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Ethical Boundaries: Treating Childhood Sexual Trauma
Childhood Sexual Trauma continuing education counselor CEUs

Section 25
The Control of Children & Boundaries

CEU Question 25 | CEU Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Child Abuse
Counselor CEUs, Social Worker CEUs, Psychologist CEs, MFT CEUs


Regardless of family structure, age, gender, or marital status, with few exceptions, working-class parents maintain that parents must remain "in control" of children. Physical punishment is seen as a necessary aspect smacking Sexual Trauma psychology continuing education of managing children's behavior. The differential in size and strength between parents and children means that smacking is an effective way to assert such control, to state effectively, as one mother put it, "that you are not an adult, you are a child, and we are in control." Smacking was seen to do children good, as these women described:

"I think a child does need a good smack now and again. No, I think a good smack never hurt any child…. A smack does them good. I've always believed that. There's nothing wrong with smacking a child. If you want that child under control, then that's the only way."

Women frequently differentiate between "smacking" and "bashing." Smacking is defined as physical discipline called upon when the child "deserves it" and in order to return the child's behavior to acceptable standards. "Bashing," on the other hand, is less an attempt to change the child's behavior and more a way for the parent to discharge frustration by "taking it out on the children." Whereas smacking is said to be done with control and leaves no permanent physical damage, bashing can cause injuries and occurs when parents "lose control," as these mothers explained:

"I think a battered baby, a they call it, or used to call it, is completely different to giving a child a belting because he has done something wrong and you want to impress on him that that is not the way our family goes on."

Whether an incident is considered "smacking" or "bashing" depended upon the limits each parent draws in defining when smacking becomes bashing. The mother just quoted saw no problem with prolonged and severe spanking until "your arm gets very tired," so long as she used only her hand and no other implements. For other parents, belts or sticks are acceptable implements. Within some families, parents disagree with each other concerning what constitutes appropriate limits, most often mothers criticizing fathers for being too hard or, as one mother described it, "heavy-handed":

"My husband has always had a very heavy hand. He's never been light handed…and to him it's just like smacking…When he goes to smack them, there's no control in his hand…."

Parents also differ in their perceptions of the age at which smacking becomes an appropriate form of discipline. Smacking is sometimes used with infants much too young to comprehend the meaning of the parent's actions. The following mother saw nothing wrong with smacking her 8-month-old baby who, it later became evident, was allergic to his formula and cried constantly. Smacking a baby was acceptable so long as it was not down to the "hard skin":

"She said, 'Did you smack him?' and I said, 'Yes,' and she said, 'Where?' And I said, 'Through two nappies and a whole outfit.' She said, 'Do you realize what sort of impact that had on the child?' And I stood up with tears in my eyes and I said, 'You're not a mother. You wouldn't have any idea of what the frustration must be like, and I doubt whether that child would have even felt it. He knew he was being smacked, but definitely not to the hard skin.'"

Nor was she apparently aware of the possibility of brain damage resulting from shaking an infant:

"I never laid a hand on that child. I might have shaken him, I might have dumped him in the cot many a time through frustration, but I did not beat him. I did not ever slap him to the stage where he did not know what to do with himself."

In another case, a father, now serving a sentence for assault, routinely smacked his 9-month-old infant as "a warning not to cry through the night." When the child was teething, these "smacks" became increasingly severe, as the child's grandmother reported:

"She used to get smacked every night before she went to bed. That was a warning not to cry through the night. I was getting Sammy's tea ready, and she was griping a bit like she is now. She was teething, and he threatened to belt her. He took her into my bedroom, and I followed him because I knew he would hit her. I pretended to get a tea towel out of the closet, and he punched her in the mouth. Her little mouth was all bleeding and that side of her face was all swollen and black, and there's marks under her little chin."

Parents from a minority culture often have further reasons for wanting to maintain strict discipline enforced through physical punishment. African American parents fear the lure of street crime and violence that is ever presently available to poor African American urban youth. Keeping their children in line and well behaved is seen to be a way of protecting them from the severe consequences of acting out behavior (Boyd-Franklin, 1989). Immigrant parents may also resort to physical punishment as a way of reasserting parental authority and controlling an adolescent who appears to be succumbing to the sexual dangers of Western culture when they associate with the opposite sex without parental supervision (Lau, 1986).

Despite parents' beliefs in the effectiveness of physical discipline, there is significant evidence that it does not achieve the aims parents desire. The use of severe physical discipline is associated with aggressive behavior in children and inconsistency in limit setting by parents. In two-parent situations, harsh or erratic treatment of a child by one parent is likely to result in the other parent subverting the first parent's authority and, therefore, in inconsistent limit setting (Henggeler & Borduin, 1990). In families where attention for desirable behavior is otherwise lacking, negative attention, including hitting, frequently reinforces the very behavior parents are trying to eliminate, escalating both the child's behavior and the parents' hitting. Children's behavior is often more than simply "willful defiance." Their activity and disobedience appears to increase in situations where parents are stressed or in conflict with each other, the mother is depressed and withdrawn, or sibling rivalry is intense. In each case, undesirable behavior exhibited by the child appears to activate the parent and focus attention on the child, away from more threatening areas. The parent's response to the child, although negative and physically painful, is nevertheless further reinforcement for the undesired behavior. Last, children who behave defiantly and aggressively are sometimes victims of sexual abuse (Sgroi, 1982). Physical discipline as a solution to their behavior is likely to further alienate them from the non-sexually abusive parent.

Parents who use physical force in disciplining describe receiving support for their views from sources within their social milieu. Neighboring families have similar views, and corporal punishment is still used in some schools. Some parents describe receiving support for the use of smacking from other authorities, lawyers, doctors, the police, psychologists, and even, one inferred, from a magistrate.
-MacKinnon, Laurie K., Trust and Betrayal in the Treatment of Child Abuse, Guilford Press: New York, 1998.
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

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Personal Reflection Exercise #11
The preceding section contained information about the control of children. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 25
Why do parents from a minority culture often have further reasons for wanting to maintain strict discipline enforced through physical punishment? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Answer Booklet.

 
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