The complexity of child abuse dashes any hopes for a simple solution (Kelly, 2011). Because maltreatment is more apt to occur when several contributing factors are present, eradicating child maltreatment requires many approaches.
As one approach, American attitudes toward “acceptable” levels of punishment and poverty would have to change. American children will be abused as long as physical punishment is considered acceptable and effective and as long as poverty-stricken families live in chronic stress from simply trying to provide food and shelter. Parents also need counseling and training in parenting skills. Abuse will continue as long as parents remain ignorant of effective methods of parenting and discipline.
It would be naive to expect these changes to occur overnight. However, by focusing on some manageable factors, the risk of maltreatment can be reduced. Social supports help. When parents know they can turn to helpful adults for advice and reassurance, they better manage the stresses of childrearing that might otherwise lead to abuse. Families can also be taught more effective ways of coping with situations that might otherwise trigger abuse (Wicks-Nelson & Israel, 2006). Through role-playing sessions, parents can learn the benefits of authoritative parenting and effective ways of using feedback and modeling to regulate children’s behavior.
Providing social supports and teaching effective parenting are typically done when maltreatment and abuse have already occurred. Preventing maltreatment is more desirable and more cost effective. For prevention, one useful tool is familiar: early childhood intervention programs. Maltreatment and abuse can be cut in half when families participate for 2 or more years in intervention programs that include preschool education along with family support activities aimed at encouraging parents to become more involved in their children’s education (Reynolds & Robertson, 2003). When parents participate in these programs, they become more committed to their children’s education. This leads their children to be more successful in school, reducing a source of stress and enhancing parents’ confidence in their childrearing skills, thereby reducing the risks of maltreatment
Another successful approach focuses specifically on parenting skills in families where children are at risk for maltreatment. In one program (Bugental & Schwartz, 2009), mothers of infants at risk for abuse participated in a training program in which they learned to identify likely causes of recurring problems encountered while caring for their babies (e.g., problems associated with feeding, sleeping, crying). Then they were given help in devising methods to deal with those problems and in monitoring the effectiveness of the methods. When mothers participated in the program, they were less likely to use harsh punishment (a known risk factor for child maltreatment), and their children were less likely to suffer injuries at home (a common measure of parental neglect).
There are also effective programs targeting parents of older children who are at risk for maltreatment. One program, parent–child interaction therapy, focuses on helping parents (1) build warm and positive relationships with their children, (2) develop reasonable expectations for their children, and (3) use more effective disciplinary practices. When parents of at-risk children participate in this program, they report less stress, their behavior with their children becomes more positive (more praise and fewer commands), and critically, suspected abuse is reduced (Thomas & Zimmer-Gimbeck, 2011).
1. Discuss the relationship between parental use of corporal (physical) discipline and child abuse. Do you think that physical punishment (e.g., spanking) can be done in a responsible and healthy way? Why or why not?
2. Under what circumstances is early intervention with parents and children found to reduce later incidence of child maltreatment and abuse?
3. While quite a bit of research has focused on preventing abuse of younger children, it is also important to remember that abuse can also involve older kids. Based on the research of Thomas & Zimmer-Gimbeck (2011), what interventions can reduce such abuse?
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