The Conversation: Our best response to child abuse may be to just understand

Ann Thomas is vice president of program administration at the Children’s Place in Brookside. April is Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Ann Thomas is vice president of program administration at the Children’s Place in Brookside. April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. The Kansas City Star

Ann Thomas of Olathe is vice president of program administration at the Children’s Place, a therapeutic preschool and outpatient treatment center for children under the age of 8 who have experienced abuse neglect or trauma; the organization also offers support groups for parents. Thomas, who earned a master’s in social work from the University of Kansas and is a licensed clinical social worker and adjunct professor in play therapy at MidAmerica Nazarene University, also counsels children and parents. Because April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, I wanted to talk to Thomas about the recent debate over whether spanking is OK; how we should respond when we see parents behaving abusively toward a child in public, and how stressed parents can keep their cool. This conversation took place at the Children’s Place in Brookside.

The Adrian Peterson story showed that as a society we aren’t sure about whether spanking is OK and even what constitutes spanking. Some people say they don’t spank, but they might swat a kid on the bottom once to get them to stop doing something. What would you say to help people sort that out?

The law says it is OK to spank your child in a reasonable manner, as determined by others.

Do you think the law should be changed?

(Long pause.) No. I think parents need to be allowed to make choices in how they raise their children.

At the same time, we have to recognize parenting practices have changed. Historically, spanking your children and using punitive discipline was acceptable. But what we have learned is that it’s not very effective, and it can have long-term negative impacts on the child’s social and emotional growth.

Why isn’t spanking effective?

It stops the behavior in the moment, but it doesn’t have a teaching impact. It doesn’t help the child learn how to act differently the next time. You are not helping the child grow and learn how to communicate with others when there is a problem.

And it conveys the message that violent action is the way to solve a problem. But we have to deal with the history of this practice going back for generations.

Just because that’s how we were raised doesn’t make it a best practice.

Right. It’s the same as car seats and seat belts: We used to let kids ride in cars without car seats, but then we learned it is safer to buckle them in.

In the same way, we’ve learned more about parenting. We’ve learned that to be a good parent is stressful, that we have to understand child development and that we have to understand our own emotional health.

What are some misconceptions about child abuse?

Cases where people are mentally ill and hurt their children are what make the news, but that is not what most abuse cases look like.

What do most child abuse cases look like?

It’s parents that adore their children, that have a great amount of shame and remorse because in a moment they made a choice they wish they never had made.

Most of the families we see here are incredibly stressed, and I don’t know (pause) — I think if most of the rest of us had to live with the stresses some of these families do, we would make some of the same choices. We like to think we would be different, but we can’t walk in someone else’s shoes. When the electricity is shut off, you are about to lose your job, your child has been asked to leave school and you can’t go to work. At some point we all run out of patience.

What is your best advice for parents who adore their children but have done things they regret — hit a child in anger or thrown things?

Forgive yourself. And work to not do it again.

How do you do that?

The No. 1 thing is to come up with a different strategy for the next time you feel that overwhelmed.

Can you give an example?

Next time, I will have them go to their room, and I will walk into the kitchen.

It’s not enough to vow to not do it again. You have to have a plan for what you will do instead.

What can people do to support children in the neighborhood whose parents are the type who yell a lot or smack their kids?

Those parents are very stressed, and they need a friend. They need someone to smile at them, sit down next to them and say, “How’s your day going?” and get to know them as a person.

Which is the opposite of our instinct, which would be to give volatile people a wide berth.

Right. The caveat is, if we see abuse happen, we have to report it. It’s not OK to hurt children, and any abuse you’ve seen or that you suspect needs to be hotlined.

I’ve seen people post in social media about feeling conflicted about whether to intervene when they witness a parent screaming at a child in a grocery store. What should a bystander do?

Think about how to change the situation. If the child is being hit, the answer is, call the police.

What if the parent isn’t hitting but is yelling or threatening? What is the best response?

Sometimes a “hello.” Because at that moment the parent is “in it,” so to speak. And to realize you are probably not going to get a warm, friendly response back.

But even a comment such as, “It’s difficult to bring your kids to Target sometimes.” Or, “I remember my children doing the same thing.” To kind of normalize part of it.

Sometimes when you can sense a situation is going south, if you can just smile at the parent and say, “They test us, don’t they?” I’ve done that in stores. Just an acknowledgment that parenting is really, really hard.

And you don’t know what just happened in that woman’s life. She may have just found out her dad died. We don’t know what that tipping point is in people’s lives, and we are just seeing them in one moment of their life and it may not be reflective of their parenting abilities, and that is what we have to be nonjudgmental about.

To reach Cindy Hoedel, call 816-234-4304 or send email to Follow her on Twitter @CindyHoedel, and on Facebook.