When Parents Hit Their Teenagers
By Laura Sessions Stepp, Washington Post, April 27, 1999

On a brutally cold winter night in a slumbering Reston neighborhood, Erin Regan decided to run away. Her 14 years had been one crazy loop-the-loop from mother to aunt to foster family to grandmother and back to mother. She was ready to split.

But her mom wasn't ready to let her. As Erin opened the screen door of the family room downstairs, Patty Bossie grabbed her oldest child and mirror image. The two blue-eyed strawberry blondes tussled as they had many times before. Erin broke away and ran into her room with Patty close behind. Erin kicked a hole in the wall and Patty slapped her. Together in the kitchen a few seconds later, both of them burst into tears.

"I'm such a bad mom," Patty cried.

"No, you're not," Erin responded. "I'm a bad kid."

"I shouldn't hit you," Patty sobbed, wrapping arms around her tall, tense daughter. "But I don't know what else to do."

Neither do lots of other parents of adolescents, apparently. According to an article in a forthcoming professional journal, more than half of 12-year-olds are hit, slapped, pinched, shaken or spanked by their parents for doing something wrong. One out of three 14-year-olds shares that distinction, and one out of five 16-year-olds.

Common Punishment

"I was surprised by how common corporal punishment of teenagers is," says Murray Straus, a sociologist and author of the article to be published later this year in Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review. Straus, who analyzed self-reports from a national sample of parents, also was startled by the frequency of such incidents. "I thought it would be a major crisis that provokes parents," he says, "but it must not be. Parents reported hitting their kids on average six times a year."

Occasionally, such incidents capture public attention, as in the story earlier this year of a longtime Southern University baseball coach allegedly kicking his 13-year-old son in the buttocks so hard that the boy had difficulty walking for several days.

But mostly these episodes simmer in the background of teens' lives. In a computer chat room hosted recently by the youth pastor of Arlington's Columbia Baptist Church, several teens were asked if they knew anyone their age who had been slapped or hit by a parent.

"Hell, yeah, tons," replied a 15-year-old girl. "I was, a few months ago," said a boy, 16.

The boy said he mouthed off at his mother. The 15-year-old said her friends get whacked for smoking or busting curfew.

No one can yank parents' chains quite as hard as a defiant teenager. When the 12-year-old son of a Fort Washington man took apart the family's television, saying afterward that he had wanted to see how it worked, the man accepted his reasoning. But then the boy did the same thing with the stereo. A few weeks later, the boy chipped his bed and put a hole in a closet.

Each misdeed made his dad not only angrier, but sadder. He hadn't spent a lot of time with the boy as a young child, and "now I'm missing more time by him doing the stuff he's doing," he said.

What was he supposed to do? he wondered at the time. Standing his son in the corner or putting him in "timeout" obviously wouldn't work. Their altercations grew worse until one evening, he decided to use his belt. As he moved toward his son, the boy drew back. "I punched him in the chest, hard," the father said, so ashamed that he asked not to be identified.

He has since started his son on a system of rewards and punishments partly out of fear that if he were to hit his son again, he would really injure him.

His fear is justified, according to several therapists who work at homes for troubled teens. A teen who is hit frequently attempts to hit back, which escalates the violence and potential for serious harm.

Marc Baskin, who works at Fairfax County's Alternative House, says about half of his clients have been assaulted by their parents. "They will say they were in an argument and their father slapped them across the face. Or slammed them against the wall, I hear that a lot."

Escalation

This potential for escalation shows up in the fact that 12- to 14-year-olds are victims of physical abuse -- commonly defined as punishment that leaves marks -- at twice the rate of toddlers, according to a study on child abuse and neglect prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The proportion of parents who hit teens used to be even higher, according to Straus, but public approval of spanking at any age has declined over the last 20 years. Even several well-known spanking proponents, such as conservative Christian psychologist and author James Dobson, say corporal punishment should "rarely, if ever," be used on a child 11 years of age or older.

But in a country decidedly more pro-spanking than other Western nations, there are many who don't agree with Dobson on this issue. A tenants association in Cleveland, for example, recently advocated the use of belts, cords and switches on teens who use drugs.

Further, about a year and a half ago, David Zublick, a Michigan father who says he is a minister, started a Web site called SpankingParents, specifically to support parents who spank their children, no matter what age.

Several months later Zublick put another site on the Web, illustrated with animated photos of children being spanked over the knee, and the sound of wailing kids available to users of computers with audio capacity. He called it ParentNow. ParentNow's discussion group is peppered with examples of 11-, 12- and even 16-year-olds being spanked, sometimes in the presence of their friends. More than once Zublick, going by the name Goodfathr, recommends that a parent preparing to spank an older child remove any clothing covering the child's buttocks in order that the youth might feel "acute embarrassment."

In a letter to The Washington Post, Zublick said he believes "children should be disciplined with whatever works, so long as the choice of discipline is not abusive. . . . The option of corporal punishment should be available to parents if other methods are not working." Judging by the postings on his site, his approach is popular, although as with any site it is difficult to distinguish the genuine parents from the impostors.

Patty Bossie didn't start off hitting Erin after Erin moved in with her, her husband and their young kids. In fact, she spoiled Erin at first because she felt guilty about having left her with relatives for so many years.

The altercations started when Patty began making demands. Clean the family room, she would tell Erin; Erin would say she was too tired. Be home by 11 p.m. from that party, Patty would say, and Erin would return home hours after curfew. Patty would yell at Erin, and "I would say something back," Erin recalls. "She'd slap me, I'd try to hit back, she'd pin me down."

Patty remembers Erin throwing her arms up in front of her face as protection rather than fighting back. Either version, she says, is not a pretty story. "I didn't have any skills to discipline a teenager. When I was little I got spanked all the time. My father swatted me on the butt until I was 14 and he died. I didn't know anything else."

With the help of family and individual therapy, Patty began to realize that her daughter was acting out in order to establish a connection -- however prickly -- that she had longed to have all her short life. She also came to believe that hitting Erin wasn't accomplishing anything positive. It caught her daughter's attention, then made her even more defiant.

Hitting-Misbehavior Link

Research bears out a strong correlation between hitting teens and increased misbehavior. This is true even if the parent offers solid reasons for the punishment and acts lovingly most of the time. The adolescent wants more than anything to be treated as an adult, and the blows knock her right back into childhood. Physical force denies her the opportunity to use her own reasoning and forge her own standards of behavior.

Therapists and youth workers say there are several ways to provide such opportunities for growth while redirecting the adolescent away from problem behavior. The first is to ask the young person to help set rules for behavior, and consequences for misbehavior, long before potentially troubled situations occur.

Setting Consequences

The Rev. Stuart Cocanougher, the youth minister at Columbia Baptist, suggests consequences that teach kids something about adult life. For example, if homework isn't done, the consequence might be a privilege withheld, such as time on the telephone or computer. "They need to know that in real life, if you don't work, you don't gain a lot of fun benefits," Cocanougher reasons.

Cocanougher urges parents to spell out what they have in mind. "Let's say they're going out the door to play ball and you say, 'You're not going out until your room is clean.' They may not think their room is dirty. We parents want to discipline after the fact when we haven't been very clear about what our expectations are."

The teenagers in the computer chat room with Cocanougher said parents should listen to a teen's side of the story before deciding on a specific punishment. But listening is not enough, according to Patty Bossie. It's important to tell your daughter or son that you understand how they're feeling -- and be prepared for them to tell you that you're all wet.

Patty remembers an altercation with Erin who yelled at her, "I'm not you, how could you know what it's like to be me? Where were you when I was little? You were out with some drunk."

Patty replied, "Yeah, you're right. I was a bum. I was not a parent for you. But you still have to clean up your room."

She did not get angry and she acknowledged the validity of what Erin was saying, defusing her daughter's temper, she said. Then she gave Erin a choice, not whether to clean her room but when. Once you clean your room, you can watch that video we rented, she told Erin, allowing her daughter to exercise some control.

Granting privileges works much better than grounding, the experts say, partly because parents tend to ground kids for absurdly long periods of time, then relent.

Patty believes she has learned a lot since that winter night a year and a half ago when Erin tried to run away. Still, her temper flares up on occasion. At those times, "I take a timeout," she says. She walks out of the house if she has to. With her younger children, now 3, 4 and 5, she can't do this, but with Erin she can. She returns to Erin when both have had time to cool off.

Sometimes, that's still not enough, and Patty will call on a Fairfax County social worker who has been enlisted to help the family on a regular basis.

Finding a mediator when communication between parent and kid is collapsing is a good idea, says Deborah Daro, a child abuse expert at the University of Chicago. It can be any adult that both parent and kid trust: a favorite teacher, the parent of a kid's friend.

At first Patty resisted the suggestion of another person poking into her family's business. "I wanted to be in control," she said. "I knew my kid. They didn't."

But gradually she realized she wasn't in control. Her past was. When she hit Erin, she was on automatic pilot. "It's not a fun feeling to slap your child and leave an impression on her face. I was not thinking about her best interest. I was simply saying, 'I'll show you.' "

"Parents focus so hard on being stern and controlling," Erin says, "they forget that the kid is really scared and trying to figure out who they are. If parents would listen and teens would express how they feel, the two sides wouldn't forget what had happened but they'd understand each other a little better."

She and her mom still fight, she says, but they understand each other a lot better. "I can't imagine life without her."

Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company


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