Helping frustrated families deal with child abuse

The scene has been repeated in thousands of households throughout the country "I don't need you to tell me what to do," bellows a beligerent teenager to a bewildered parent. "I'll run my ownm life."

Five minutes later than teen is on the phone, with an invitation to go the beach with Chris, who drives down the highway at 900 miles per hour.

"Oh, I'd love to go, but my mom doesn't want me to," the teens says in a voice that you know means relief.

It's not always easy to raise a teenager. As children begin to bridge the gap between childhood and independence, it's hard to know when to hang on, and when to let go.

"Teens want their parents to let go a little, but to leave home available to come back to," says Ed Stone, director of professional services for Roxbury Children's Servies in Boston. He spoke recently at a work shop given by Parents Anonymous (PA), a self-help group for parents concerned about child abuse. "It's the need to pull away from parents, but to have their approval for it."

Unfortunately, sometimes tensions between parents and teens mean confrontation.

Lana is a single mother working hard to keep here family together. In the past, she often hit or spanked her children to discipline them. One day she gave her 13-year-old son a hard slap for "mouthing off." The next thing she knew , her son picked up a kitchen chair and threw it across the room at her.

"Children deal with abuse by being abusive," says Lana, who is now enrolled in a local self-help group of battered parents.

Child abuse is tragically documented. Over 500,000 cases of child abuse are reported each year, and an estimated 1.5 million other cases go unreported.

Murray A. Straus, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire, says abuse by parents is most frequent when the child is very young. The rate then goes down until the youngster reaches adolescence, when it again becomes more frequent.

"Infancy and adolescence are the two most difficult periods in coping with a child," sayd Dr. Straus, who co-authored a study on child abuse with sociologist Richard J. Gelles. The research was documented in the book "Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family." Their studies also indicate that as many as 750,000 to 1 million teens attack their parents each year.

"The more parents hit kids, the greater the chance the kids will hit back," says Dr. Straus.

Dr. Straus is careful in his statistics to make the distinction between ordinary physical punishment and child abuse, which is using more force than is acceptable by society and actually injuring a child. But he doesn't like to make that distinction.

"When a three-year-old is spanked, he learns the same lesson as he would if he were punched; those who love me hit me, and if it is important, it can be accomplished through hitting," says Dr. Straus.

It's nearly impossible not to get angry at your teenager sometimes, says Ed Stone. Frances is the mother of three children, one just starting adolescence, one in-between, and one baby. Her two older daughters fight about who should take care of the baby.

"My older child is the most troublesome," says Frances, a widow supporting her family. "She wants to do what she wants to do, and that usually means snapping at her sister. Then the baby catches all the mess. He ends up with a whomp up the side of the head."

Rather than giving in to an urge to "whomp" the teen, parents should realize it's most important not to lose communication him or her, says Mr. Stone.

"Try hard not to get into that ultimate confrontation," he says. "A slap in the face, either physical or verbal, is a loss of self- esteem."

A social worker echoes this idea.

"Be a selective listener," she says. "Instead of saying 'What's wrong with you?' say 'You must have had a hard day.' LEt the child talk."

Ed stone advises Frances to talk openly with her children, who seem to resent the fact that their mother works.

"Don't tell them what they oughtm to be doing, but get at what is the issue you all face as a family," says Mr. Stone. "If you don't work, they don't eat.Help get them involved in sharing responsibilities. Tell them you would be home if you could, but they have to face the reality of life. Draw them in as allies. Your children need to know how strong you are in helping the family to survive."

Dr. Straus points out that in the past 200 years there has been a slow decrease in the amount of physical force used in discipline.

"There is a false dichotomy that a parent either has to hit a child or let him or her run wild," says Dr. Straus. "As anti-violence as I am, I would lean more towards letting a parent hit a child than letting him run wild. Parents have a responsibility to their children."

He likes groups such as Parents Anonymous that help parents find alternatives to hitting children.

"For example, if you're driving with children raising heck in the back seat, and you've told them a dozen times to calm down, some parents might say, 'This is it,' and whammo. There are lots of other ways of handling this without hitting. You can stop the car and sit there until they behave. We are so trained to hit that we don't always think of alternatives.

Martha, a mother at the PA conference, shows a lot of love for her 11 -year-old son as she speaks of him. But she also admits frustration.

"On the hand, he talks about starting to date girls," says Martha with a sigh. "But then when he loses a sock, he's like a six-year- old. At what point do I step in?"

Mr. Stone answers: "Parents should step in when their good instincts tell the to. We have become so psychologized and propagandized [about how to treat teens ], that we become helpless in decisions. Parents should step in and be decisive. Consistency and decisiveness are the most invaluable traits in raising family."

It's important to chose priorities and make limits, says Mr. Stone. Table manners, clothes, or how a person sits are little things that a parent doesn't need to nag about.

"But there are things you might feel strongly about," says Mr. Stone. "You have a right to set standard s and stick to them."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.