How Does Child Abuse Happen, and What can be Done to Stop it?

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. The topic is one that is undoubtedly tragic. Thinking about it can be painful. As a community, we think we know what child abuse is and what it looks like. We also think we know its negative effects on children. However, I am reminded of the story seldom heard about the common root of child abuse.

How Abuse Can Happen: Billy’s Story

*Billy and I spent time together many years ago. He was in the foster care system. Billy had been living with his mother, **Tina, and five children.

He entered foster care because of Billy’s explosive anger and rage. The source of this was, at least in part, because his mother was exhausted. She was trying to provide for her family, as well as meet the demands of parenting. There were times when Tina wasn’t the mother that Billy needed. She would get angry and despite her love for him, she would lash out, and say and do things that she later regretted. Tina fell short through no lack of trying, but rather because she only had so much to give. She asked for help from the systems that touched the life of her family, but they were unable to provide enough support. As a result, she couldn’t keep her family together.

Tina: A Parent Who Was Abused, Struggling Not to Abuse

Billy’s story is not just one of child abuse, but of a mother trying desperately to avoid becoming an abuser. Having grown up in a household where physical and verbal abuse was common, Tina wanted a different experience for her children.

Tina swore to herself that her children would never feel the sting of a belt. She promised they would never feel the burn of a cigarette on their skin. Without her own parents or other family to support her, she felt very alone. She desperately wanted to show her children she loved them. However, when Billy was suspended from school for fighting, she had to resist the impulse to hit. When Billy didn’t come home until long after dark, she had to resist the impulse to hit. When Billy yelled, screamed, broke things in the home, and told her she was a horrible mother, it took all her strength not to hit him. Sometimes she wasn’t strong enough.

The problem was, she did not know what else to do. She had never been taught how to effectively discipline her children. As a result, things fell apart.

When we talk about preventing child abuse, it is not just about the obvious. It is about each one of us becoming better parents and caregivers. It is about being more attuned and responsive to the needs, both physical and emotional, of children. What can we do for ourselves, and for people like Tina and Billy?

Support Prevention Programs

It is no surprise that we learn to parent from our parents. What happens to a child raised in a neglectful or abusive environment who grows up to be a parent? What happens to that new parent who only knew abuse as the response to unwanted behaviors? Without guidance and resources, the cycle of child abuse continues. That is why it is essential to have community support and programs.

Programs that help parents learn alternatives to abusive behavior are essential. Richmond has many programs like this, including Greater Richmond SCANFamily Lifeline, and the Richmond Early Childhood Development Initiative. These programs provide safety nets to help parents be successful.

Effective and Mindful Parenting

Being aware is a key to effective parenting. Tina was aware of her own childhood trauma. This enabled her to make a choice in her parenting. We all have good and bad memories of our own parents. So too will our own children.

Mindful parenting, according to involves three key components:

  • Noticing your own feelings when you’re in conflict with your child,
  • Learning to pause before responding in anger,
  • Listening carefully to a child’s viewpoint even when disagreeing with it.

To be effective, the first component requires that the parent not be constantly in crisis mode. It also requires that the parent be able to take time to pause and breathe.

Our goal as parents has to be to empower our children to make good choices. We want them to be able to be independent when we are not around. In order for children to learn, they have to be able to make mistakes and learn from them. This is done through support. Motivating through fear will not teach kids what to do, but only what not to do.

When disciplining your child, think about the following:

  • Are you in control of yourself at this moment? How can we expect your child to be in control if you aren’t in control? Take a deep breath and be calm…
  • What was your child’s motivation in the misbehavior?
  • Help your child think through the possible consequences of the misbehavior, not just the punishment from you. Help your child understand that her behavior may result in others losing trust in her, certain relationships may end, she may find kids don’t want to play with her, or she may even get hit back if she hits a peer.
  • How can we help your child learn a new way to get that need met in an appropriate way? Talk through the alternatives that your child could have made, and weigh the pros and cons of those choices.
  • Practice the alternatives through role-play or actual practice. It is not enough to talk about the alternative, but you must actually practice it, repeatedly.
  • Reinforce good behavior by acknowledging your child when she is making good choices. Catching your child doing something good will go a lot farther than catching your child doing something bad.

How Do We Talk With Our Kids

The words that we say to our children are powerful. We as parents are the first and best teachers of our kids. As parents, we need to remember that with every word and action, we are shaping our child’s perspective of the world, including their future experience of parenting. We need to be simultaneously protector, guide, friend, teacher, doctor, police officer, judge, mentor, and playmate of our child. Most parents choose some of these roles and have a hard time flexing into others. However, our child needs us to be all of them and more. Remember that regardless of what role you are playing at any given moment, come to it with caring and compassion.

There have been many lists of important things and key phrases that children need to hear from parents. I will close with these highlights from that I like.

Don’t forget to say to your kids:

  • I like you.
  • Thank you.
  • Tell me more.
  • We all make mistakes.
  • I’m sorry.
  • What do you think?

***The names and details have been changed to protect privacy.

By John Richardson-Lauve, Director of Mental Health and Trauma and Resilience Education

John Richardson-Lauve is a licensed clinical social worker with over 20 years of experience working in community mental health. He is committed to supporting and strengthening individuals and communities that struggle with adversity. His experience includes work with chronically mentally ill adults, substance abuse, residential youth care, foster care, and outpatient mental health. He has worked with homeless veterans in New York City, in a hospice home for those with HIV in the early stages of the AIDS crisis, and six years living in a home with eight teenage girls in foster care. John is an experienced trainer, lecturer, and keynote presenter. He is the Director of Mental Health and Lead Trauma and Resilience Educator at ChildSavers. John and his wife have a nine-year-old son and together, they have worked with over 50 children in foster care in their home.

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