McBlog: Raised voice a form of child abuse?

A new study came out last week that claims that shouting at children or using a raised voice can be as damaging as physical or sexual abuse. It raises a couple of important issues around parenting advice and why the anti-smacking law has been a failure.

Raise voice a form of child abuse?

A new study came out last week that claims that Shouting at children or using a raised voice can be as damaging as physical or sexual abuse. It raises a couple of important issues. Let’s check it out

So according to media reports, new research published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect claims that parents who shout at their children or call them “stupid” are leaving their offspring at greater risk of self-harm, drug use and ending up in jail. They say that talking harshly to children should be recognised as a form of abuse because of the huge damage it does. The authors say “adult-to-child perpetration of verbal abuse … is characterised by shouting, yelling, denigrating the child, and verbal threats”.

Verbal threats – what do they mean? If you don’t eat your veges, there’s no pudding? If you don’t get off your phone the phone will be confiscated?

The academics claim “These types of adult actions can be as damaging to a child’s development as other currently recognised and forensically established subtypes of mistreatment such as childhood physical and sexual abuse.”

The study examined existing evidence on the impact of childhood verbal abuse. One recent paper, a UK study led by Prof Mark Bellis and published in BMJ Open, involved a representative sample of 20,000 UK residents and found that those who had been verbally abused were twice as likely to use cannabis, and more likely to have feelings of low mental well-being, binge drink, time in prison and be both a victim and a perpetrator of violence. (which is interesting because I thought we were told that only smacking leads to violence. Maybe not eh)

One of the authors is Shanta Dube from Wingate University and she spoke to CNN

It’s interesting that the academics are expecting the adults to take responsibility for the child – except when the child wants to be the other sex or wants an abortion, and then the authority can be taken from the loving parent.

Unfortunately, and contrary to the comments made by these researchers about rates of abuse in the US, serious physical abuse has not declined in NZ – despite the anti-smacking law. It has been on the increase since about 2007 – which, ironically, is the year the anti-smacking law was passed.

And the rate of child sexual abuse found by police has steadily increased, with a 61% increase since 2000.

This latest research is about Verbal abuse which comes under the overarching category of emotional abuse – according to Oranga Tamariki. They define it as “patterns of degradation, constant and vitriolic criticism, or repeated negative comparison to others”

Which is far more specific. Degrading. Vitriolic.

But that’s different to a raised voice, a shout, a verbal threat – what we called, a good telling off.

Rates of emotional abuse have actually decreased over recent years – although we need to get the latest data on this.

In fact, there have been changing priorities within Child, Youth and Family (and subsequently Oranga Tamariki) which saw emotional abuse and neglect considered less serious than physical and sexual abuse.

There’s 2 issues here.

To equate verbal abuse with sexual abuse and even physical abuse can undermine just how harmful and destructive sexual abuse is. There is no redeeming factor to sexual abuse of a child. There is no lesser or acceptable forms of sexual abuse. It is always wrong.

But here’s the key point.

During the anti-smacking law debate – a law which was rejected by the overwhelming majority of NZers but rammed through by politicians anyway – we argued that studies cited by opponents of smacking did not adequately distinguish the effects of smacking as practiced by non-abusive parents from the impact of

severe physical punishment and abuse by rotten parents. They just lumped them all in one group.

And that’s what these researchers seem to have done with verbal abuse.

They’ve treated telling your child off in a loud voice or in a stern way with the threat of a consequence the same as screaming at them and swearing at them. They’re very different things.

There won’t be many parents who can say that they’ve never had to shout at their child or use a raised voice either to warn them from doing something dangerous or to communicate the seriousness of an action, or even to just get their attention. Or to emphasise how serious the bad behaviour is.

But we’ve been told that smacking is the problem. We’ve criminalised good parents for using a technique which can work.

What about other forms of correction of children. Are they also problematic?

You see, supporters of anti-smacking laws haven’t been able to identify alternative methods of discipline that are as effective in reducing certain child behaviour problems.

This latest research says that verbal abuse is as bad as physical abuse.

A 2013 peer-reviewed study from Oklahoma State University referred to three recent studies of 12 disciplinary tactics that parents could use instead of smacking. They found that “no disciplinary tactic was ever associated with reduced child behaviour problems, and 7 of the 12 tactics predicted significantly worse behaviour problems in at least one analysis.”

Other studies have shown that expressing disappointment or yelling or scolding are associated with as many significantly adverse outcomes as smacking, and that time-out and shaming were also significantly associated with internalising problems.

The timeout technique, used by parents for decades, exploded into the public domain in the early 2000s thanks to TV’s “Supernanny” Jo Frost, who rebranded it as the “naughty step” technique.

But then the parenting experts turned up – again.

In this article from the Washington Post, parenting experts criticized the timeout technique, saying that it might neglect a child’s emotional needs, and that isolation — the defining quality of the timeout technique — is a form of punishment.

A while back, an Australian parenting expert labelled time out as shameful and humiliating, and claiming that it creates hurt, anger and defiance in a child ultimately harming them. They also claimed that nervous habits can result, and that children should not be told they are naughty.

Once again, these unsubstantiated and ideologically flawed claims and latest fads in parenting by academics simply undermine the confidence of parents to raise their children in a positive and common sense way. Where does it stop? Will it soon be unacceptable to withdraw privileges or ‘ground’ a child – perhaps it will soon be even unacceptable to frown at a child who is misbehaving!

Researchers suggest that, despite the best of intentions, the prohibition of appropriate smacking may inadvertently undermine appropriate parental discipline, with the result that a small but increasing percentage of boys especially may grow up with a dangerous combination of disrespect for their mothers and a lack of self-control.

We can actually see that in any school and in our community even now, can’t we.

Let’s be honest. In many cases, parental guidance and correction will be non-physical. Time out, withdrawal of privileges, a telling-off, grounding – they can often work. However, sometimes a parent may reasonably decide that a smack is required to correct or prevent defiant or unacceptable behaviour for a particularly defiant child.

But the bottom line is that anti-smacking policies are problematic because they contradict many adults’ own childhood experiences with discipline and their long-term outcomes. Many of us received a well-warranted smack and didn’t think of it as abuse, just as we didn’t think of a good telling-off as a form of abuse. Or time out as a form of false imprisonment, or withdrawal of privileges as an illegal form of parental bribery.

All parenting techniques can become abusive, but that says more about the type of parent than the technique being used. Any parenting technique can be abused. A verbal telling off can become denigration and demoralising. Time out can become neglect. A smack on the bottom can become physical abuse.

But doing nothing and allowing your child unrestrained and uncontrolled behaviour is equally problematic, isn’t it. You may know what we call permissive parents – and they’re making a rod for their own back. Their children rule the roost.

It’s time we stopped criminalising good parents who are raising great kids, and targeted rotten parents who, irrespective of what technique they use, will be problematic and potentially child abuse. Parents who have unresolved anger issues or are prone to violence or are using drugs or abusing alcohol. These are the red flags we should be watching for.

It’s the type of parent we should target. Not necessarily the technique.

Sadly, our politicians failed to make this important distinction – and we are reaping the consequences of that decision.

As well-known parenting expert Helen Clark once said, a ban on smacking defies human nature.

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