What Leads Parents To Child Abuse

By Valerie Vance Dillon

Too often we open our daily newspaper and our eyes are assaulted by the photograph of a tiny child who has been beaten by a parent. We are horrified, angry, and we ask: How could anybody do that to a child, especially one's own? A friend recently surprised me by saying she belongs to Parents Anonymous, a support group made up of parents who have abused their children. This woman is no violent, insane villain, but a bright, loving, and sensitive Christian. At one point she became overwhelmed by life's stresses: raising small children, her husband's unemployment, a health problem, his failure to recognize her desperate cry for help, and the lack of other nearby family members who could offer support and relief.

When "Betty" (not her real name) found herself increasingly unable to control her anger and resorting to violent spankings of her children, she became frightened. She was referred by a local mental health service to Parents Anonymous. This self-help group has chapters throughout North America and it offers "hot-line" crisis intervention as well as discussions and lectures on how to raise children. Betty's story shattered many stereotypes I had about child abuse. I'd like to share some of the myths - and truths - of this problem.

Myth No. 1: Child Abuse is a New Phenomenon

No, it's been around virtually since the beginning of time. In Biblical times, there was the abandonment of girl babies and the slaughter of the innocents. A Roman father had the legal right to abandon, kill, eat, or sell his offspring. Children of all centuries have been sold into slavery and prostitution, or mutilated so as to become effective beggars

What is new is that child abuse today is against the law and increasingly is being reported to authorities. The reported figure is 300,000 cases yearly in the U.S. alone, but social scientists estimate it more accurately at one million cases.

Physical abuse is only the most common form. Dr. Edward Lenoski, a California pediatrician and leading child abuse expert, points out that less visible but equally devastating forms of abuse include:

Emotional abuse, a failure to provide adequate emotional support, love, and nurturance, or where children are verbally harassed, tormented, and ridiculed.

Physical neglect, where the child is not clothed or fed adequately, or is abandoned for short or long periods.

Sexual assault, with incest as the most common and least reported case. Molestation, he observes, leaves no physical marks but emotionally scars the child for a lifetime.

Myth No. 2: Child Abuse Happens Only Among the Poor and Uneducated.

Actually, it cuts across all classes. With more affluent families, it simply is less visible and not so likely to be reported. Parents can seek private medical treatment and a confidential relationship with the physician. If there is a disproportionate number of the poor who suffer, greater life stress and more exposure to violence are cited as the reasons.

Who abuses children? In a 1973 report to the American Public Health Association, Dr. Lenoski profiled the child abuser as "the average citizen" in the late 20s, educated above average, married, and religiously oriented. Nor were the children he or she abused "unwanted." In 90 percent of cases studied by Lenoski, parents who abused their children loved them and desired them prior to birth.

Myth No. 3: Child Abuse is the Act of a Deranged, Psychotic Individual

An estimated 10 percent of child abusers are mentally ill in the clinical sense. But the vast majority of parents who harm their children are relatively "normal" people who become violent because of past history and present circumstances. Their early years prepared them poorly for parenthood. Most often, they were abused as children and have low self-esteem.

According to a report out of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Social Welfare, only four things are necessary for a parent to abuse a child:

1) A parent, usually one who was physically or mentally abused as a child.

2) A child, generally a particular child who causes this parent special or continuous anxiety.

3) A crisis, prolonged or immediate. Child abuse is precipitated by prolonged stress such as illness, marital problems, financial difficulties, or job loss.

4) Isolation. Child abuse usually happens when parents are without family, friends, or community sources of support and assistance.

The parent may try all kinds of discipline and correction with a misbehaving child. But if these fail, and the problem still remains, parents who themselves have been exposed to violence in childhood most likely will escalate to violent methods.

Myth No. 4: Child Abuse Can be Eliminated by Strict Laws

Almost every civilized nation has laws requiring the reporting of child abuse. All 50 states in the U.S. mandate suspected cases be reported by physicians, teachers, and others who deal with children and their families. When child abuse is proven, courts usually remove children from the home and sometimes jail the offending adult. Yet, following punishment, the parents generally want and get their children back. The end result may be death to the child. Clearly, mere punishment and strict law won't solve this problem. Instead, a multi-disciplinary approach is needed, which includes community efforts to build support systems for families, better parenting education for the young and new parents, mandatory counseling and rehabilitation for offending parents, and the fostering of self-help groups.

Myth No. 5: Child Abuse is a Private Matter

While professionals legally are obliged to report suspected cases of child abuse, ordinary citizens should feel a moral obligation to become involved in the issue. But we first must become educated and rid ourselves of faulty assumptions which cause us to see the problem as existing only "out there." It may exist anywhere, including our own families.

The Midwest Parent Child Welfare Resource center at the University of Wisconsin offers these guidelines to parents, especially those who were abused as children:

1) Does one or more of my children "get on my nerves" much

or most of the time?

2) Am I treating this particular child the way my parents

treated me?

Other areas to probe are: What kinds of stress am I under and can I do anything to relieve this? Can I handle crisis without "blowing up" or taking my anger out on my child? Are there family members or friends I can call on for help or just to talk to?

If these questions suggest possible trouble, the parent should seek help as quickly as possible. Most people who abuse or neglect their children desperately want and need such help. Professionals - those in child welfare agencies. Catholic social services, mental health clinics - offer assistance on one level. Friends and family members can offer simpler yet important help: a chance to talk, an offer to babysit, a cup of coffee and a friendly word, friendship when the offender expects condemnation. To shun the offender is to further isolate him or her.

On another level, the Church also has a vital role to play. Child care and parenting courses, more comprehensive marriage preparation, development of support groups at the parish level, all can be powerful aids to parents who today must face, often alone, the stresses and demands of a complex and often anti-family society.

For Discussion or Study:

1. What are the prevalent myths about child abuse?

2. What is being done on a civic level to deal with this problem?

3. What role can the Church play to help parents in the child rearing years, and particularly to deter child abuse?

4. What can I do personally if I know of a child abuse situation?

Reprinted from Columbia Magazine, November 1982, with permission.