End the cycle of abuse

BOSTON • If parents think spanking is an effective way to discipline children, the truth is that it is more of a hit-and-miss situation. A 2013 Harris Poll found that 81 per cent of parents believe that hitting is acceptable. But studies have shown that physical and verbal punishments are ineffective and can ignite behavioural problems that follow children into adulthood.

So why do people still do it? According to a study by the University of Washington, adults who endured physical and emotional abuse as children are more likely to repeat those patterns with their offspring.

Parents determined to break the cycle face a difficult path, said Susan Newman, author of Nobody's Baby Now: Reinventing Your Relationship With Your Mother And Father.

"If you've been abused, you may become an abuser yourself," she said. Here are suggestions on how parents can end abusive patterns. Acknowledge your own abuse. The first and perhaps most difficult hurdle in breaking the cycle of familial abuse is recognising it. Newman said looking back with an objective perspective is crucial.

"Being grown-up gives you the distance to separate what you think of as harmful or hurtful patterns, so you don't transfer them to your children," she added.

Recognise the risks (and ask for help). Any parent who has dealt with a toddler tantrum knows that stress comes with the territory.

An overreaction could lead to physical violence towards the child or to what Newman calls "humiliation parenting" - chipping away at a child's self-esteem with berating talk.

In addition to therapy, Newman suggests talking to close friends or a spouse. It can help parents relieve tension and build healthy coping skills. Celebrate success. Raising kids is challenging and eschewing decades of poor parenting habits takes work and courage. Celebrating positive changes, even small ones, will reinforce the bond with your children and help heal your painful past.

Newman said: "It's important to say to yourself: 'I have tried hard and followed my instincts and emotions and I succeeded.'" When you feel vulnerable, examine your motives. Mistakes are the common thread of parenting, but not all will shape kids in adulthood. Still, it is difficult to make confident choices when you are worried about how your experiences might affect your child's well-being.

If you feel untethered in your words and actions, Newman suggests taking time to question your motives. "If you ask yourself: 'Why am I yelling at my child?' or 'Why would I hit them?', you're going to come up short," she said. "And that's where the change begins."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 20, 2018, with the headline 'End the cycle of abuse'. Print Edition | Subscribe