Published: Monday, June 25, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
What is the difference between discipline and child abuse?
Many people question child abuse based on their own life experiences — often on the discipline they received growing up. It is common to hear, “I was given spankings (lickings, beatings, whoopings…) and I’m not traumatized. In fact I deserved it (learned a lesson, never did it again…).”
Are these people deluding themselves? Are they victims living in denial? Probably not.
How do we know that the experience of trauma is not a function of a weakness, deficit, or imagination in the child or in over-reactive child protection workers?
The answer has to do with the emotional content of the punishment. There are three basic types:
1. Resignation, concern, desire to teach and love:
This is “the way they were raised” or taught to believe was the best, most proper way to raise children. It is meant to be child-centered and focused on the good of the child.
2. Anger, savage release, hatred:
The parent experiences a release of frustration, anger, fear, or rage sometimes unrelated to the behavior in question or even the child. It is focused on the (usually short-term) needs of the parent and may involve later remorse or regret.
May involve humiliation and intimidation and keeps the child terrified of the parent. It may involve less (physically) severe violence than the second type, but is more calculated and ultimately more vicious. It is almost always associated with psychological and at times sexual abuse.
People who object to use of the term “child abuse” to describe physical punishment may recall childhood punishment associated with the first category.
And there is a good argument that this type of punishment, while ultimately less effective than other methods of discipline and undesirable for what it teaches children about power and violence, is not child abuse.
Type 2 is more likely to cross the line. When truly beaten in anger by those he or she trusts and needs most, the child experiences the violence and rage with overwhelming fear. Children’s understanding of themselves and their relationship to the world turns from an organized world-view to unpredictable chaos.
When the severity of violence is not based on the behavior, the child internalizes the punishment — the child believes that what is wrong or bad is not the behavior but the child. The child also learns that there is no way to predict the reactions of others based on their behavior.
This punishment is counterproductive. Rather than learn that the behavior is wrong (and to stop behaving that way), children learn it doesn’t matter what they do, because the reaction or response is neither organized nor predictable. Type 2 involves physical and psychological abuse.
Type 3 is the most insidious and by definition abusive. It is also the most difficult for most people to accept. How is it possible to derive pleasure from physically punishing your child unless you’re a monster? Is this some figment of the imagination, or some propaganda ploy, of the “child abuse industry.”
No. There are those who do derive pleasure from the beatings they inflict on those most vulnerable. The scientific explanation relates to a disconnect between the part of our brain associated with predatory instincts (that once served our ancestors who had to survive as hunters with only their wits, primitive tools and their predatory drive), and the part of the brain that developed over time that inhibits those instincts (except in times of catastrophic threat).
It may be that an intense pleasure-release at the point of violence and a fine-tuned ability to focus on the most vulnerable prey made our ancestors better hunters, better able to provide food for themselves, their families and their clan or tribe. However this is no longer necessary, appropriate, or acceptable — particularly when it involves our children.
It is crucially important that the public understands the distinct difference between the punishment handed down by well-meaning, if misdirected, parents and the abuse inflicted upon children who depend on the protection of adults outside their immediate families for their survival. It is not a case of “spare the rod, spoil the child,” this is a case of blood on the nursery walls.
Thomas N. Dikel, Ph.D., is a child clinical and forensic psychologist and pediatric neuropsychologist in Gainesville.