She is just wailing. 35 minutes after she started crying, nothing seems to make a difference. Not walking around. Not rocking her. Not patting her on the back or checking her diaper. And with my wife, Amy, still while from getting home and my older daughter there, who even attempted to use her baby whispering skills to no avail, I wonder if she is ever going to calm down. Our sweet little girl, Katie, born just six weeks earlier is just not happy, very similar to what has occurred hundreds of times before with her seven older siblings. As I resign myself to accept that the penetrating noise will end at some point, I feel those familiar thoughts drift into my mind. Although I love this little girl, they are anything but thoughts of tenderness and affection. To be frank, they are thoughts that connect me to those who have harmed a child before. I know they are not intentional, yet I feel myself ashamed for even thinking these awful things. But it is something about visceral, unstoppable cries that have instigated them in me ever since our first children were born.
Many years ago, Amy and I were talking to a loving mother of five children, whose kids are now much older and seemingly doing well. She was describing her frustrations with her youngest child (long before we had our own) and she said, “I think God made them cute so you won’t wring their neck when they drive you crazy.” The statement was made in jest, and we had no reason to believe that she had ever abused her kids. But beneath the joking, I recognized that there was a degree of truth in what she was saying. Even the best, most well-intentioned parents find themselves overwhelmed with the sheer noise and need that can seem impossible to quench. And it is in these moments, if we are honest with ourselves, almost all of us have a potential for harm.
Over the years, one of the saddest types of situations I have ever come to know involves when parents abuse their kids. Although we as a public might be quick to condemn them when this occurs, the reality is that almost all parents had no intention of perpetuating abuse. Whether they were harmed as a child, suffered with psychological or substance related issues, or simply didn’t possess the resources to take a better course, parents who find themselves in these situations often wish it could have gone another way. So as sad as it is to hear about a child being abused, we must never forget how sad it is for the parents who are responsible.
Yet we know that long before any abuse occurs, seeds have often been laid to make this a real possibility. Years ago, I wrote an article entitled The Essential Elements for Effective Parenting. In the article, I made the contention that beneath any parenting-related experiences, skills or tasks, there are three factors (3 E’s) that determine just how successful we as parents will be. These factors are endurance (of all kinds), empathy, and emotional regulation. So often, well-intentioned actions are derailed by difficulties with one or more of these factors.
I would argue that the same three factors play a central role in why most emotional or physical abuse occurs with kids. So many of the risk factors for abuse create situations where individual capacities in each of these areas are compromised, and this leads to why parents cross a line they intuitively know they shouldn’t cross. Being a single, depressed mother working two jobs who was abused as a child are the risk factors that appear on the surface. But it is the emotional dysregulation, chronic fatigue, and difficulties being empathetic and understanding to the child’s needs (especially during times of heightened stress) that turn out to be the real culprits of abuse.
It is why I believe that effective, community solutions to addressing abuse must provide more than parenting guidance and financial/logistical support. These are great starting points, but they are just that—starting points. As each of the 3 E’s are intricately related to each other, then it is important that long-term solutions integrate them effectively, too.
Starting with endurance, it is so important for all parents to learn how to maintain (or create) an active lifestyle, find foods that are both satisfying and healthy, and develop sleep habits that support their significant demands. Improving in these areas must involve setting individual goals that maximize satisfaction and address known barriers. Maybe one of the most important things we can do for strained parents is to develop groups of individuals who can help each other pursue healthy goals, like joining an exercise class, walking group, or training for a 5K or half-marathon.
When it comes to emotional regulation, teaching skills of dialectal behavior therapy (DBT) in a group setting can offer many accessible ways to improve emotional awareness and control over the long-term. Skills such as mindfulness, distress tolerance, and relationship care have been adapted for all learning levels and can be readily taught in ways that not only reduce the likelihood of abuse, but also improve overall feelings of well-being and peacefulness even in stressful situations. These skills remind us that we do not have to be a slave to our negative thoughts and feelings, but rather feel empowered to acknowledge, accept, and adapt them.
Regarding empathy, the combination of knowledge and common experiences sets the stage for allowing parents, especially young parents, to develop a greater sense of care for their child even when this does not occur naturally. This is where mentorship programs and parent groups and access to ready opportunities for learning can provide exposure to new perspectives that a parent might otherwise not consider in a particularly stressful situation.
Of course, all of this is just the tip of the iceberg, and certainly doesn’t approach the gamut of factors that contribute to concerns in these areas. But it reminds me that I have been so fortunate that my prior experiences and current situation have provided for much opportunity to buffer the abuse potential that lies inside of me. It also creates greater compassion for those parents who were not afforded the opportunities as I was, and suggests that no matter what factors may have contributed to an abusive situation, we need to keep seeking out innovative, accessible solutions to this problem. No one was ever born an abusive parent. Although sadly some parents may never unlock their capacity to provide for a safe environment, I do believe that many possess unrealized potential to transform this way. With the foster care system “bursting at the seams”, the time is now to help grow parental capacity one parent, one community at a time.