NORFOLK, Va. — Every parent is at risk of engaging in child abuse, but learning about children’s brain development can help them avoid it.
That’s the message child discipline expert Joan Durrant shares with audiences.
The federal Administration for Children and Families estimated 1,670 children died in the U.S. due to maltreatment in 2015. More than three-quarters of the reported cases involved parents.
Durrant, a professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada and a veteran in the field for three decades, researches child maltreatment and abuse at the hands of parents. She’s developed a “positive discipline” program that’s taught in countries around the world with the nongovernmental organization Save the Children.
Durrant spoke recently about what she’s learned from her work and what parents should know. Here’s a bit of that conversation, edited for length and clarity:
Q: How can parents be aware of child abuse, and where is it most likely to occur? Who’s most at risk?
A: I feel every parent is at risk. Everybody is at risk because we all have this innate response to threat, which is the fight or flight response. When our brains interpret something as a threat, including a child threatening our sense of control, our brain goes into that response. We need to move ourselves out of that emotional brain and into the thinking brain, where they can recognize “if I hit this child, it will get worse.” It’s just an impulse, and they strike out. It’s not an easy thing to make that change. It takes a concerted effort. The demographics stuff is not really relevant. We’re all in it together. It’s just being human. It’s universal, this urge.
Q: Your research focuses on “positive discipline.” What does that mean and how can parents execute it?
A: What we’re trying to do is help parents understand where that urge to strike their children comes from. For most, it comes from a response to feeling out of control. We’re trying to help them become reflective about that. This is something that happens almost without thinking, so what we need to do is have them reconnect from their emotional brain to their thinking brain in that moment. Children don’t do things to make their parents angry; they do them because of their stage of development and their understanding of the world in that moment. Parents are often told to turn around and count to 10, but often they do that and turn back around and still don’t know what to do. Most go into parenting with no experience. It’s akin to putting someone in a room and giving them a test on a subject they haven’t been taught. They panic. But once they understand what’s actually going on they can calm down and handle it in a positive way.
Q: What are the most important things you’ve learned about child abuse in your research?
A: Once we start hitting, the odds of escalation are very high. In seconds, you can get into an intense escalation that ends in serious harm or even death. At least 75 percent of abuse began as physical punishment. We’re not going to say, “Well, a little bit is OK,” because then we’re not inhibiting that impulse. This is the most effective route to stopping child abuse. We’re going to give you lots of information, take away that fear. It’s about seeing that child as a person. Hitting is about fixing the situation now. But real parenting is about strengthening all the skills you want them to have when they’re grown up. If we want them to be skilled at hitting other people, we hit them. But if we want them to be kind and be thinking creatively, that’s what we need to be doing tons of.
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