In a Nutshell: To prevent physical abuse, parents need to cope with stress, learn what is considered physical abuse, and stay far away from it.
As a Child Development major, fresh out of college, I got a job that included teaching parenting classes for court-ordered parents who were guilty of child abuse. The thing that surprised me most was how nice they were and how much they seemed to love their kids. I had no idea how things could have gone so terribly wrong that they inflicted harm on their child. Then I had kids. I’d never have guessed that the same heart that overflowed with love to see that tiny newborn could be filled with such anger when the three-year-old version of that sweet baby tantrums for an hour. Or the five-year old version won’t stay in bed on the nights I’m most exhausted. Or the fourteen-year-old version asks why he has to do all the work. Now I understand why those basically nice, normal people got stuck taking court-ordered parenting classes from a smiley-faced twenty something with no children. Parenting well is hard. And sometimes, even good parents might feel like hitting their kids. My prevention plan isn’t very scientific, but I think there are three things that will help keep kids safe from physical abuse: 1) Cope with stress, 2) Know what is considered physical abuse, and 3) Stay far away from it.
1. Cope with Stress
In talking about child abuse, and physical abuse in particular, it is important for all of us to come to terms with our own issues with anger and stress. What are our triggers? How do we deal with building stress? Do we have a plan to deal with misbehavior? It is easy to adopt a brand of child discipline I call “Reflex Parenting.” That’s when the child’s behavior determines the adult’s behavior. We feed off a child’s out-of-control emotions and soak up their distress. I have such a hard time not letting reflexes take over when my kids are being little stinkers. I have to remind myself over and over again that I can make the choice to be calm even when there is a hysterical heap at my feet. Everyone handles stress differently, but all parents need to get a handle on stress so kids will be safe. Stress is part of the parenting package. If this is a problem for you, you may need to get outside help.
2. Know What is Considered Physical Abuse
Each state has different abuse laws. Some parents are confused as to what is legally considered discipline, such as spanking, and what crosses the line into physical abuse. In Idaho the law reads like this:
Abuse includes physical cruelty in excess of that required for reasonable disciplinary purposes, inflicted by a parent or other person in whom legal custody is vested. § 16-2002. [Civil Code]
Many states stipulate that harming the child’s body is the main difference between abuse and discipline, like when a parent strikes the child and leaves a welt or bruise. In general, a guideline for a legal spanking would be “open hand, no mark.”
3. Stay Far Away
I strongly believe that the best way to prevent physical abuse is to stay far away from it. There are lots of discipline strategies available for parents to choose from. For my family, we choose strict discipline…without spanking. I am so glad we don’t have to choose between being pushover parents and hitting kids. There is a wonderful middle ground without the side effects of spanking. Here are some recent posts about just a few of these alternatives:
There are dozens of reasons we choose not to spank, and I’d love to do a post just on all the spanking research, but the main reason I don’t swat is because I am too acquainted with human nature. On my worst days, there is a big gap between how I think I should act, and how I actually act. Most of us occasionally slip below standards we have set for ourselves, especially when we are stressed from other life situations, in the heat of anger, or just exhausted to tears. If spanking and hitting children when they misbehave is an acceptable standard, there is a high risk that on those especially bad days and for those especially bad behaviors, the parent will go one step below what they think is okay. They will hit too hard. When parents set a high standard of no yelling and no hitting, on the very worst days a parent may slip and lose their temper, but they are still far away from hurting their child.
So much of the battle against physical abuse is fought privately by overworked parents at the end of hard days who desperately try to remember that they are the grownup. I’ve been there, red faced and counting to 10 and back again, along with everyone else. But I feel lucky that before I even had kids, I saw the end. I saw good people who had injured their sweet children, crying their hearts out during a court-ordered parenting class. The line between child abuse and “discipline” may be hazy, but it is a line I choose to stay far away from.