by Gary E. Dudley, Ph.D. and Alan Brandis, Ph.D.
Child abuse is most likely to occur when a parent is angry or upset. Although physical and sexual abuse of children receives the most attention, psychological abuse is much more prevalent in this country. Using screaming and yelling as a primary discipline strategy may be looked down on by many people, but few regard it as one form of child abuse - which we believe it is. Having a parent who is drug or alcohol addicted is a less obvious form of abuse (because of the neglect of the children's physical and/or emotional needs). Such parents cannot be emotionally available to a child in the way that is necessary for his or her healthy psychological development. Children all across this country are needlessly suffering serious physical and emotional damage.
In many cases the abusive parents were also abused in their own childhoods, and have very limited ideas and skills to use in raising children. Many of today's parents were raised in homes where children were "seen and not heard," by parents who were well-intentioned but who did not discuss feelings or try to positively motivate behavior, but who used punishment and anger to effect compliance. Obedience and good manners were seen as the goals of good parenting, and we all know that "you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette," so spanking and other techniques of intimidation were justified since they seemed to make an immediate and lasting impact on the child.
Unfortunately, most parents do not consider spanking to be abusive. In fact, 95% of parents in this country believe that spanking children is OK and admit that they spank their children at least occasionally. These same parents, however, seem surprised during a consultation when we say to the child, "Do you hit your parents?" and then follow their answer with the question, "Do they hit you?" It just hasn't sunk in that spanking IS hitting.
The American Psychological Association is conducting a large scale study to attempt to assess the long-term effects of spanking. The jury is still out as to whether there are long-term negative effects. But the short-term effects are known. The overwhelming majority of parents we ask say that spanking their children does not help in the effort to control their child's behavior. They also support the observation that spanking the child does increase his or her tendency to be deceptive and tell lies!
Some parents do report that spanking is effective in reducing unwanted behaviors. But they also admit that this is because the child has become frightened of the parent. Does this constitute emotional health, and is this the basis on which you want to have a relationship with your child?
Parent Training Classes are provided by many agencies on a regular basis, for a nominal fee that covers the materials. AAPA provides services to many state and county agencies to assist in undoing the damage caused by the various forms of abuse. Our clientele comes from all socioeconomic levels and all cultural traditions.
Our psychologists also work with with the parents of our young patients, whenever possible, to assist them in developing more effective discipline approaches with fewer negative side-effects. We have found that our younger patients improve faster and maintain their improvements better when parenting strategies are improved and updated.
In cases where we suspect that child abuse has occurred, we are required by law (as are teachers, physicians, nurses, and others) to report the possibility of abuse to the state or county agencies for investigation. The prevalence of abuse, however, overwhelms the agencies' ability to fully respond in all cases, so intervention by authorities usually occurs only in cases of severe physical or sexual abuse.
We are called upon, at times, to render an opinion as to whether a child has been abused. In cases of physical abuse, there will usually be bruises, scars or fractures which can be detected by trained medical personnel. However, in cases of sexual abuse and emotional abuse, there may be no physical scars - but the child's personality and spirit will be bruised and broken. Play therapy sessions utilizing drawing, pretend activities, games, dolls or puppets can often help the child to reveal symbolically the feelings and events they cannot verbalize, and in the process healing can be facilitated. A relationship with an adult who accepts them and does not hurt them is also an important part of the healing process, as is learning to channel angry or aggressive feelings appropriately.