We Can Greatly Reduce Child Abuse

Thanks to the NFL we have the opportunity to have a useful public discussion about punishment and violence in America’s families. I want to offer a somewhat different way of thinking about this than I have seen in media so far. So far the primary focus has been on punishing wrong doers. Prosecuting Adrian Peterson, banning him and Ray Rice from playing, demanding that Roger Goodell resign, establishing stronger penalties for off-the-field misbehavior.

Given that the NFL policies regarding domestic violence have the potential to reduce domestic violence going forward—both through direct effects on players and through changes in our national norms—I found the leagues proposed policies encouraging. But in general, I was struck by the fact that we mostly react to tragedies with punishment and fail to do the things that could prevent such tragedies from happening.

My first thought when I heard about the Adrian Peterson case is that I knew just how he could navigate this situation and come out the other end a better person and one who made a significant contribution to society. If I were hired to counsel him on his predicament, I would have him go to a therapist who was skilled in one of the numerous evidence-based family interventions that have been developed in recent years. For example, my friend Marion Forgatch and her colleagues developed Parent Management Training, Oregon, which is in use in growing use in a five U.S. states seven other countries. The program has shown numerous benefits for children and parents as much as nine years after it was delivered.

The key feature of this and every other effective family intervention is that it helps parents replace coercive parenting practices such as hitting and yelling with positive methods of developing children’s self-control, cooperation, and skill. The positive methods involve playing with children, learning to follow their lead, and richly reinforcing their positive behavior through attention, praise, and, when needed, explicit rewards such as stickers, time with a parent, and special privileges. These programs also teach parents how to reduce undesirable behavior with brief timeouts and chores.

In working with an angry or abusive parent, therapists seldom lecture or criticize. Why? Because as a practical matter, most families are free to leave therapy and they will do so if they feel attacked and criticized. A good therapist who was asked to see Adrian Peterson would begin by listening to him about his situation and his concerns. You might think that this would end up supporting his cruel behavior toward his son. But that is unlikely. My experience is that when people don’t feel threatened that they have to defend bad things they have done, they readily acknowledge that they would like to find better ways to raise their children.

Each year in this country six million children are discovered to have been abused and more than 4 children a day are murdered. We have the knowledge to prevent a huge number of these tragedies. Marion Forgatch’s program is only one of many that have proven benefit in helping parents replace harsh and inconsistent discipline with gentle and effective means of supporting children’s development. Slowly, states and communities are beginning to make these programs available to parents who need them. One good thing that could come of out of the Peterson case, is public demand for tested and effective programs that can prevent abuse.

As a society we invest far more in reacting to outrageous conduct than we do in preventing it. We investigate child abuse and domestic violence and punish perpetrators, but, thus far, we have failed to make programs that could prevent these problems widely available. Perhaps if we begin to abandon our fixation with punishment, we can begin to provide programs for families that truly reduce the rates of domestic violence.

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