I’ve written before about the difficulties that Child Protective Services faces with combating child abuse. Now I’m going to draw on my experiences giving parenting classes to parents who have had their children removed by CPS because of abuse/neglect. Before I started that work, I used to think that parents who were abusive were abused themselves and didn’t know any better. And I believed that if you simply taught them better skills they would become better parents. Well, I now know there are several reasons why parents abuse their children, and fixing the problem is more complex than education. I’m going to go into the reasons why parents are abusive briefly, and then visit each reason in more depth later.
- Poor emotional health. Parenting is emotionally demanding. Young children’s brains are maturing and they are learning to process overwhelming emotions and sensations. Parenting requires a lot of patience. And people who are stressed and in poor emotional health do not have the reserves needed for the task. Factors that exacerbate this includes poverty, substance use, mental illness, and poor coping skills. These parents may be aware that they are abusive and may want to change, but find it hard to impossible to control their rage.
- And I was right that some people don’t know better ways. However, it goes deeper than that. A lot of people who were abused would not describe their childhoods as abusive. I had one client who talked about how his dad beat his ten year old sister up for mouthing off. I told him I was sorry he had to experience that, and my response took him by surprise. He told me his sister deserved to be beaten for mouthing off. I asked him, “who’s the adult?” and he was stunned. Most people would agree that his father was extremely abusive, but he didn’t see it that way and was surprised when I did. Further, people who grew up in abusive homes have a very strange definition of “I turned out fine.” When I had just started working with people with substance use disorders I was floored when one woman, who was fresh out of prison for a few months before she went right back, and who all six of her siblings were doing stunts in prison for violent crimes, after describing a horribly abusive practice her parents used to do, said, “And look at us, we turned out okay!” I was stunned speechless, wondering in what universe having seven children end up in prison was a definition of successful parenting. The thing is, when you’ve been to prison multiple times, and all of your friends and family have, it’s normal. And getting them to see that what their parents did was abusive is hard.
- They believe that they need to toughen their kids up because life is hard. I had just wrapped up a parenting group, and one client stayed behind to talk to me. I was surprised when he told me that life is hard, and that you have to toughen children up to face it. Here is the rub. His life was hard, and three months of counseling was not going to change that. He was absolutely right there. And pretty much everything I said was a middle class woman who didn’t have to worry about having enough gas money to get to work talking to an impoverished man who was pinching every penny. I may have book smarts, but he has street smarts. It doesn’t matter that studies show that children who are raised lovingly have better resilience, or that by being abusive to children we’re actually destroying their ability to thrive. They tend to discount those studies as taking place in a different world than theirs. In their world, life if hard, and the sooner their kids are broken into that reality, the better. And the frustrating thing with this one, is that it’s real minefield to navigate because of the class differences and because, so much about the way we work with poverty in the US is rooted in punishment, and this is a problem.
- This last one is that hardest one for me to come to grips with, but unfortunately I’ve had to come to the conclusion that some people simply want to be abusive to their kids. They don’t want to learn to be better parents. If I talk about healthy parenting techniques they explode in rage and indignation. The strange thing with this group is they tend to agree that their parents were abusive, but still want to treat their kids the same way. I think for them they felt so helpless and overpowered as children that now, as adults with children of their own, abusing their children makes them feel that power and control they never had as children, and they don’t want to give it up. For them the goal isn’t learning to be a better parent, it’s power and control. And this also tends to be a minefield to navigate.
So in essence, there’s not a simple one size fits all approach to combating child abuse. Some parents, with a bit of support and mentoring, can easily become healthy parents. For others, it’s a lot more complex, and for some the best solution is to terminate their rights early and get their kids into a supportive family environment. All of this requires a more in depth look into the problem and solutions, which i will follow up with.