Child abuse and physical punishment
Physical abuse, in the classic myth, is meted out by an evil step-parent or by a cruel stranger. Many people also believe sexual abuse is the most common kind of abuse. Research (Mary Marsh, National Council for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children--Nov, 2000) shows that those myths are wrong. Actually, serious physical abuse is seven times more common (1 in 14 children) than sexual abuse. Also, birth parents are more likely to be violent than step-parents. Mothers are more likely to be abusive than fathers (of course, they are with the children more). Siblings and playmates are more physically (and sexually) abusive than adults are.
Nevertheless, parenting is almost always a mixture of love and frustration. Surely most parents are, at times, angry and dominated by this irksome emotion (see Samalin, 1991). Most mothers and fathers have, in fact, at some time, become furious at her/his child. There will probably be an urge to physically hurt the child--to spank, hit, or shake him/her. It is hard to know if your urge to hurt your child is truly dangerous. However, if you sense you are getting close to becoming violent, something must be done immediately. Call your spouse, a friend, a person from church, a neighbor or someone--anyone. If at all possible, have someone else care for the child for a while. Also, make an appointment for psychological help and/or call the local Parents Anonymous organization (see your phone book) or Childhelp USA's National Child Abuse hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD) for local on-going sources of help. Calling for help is hard to do. But don't run risks with your kids' physical and emotional health. A traumatic childhood may stay with a child for a life-time. Professional help is usually needed (and add to therapy the Parents Anonymous meetings). People who beat kids are under enormous emotional pressure. They need relief. It is important to honestly determine just how much risk you are to your kids and to lower that risk as soon as possible. Often treatment needs to involve both parents and the child.
There are certain warning signs you can use: the excessively physical parent often has been abused or neglected themselves (less true for woman than men). They are often isolated from other adults and have a passive, ungiving partner. They often don't like themselves and feel depressed. They may have impossible expectations of their children, e.g. that a 16-month-old will stop dirtying his diaper, that a 13-month-old will stop crying when the parent demands it, and so on. They often see the child as bad or willful or nasty and mean or constantly demanding or angrily defiant. They have strong urges to hurt the child and have previously acted on those urges to some extent. They are often in a crisis --a fight with the spouse, have recently been fired, or can't pay bills. If a parent is being battered, the child is also at risk, especially a boy.
If you have such a background and find yourself in several of these conditions, try to become more and more aware of your potential of becoming abusive and be especially cautious. Start reducing your frustrations; make it a self-help project to find ways to control your anger (see the last section of this chapter and chapter 12). On the other hand, don't immediately over-react and panic--you aren't an awful parent--just because the kids bother you and you end up spanking them (without any injury). It is better if you never hit a child, but a rare mild spanking isn't awful. Abuse is much more violent and harsher than discipline (see chapter 9); psychological harm happens when you are "out of control." Remember, too, that anger expressed in the form of psychological abuse or criticism or neglect ("I hate you," "I wish you have never been born," "you're stupid", "I don't want to see your face again") may also be very damaging (Garbarino, Guttmann, & Seeley, 1987).
Whether you were abused as a child or not, as soon as you admit to yourself that you are close to abusing your children, start right away the long process of healing yourself and, please, seriously consider getting therapy (Sanders & DeVargas-Walker, 1987). There are sources of information in books, such as Helfer's (1968, 1999), The Battered Child, which was a "classic" and has been updated. Other books help us to understand the abused child (Heineman, 1998). Parents Anonymous was mentioned above; it is the major national organization of groups for abusive parents. Call them at 909-621-6184 or fax 909-625-6304 or email to email@example.com. Parents Anonymous mutual-helping groups are safe and offer advice and understanding support to parents wanting to gain control. Another confidential source of crisis counseling about abuse and referrals is Child Help USA Hotline (800-422-4453). There are Web sites offering information: Child Abuse Prevention and National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse. Remember, all states have an 800 number to which all professionals, teachers, and law enforcement officials are required by law to report all suspected child abuse and neglect. This "child investigation and protection agency" is NOT a place for a parent to call for help with poor anger control.
If you are merely irritable with your children and spanking them moderately, read Samalin (1991) or Straus (1994) who persuasively argue against physical punishment and for tolerance. The research evidence is clear: physical punishment, even if it isn't violent, produces children who are more aggressive with their peers. The more violent the parents are, the meaner the children will be (Strassberg, 1994). A good book for men who were abused as boys and want to deal with the left-over consequences is Daniel Sonkin's (1992), Wounded Boys, Heroic Men.
For information about abuse resulting from a parent's addiction, go to chapter 9. For information about child sexual abuse and incest, also go to chapter 9.
Conflicts between parents and teenagers
About 60% of the students in my college classes have gone through difficult conflicts with their parents (the others had acceptable or good relations). This is the usual sequence: until puberty there is a closeness with one or both parents. Conflicts usually start during the 12 to 17-year-old period. Friends become more important than parents. Parent-teenager fights range in intensity from quiet withdrawal to raging arguments on every issue.
Conflicts may begin with the teenager stopping doing certain things that please their parents--or that would indicate closeness or similarity to the parents, like going to church or to the movies with the parents. They want to be on their own, to "do their own thing," which sometimes evolves into having the responsibilities of a 5-year-old and the freedom of a 25-year-old. Parental rules and values are often challenged or broken. This is called "boundary breaking;" in moderation it is natural, normal, necessary, and healthy. Depending on the peer group, the teenager may do some things partly to "shake up" or defy the parents (and the establishment)--dress, talk, dance, and "have fun" in their own way. Using drugs, reckless driving, drinking, staying out late, getting "too serious," and other behaviors may be for excitement but boundary breaking may be involved too. When the parents object or refuse permission, the teenager may intensely resent their interference (which is why the topic is covered in this chapter).
The parents may respond just as strongly to the teenager's new behavior. When the agreeable kid starts to argue about everything, it is baffling to them. Parents resent defiance, especially authoritarian, I-make-the-rules parents. They may feel like a failure as a parent. The teenager's ideas seem totally unreasonable to them. The parents' emotional reaction is more than just reasonable concern for the teenager's welfare, it is an intense reaction--either panic that the son or daughter is headed for disaster or boiling resentment of the teenager's rebelliousness. When both respond with strong resentment, it is war.
Why this war? In some families these quarrels may be necessary in order for the young person to become "his/her own person" and free him/herself from parents' control. Sonnett (1975), Robertiello (1976), Ginott (1969) and many others have speculated about the underlying causes somewhat as follows: Teenagers are unsure of themselves but they pretend to be confident. They fear admitting their doubts because that might lead to being taken over again--almost smothered--by their parents' opinions and control. Yet, there are temptations to not grow up, to be taken care of, to avoid scary responsibilities. This danger--of remaining a weak, dependent, controlled child--provides the intense force behind the drive to be different from and to challenge the parents. Teenagers deny the importance of their relationships with parents; they give up hugging and kissing; they show little gratitude; they emphasize their differences from their parents and their similarity to their friends. All attempts, in part, to get free.
Bickering, insulting, and getting mad push the parents away. Disliking parents and not getting along with them makes it easier to leave. What do the parents do? Some say, "I've taught you all I know, now go live life as you choose and learn from your experiences. I'll always love you." Other parents feel crushed and/or furious when teenagers decide to go a different direction. These parents wanted their children to accomplish their goals and to conform to their values and way of life. They perhaps hoped to live life, again, through their children. At least, they wanted the son/daughter to follow their religion, accept their morals, marry the "right kind" of person, get an education and "good" job, have children, etc. They may be very hurt if the son/daughter wants to go another direction.
In the final stages, when the parent-teenager conflict becomes bitter, usually it is a power struggle between controlling parent and resisting young person. The conflict becomes a "win-lose" situation where no compromises are possible and someone must lose. The more dominating, controlling parents (who tend to produce insecure, resentful but independent teenagers) don't like to lose and struggle hard for continued control. The teenager can almost always win these conflicts eventually, however, by just not telling the parent what he/she is doing or by being passive-aggressive (forgetful, helpless, ineffective).
How to resolve parent-young adult conflicts
When the young person is 16 or 17, the parents have to accept reality that they have lost control--they can't watch the son or daughter all the time. They are on their own. The parent can still help the young person make decisions by sharing their wisdom (if it is requested). Both parents and young persons can control their anger (chapter 12) and adopt good communication skills: "I" statements, empathy responses, and self-disclosure (chapter 13). Both can develop positive attitudes. Teenagers can realize that parents don't universally go from "wise" to "stupid" as they age from 12 to 17. They can also realize that responsibility comes with freedom; if you are old enough to declare your independence and make your own decisions, you are old enough to accept the consequences (meaning=don't expect your parents to get you out of trouble). Parents can remind themselves that making mistakes is part of growing up; we all learn from our mistakes, including drinking and getting sick, getting pregnant, being rejected, dropping out of school, being fired, etc. Young adults, like all of us, need support and love when they are "down." Give it. Avoid criticism, anger, rejection, and, the parental favorite, you-should-have-listened-to-me comments. When they are hurting, show love and concern--but don't rush in to rescue them, let them deal with the problems they made for themselves. Farmer (1989) provides help to parents trying to be caring, loving, and at peace with their teenagers. As we will see in chapters 8 and 9, there are also three especially good general self-help books for parents and teens: Ginott (1969), Elkind (1984), and Steinberg & Levine (1990). Straus (1994), writing more for clinicians, focuses on understanding the violence in the lives of teenagers, both the abuse to them and their striking out at others.
If you are a young adult who has gone through "the wars" with one or both parents, it may be wise and rewarding to try to get closer again. Try to see your parents as real people: how old were they when you were born? What problems did they have? Do you suppose they often wondered what to do and if they were being good parents to you? Did being parents interfere with important goals in their lives? Were and are they desperately wanting you to "turn out all right" and make them proud? Are they longing for a close relationship with you? If they get disappointed and angry at you, is that awful?
Some day when you are feeling reasonably secure about yourself and positive about your parents, take the initiative and open up to them. Share your feelings: fears, self-doubts, regrets about the fights, how difficult it was to break away, and your hope for a mature, equal, accepting, close relationship with them in the future. Emphasize the positive. If they have been helpful, show your appreciation. Forget and forgive the "war," if possible, or, at least, avoid letting the poison keep festering. The students I work with find this "reunion" with their parents scary to plan. But it is extremely gratifying, once it is done, to have taken some responsibility for this relationship--almost certainly the longest, deepest, and most influential relationship you will ever have. Many people are amazed at how hard it is to say "I love you" and to hug or touch their mother or father or child again. But it feels so good. Many of us cry.
If you are grown and independent and love your parents openly and never had to fight with your parents to get where you are, be sure to thank them for doing so well in a difficult job. If you are wishing your parents had been better, ask yourself: "Although they weren't perfect, weren't they good enough?" They did what they had to do (see determinism in chapter 14). If you feel you need total agreement and unfailing support from your parents, ask yourself why that is needed. Does it reflect some dependency and self-doubt?
Try to use your insights into these conflicts. The teenager is trying to find "his/her own place"--their unique personality and life-style. Look for unconscious forces: children may delight in driving parents up a wall, parents may get some secret pleasure from seeing their children fail or make mistakes in certain ways, a parent's dreams may be frustrated when the young person decides to "do his/her own thing," parents may be especially upset when children do things they prohibit but are tempted to do themselves, etc. Most importantly, the teenager may be slowly "cutting the umbilical cord" by creating an "uproar" which makes it easier for him/her to leave the love, warmth, and stifling dependency of home. Viewed in that light, maybe having a few uproars ain't so bad. Don't let the "fights" become permanently hurtful. Be forgiving.
The case of Tony and Jane described early in this chapter illustrates the complicated and intertwined nature of anger and fear. Jealousy is a fear of loosing our loved one to someone else. Thus, it involves an anticipated loss (depression) and a failure in competition with someone else (anxiety and low self-esteem). In addition, when your partner shows a love or sexual interest in someone else, there is a "breech of contract" with you and a disregard for your feelings. When Tony went flirting and dancing with attractive women, even if it was merely innocent fun, he callously placed his need for fun over Jane's plea for consideration of her feelings. That makes Jane mad. Also, if Tony and Jane were married or engaged, Tony seemed (to Jane) to break a solemn oath to forever "forgo all others" within 10 minutes of meeting an attractive woman at a party. That too makes her mad...and distrustful, and rightly so in my opinion. Yet, many of us are jealous without any valid grounds for feeling mistreated or neglected; we are just afraid of what might happen.
Jealousy is discussed at length in chapter 10 (and see White & Mullen, 1989). Concerning Jane's anger, she could try to reduce it either by honestly disclosing to Tony how upsetting and hurtful his flirting is (coupled with an assertive request for reassurance and that he stop) or by reducing the intensity of her anger response. Her anger could be reduced in a variety of ways, e.g. by desensitization or stress inoculation, by correcting her thoughts about how terrible it is that Tony flirts, by building her self-esteem, or by changing her view of Tony's flirting from being an indication of his infidelity to being a reflection of his doubts about his attractiveness. Other methods for controlling anger are mentioned in the last section.