What we can do to prevent spread of child abuse
The recent horrifying case of child abuse prominent on the front pages of our local newspapers has raised our community’s awareness about child maltreatment. The case of these two starving children is certainly a scenario that crosses the line over child abuse into torture.
Unfortunately, however, this case in not that unusual. In the United States, on a “normal” day, four children will be starved or beaten to death, usually by their “loved ones.” A greater number will be forced to engage in sexual acts or beaten unconscious (US Dept. of Health and Human Services, 1999).
Several months ago I wrote a column about how child abuse negatively affects children. As this recent local case has emerged I have been asked to describe why some people become abusive parents. And, I have also been asked what people can do to help stop child abuse.
About 1 million children each year are abused; it is a serious problem in our country. Most children who are sexually abused are molested by a parent or trusted adult. Most children who are physically abused are abused by their parent. Recent statistics suggest that as a culture we are “neglecting” neglected children, whose suffering isn’t visible but whose suffering goes just as deep. So, while “stranger danger” programs and registering sexual offenders are important, to some degree we are missing the mark by not focusing more on where abuse is mostly occurring: in peoples’ homes.
The one thing for certain that the mental health field knows is that we don’t have a good understanding of what leads some people to abuse children. The problem with this is that in order to treat or prevent something, you have to know what it is. The main thing we do know about people who physically abuse children is that they are highly stressed, usually due to financial strains, living in dismal environments, or having an abusive spouse.
Adults, who themselves were disciplined primarily by physical punishment, are more likely to rely on hitting when parenting their children. When hitting is the primary parenting tool, children become increasingly “immune” to the past level of hitting. This can lead parents to hit harder and harder, often to the point of leaving bruises, welts or other wounds.
Some parents possess limited understanding about child development or lack even basic parenting skills. For example, when their 4-year-old doesn’t clean up his or her room when asked, they see their child’s inability to do so as intentionally disrespectful and may react with abuse. A very small amount of child abusers are simply sadistic people who enjoy inflicting pain on others and seeing the fear and pain they create – children are easy targets for these sadists.
There is less known about sexual abusers. We do know that they tend to be male and to be emotionally immature, and because children are less threatening sexual objects to them than are other adults, they become victims. Although, surprisingly, many sexual abusers are married.
If a parent is abusing alcohol or drugs they are most focused on feeding their dependency, hence their children are often neglected and abused. Substance abuse lowers inhibitions so parents are more likely to react to their child’s misbehavior more severely than if the parent were sober.
What can we do to help? Prevention is the key. Research is showing that programs designed to reduce parental stress and to increase understanding of child development and parenting are successful. This information is best delivered through child development and parenting classes to junior and senior high school students, through public service announcements, and through nursing and mental health professionals who oftentimes interface with parents in high risk categories such as being poor, young, single, or otherwise highly stressed.
Prevention is substantially cheaper than waiting until some of these wounded children grow up to become perpetrators of one kind or another. Nearly 95 percent of prisoners were abused as children. The expense of prosecuting and housing these criminals is estimated to be five times higher than are good prevention and interventions programs. Please urge politicians at every level to support research, prevention and treatment of child abuse.
What makes some people who were abused as children go on to be decent or even exceptional parents? There are several key factors, but one of the most important factors is having a kind and supportive adult in their life. Coaches, teachers, neighbors and programs such as The Boys & Girls Club or Big Brothers & Big Sisters are all examples of how an adult outside the family can provide the kindness and support to a child that can change a life. Being a loving and protective relative to the children in your life is invaluable.
Keeping this in mind, I’m sure all of our thanks go out to the woman who noticed something amiss when she saw the young girl and did something about it. All too often it is easier to look away or to tell ourselves there is nothing we can do. To this woman who reported her concerns about this poor girl, thank you for reminding us that we can all help, and, what a difference we can make in the lives of others when we care enough to do so.
n Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.