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Is It Discipline -- or Abuse?

QUESTION: I have a grandson who is four and a half years old. He is a bright child. The problem is his single, divorced mom. She constantly "pops" him with a paint stirrer for the most minor behavior. She hollers at him, pinches him, and spanks him with a switch, with little provocation. She seems to take her anger and frustrations out on him. I have tried to take her aside and talk to her about this, but she says that he is just a bad boy and needs to be punished. After our Christmas family dinner, my grandson ran out to my car and begged to come home with me. He said he was afraid to go home. Whenever he is in his mother's presence he is constantly keeping eye contact with her to see if he is doing the right thing. Her attitude is that she will not let him get away with anything or he will take advantage of her. Are these signs of an abusive parent? What can we do?

ANSWER: Indeed your grandson's fear and over-vigilance of his mother's behavior alone can be signs of abuse. And your observations of her actions and attitude towards parenting increase the likelihood that your suspicions are correct. Be aware that this is not because she is a single parent, but because she may lack basic parenting skills. Children are harmed by abuse every day in both two-parent families and single-parent families.

Discipline should be a part of helping children learn to control themselves. Age-appropriate considerations must be a part of this equation. And nurturing healthy self-esteem in children is essential to helping them learn how to control their own behavior. It is very likely that your grandson's mother needs intervention to help her understand the nature of positive discipline.

As you have already realized, voicing your concerns privately to your grandson's mother when she acts inappropriately should be the first step. In your case, however, this has not helped. Although in normal family circumstances I would advise a grandparent not to criticize a parent's methods in front of a child, in an abusive situation the usual respect for parental authority is necessarily challenged. That means it is appropriate for you to speak out against the abusive behavior, even in your grandson's presence. Your grandson can benefit from hearing that his mother's actions are not in line with what others expect. A protest against abuse reflects the fact that society does not agree with the way the child is being treated. Silence sends the message that everything is all right, when it is definitely not!

But that is not all you can do. Since you have already tried to approach the mother without success, you should now consider reporting your observations to Child Protective Services in the county in which your grandson and his mother reside. (The directory assistance operator can help you locate the correct phone number.) Once alerted, CPS should begin an investigation into this matter.

Although this may sound extreme to you, there is a possibility that your grandchild is at risk in an abusive situation that requires your involvement, and that of any other adults who have witnessed this child's distress. Your report to CPS is, in effect, a request for an assessment, not for a condemnation of the mother. Be careful, too, that your own attitude is not one of criticizing the mother, but of helping her. Authorities can then determine the seriousness of the situation and figure out the best way to help both her and her child. Perhaps you can be an important partner in this process.

CPS exists to protect our children. If its investigation determines there may be a problem, its first approach is generally to get a parent on track with parenting classes, family therapy, and identification of competent family members who may serve to be the "conscience" for parents who are either overwhelmed or lack appropriate judgment in parenting (perhaps because they had been abused themselves).

Once a person becomes a parent, that person is accountable to society to act in the child's best interests. Your grandson's mother is no exception. She appears to need help with guidelines in several areas of parenting, including dealing with her own frustrations without taking them out on her child. Help her by creating a situation in which she is accountable for her behavior. It's possible that she, too, has been the victim of abuse. But this is no excuse! Bringing her behavior to the attention of the authorities may give her the opportunity to stem the tide of abuse, instead of passing it down to the next generation.

Children die every day from strangulation and hitting by overwrought parents who believe their child is at fault. It is our job as adults in society to protect children. If the disaster we fear does happen, we are morally (though not legally) responsible for having failed to take action. Sometimes we simply have to get involved!

While it is possible that reporting your observations to CPS may create tension between you and your grandchild's mother, at least temporarily, it is also the case that an intervention in which others add their voice to yours will eventually allow her to perceive you as an ally against the abuse. This is indeed quite a hurdle to get over, but it is what we hope for in this situation. After all, what are families for, if not to help each other confront our demons and work through problems that cause us pain rather than joy in our family relationships?

If, after careful consideration, you are still hesitant to report the abuse yourself, consider asking a person who has observed the situation and agrees with your concerns to make the call. If you are concerned about repercussions from the mother, you may find that you can report the incident without divulging your identity as the grandparent. And certainly, if the father is on the scene, by all means talk to him before reporting, and get him involved in a solution if at all possible! (A father is legally responsible for any abuse if he was aware of it and took no action to stop it.) You may also consider seeking professional advice from a family counselor to clarify the best way for you to proceed in this delicate but crucial situation.

Your grandson's cry for help is directed towards you as a trusted adult. He is counting on you to shed some light on the situation!

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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