. They often get it wrong.

So after a simple disagreement on the car, Eric may be surprised to hear Jenny say: “You don’t like Mommy, do you?”

“What! Of course I do, whatever gave you that idea?”

The misunderstanding can be corrected, but the temptation to imitate the attitude they heard will linger on. The impression will only be corrected by future examples from you – and from the Erics and Aunt Eileens of your child’s world.

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Parents can become victims. It’s easy. You just cave in; don’t use the power you have. Instead, do what your perpetrator demands.

Children know you won’t cut them off. You won’t refuse to feed your kids, keep them warm and see that the basics are there for them. And they learn quickly that the services go a lot further than that. How about rides to school? Meals with their favorite food? Netflix account? TV? Cell phone? Ipod? Quick responses to provide rides to soccer practice? Providing spending money? (We don’t use the term “saving money” and they wouldn’t know what we meant, anyhow.)

What powers do you have? How can you reclaim them?

To reclaim your power, you don’t need to threaten to withhold these extras. Small adjustments in the availability of these perks can be effective if the connection to your child-teen’s behavior is clear.

Child-teen: “Come on, Mom. I should have been at soccer practice five minutes ago!”

Mom-as-chauffeur: “I could be quicker, but your slow reaction to the supper call flags my enthusiasm.”

C-T: “Mom, this is important. He won’t put me in the game if I don’t come to practice.  Supper is not a big deal.”

Mom: “It is to me.” Mom feels her point has been made and starts for the car. No punch line needed.

If the kids are going to retain their perks, they have to learn to cooperate in return. This happens at a nitty-gritty level as in the soccer-bound child example above, but if parents don’t insist on their rights, Mom and Dad’s welfare might be forgotten.

Often parents don’t use the power they have

If it’s time to feed the dog, you probably just do it.  The obedience class showed you that Fido could learn a lot by using his meal a reward, but often we feel, “Let’s fill his dish and get on with the day.” If we continue to fill the kids’ dish, they won’t learn much either.

Actually, once you feel like a victim, you can find some comforts in it:

1. You always have someone to blame.

2. You don’t have to change anything about yourself.

3. Whatever “it” is, it’s not your fault.

4. The news media and your congressman agree with you that kids make a lot of their own problems.

One mother told me that her son refused to do any homework until she started making all spending money and extra transportation dependent on homework finished each day. Each evening she would note his time on homework. Every 15 minutes of homework produced a quarter and a ride the next day if he needed one. No homework, no rides and no quarters. The ritual was a little inconvenient, but the school problem made it necessary.

For parents to stop playing victim in their family, they have to point out, and use, the powers they have and show the kids that fair helpfulness must go both ways. Mom could provide quick service for her son even when he refused to do homework or was nasty. But she would feel she was the victim of an inconsiderate child when she really was just avoiding her son’s flak.

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