a guest post by Sheena Hill of Parenting Works
On a rainy February evening, Kim stated loudly, “I don’t like this class anymore” as the group I was facilitating discussed the historical and social implications of the tradition of violence. We had spent the last 6 weeks building rapport and setting a foundation for understanding all the things that proactively play into discipline. Though she didn’t disrupt the class, I could see her retreating to her own thoughts. This mom was no longer learning, no longer present in the class or engaged with us. Even though I attempted to follow up with her after class, she insisted that her 13 years of spanking had been justified. Still, she desperately wanted me know that she was a “good mom” and really loved her son. She felt that she had been preparing him for the world through spanking and insisted she was “doing the best” she could. As an educator, these kinds of situations are really challenging for me. I strive to connect with every student and when they leave in a funk—feeling bad about themselves as parents–I worry that I have lost them.
I have spent most of the last decade seeking to understand the effect of violence in families and teaching classes on alternatives to spanking. For the most part, I have found that parents walk away from these classes transformed–feeling empowered and capable of disciplining without spanking. They are able to reframe their role as parents and see their relationships with their children differently. At the very least, they gain a deeper understanding of their kid’s behaviors and the needs they express, instead of attributing them to inherently negative things. But sometimes, a parent has a strong negative reaction to the facts about the harm spanking causes in children and families.
For some parents, who have come to rely on spanking, learning about the extent of the danger is overwhelming. They may feel deceived by the information they hear in class. It is easier to resist the new information than to really reconsider past choices they’ve made. These strong feelings can be further exacerbated by the confusing feelings that arise when parents have experienced being spanked by their own parents. The reality that they were deceived by their own experience or their own parents is often too hard to face, so the feelings get deflected or transferred onto other targets.
What I’ve noticed is that parents who experience a strong negative reaction to spanking research navigate through a distinct pattern of reactions. Seeing the intensity of these emotions firsthand, I was motivated to understand them so I could best support parents as they work through them. My efforts have led me to equate them to the stages of the grieving process.
Stages of Spanking Grief
- Denial: parents do not want to believe the research on both the short-term and long-term impacts of spanking on the brain, body and relationships. Includes the dismissal of research with antidotal stories (especially their own) and detachment from their (negative) feelings.
- Anger: parents aggressively defend and justify spanking when the underlying emotion becomes more present than the denial; the eruption is often projected at outside (innocent) bystanders. Includes a feeling of being judged by those who choose not to spank.
- Guilt and bargaining: parents bargain with themselves, with statements such as, “It was only as a last resort”, “It was for safety or their own good”, “But, it’s in the Bible”, or “How can it be wrong if that was what was done to me?”
- Fear and depression: parents wonder if it’s too late to repair the damage caused by spanking and worry about their ability to bounce back from their experiences with spanking.
- Acceptance: finally, parents allow themselves to honestly feel their full range of emotions. By witnessing these emotions, they are more receptive to research and interested in seeking alternatives to spanking. Through a variety of resources, they can consider what to do next, in order to educate themselves on effective discipline and work to repair their relationships.
Why Does Spanking Cause Such a Strong Reaction?
Facing the reality of the disruption spanking creates in family relationships is beyond difficult. Even when parents are able to acknowledge the dangers, learning to accept and live with them can remain daunting. Shame and guilt are complex emotions. Parents are left thinking, “My parents caused me harm, I caused my child harm. How could I have been harmed by someone I love? How can I have harmed someone I love?” What’s worse, many people think they “deserved” their spankings and that it taught them to be who they are today. This internalization of the pain is quite normal because it is easier to equate that feeling to ourselves than to a trusted parent or caregiver. I have found, through personal and professional experience, that the only way to manage these intense negative feelings about spanking is to reach that place of acceptance.
Bouncing Back from Your Choice to Spank
- Make a commitment not to spank: commit to yourself, your children, your family and your friends that you are not going to spank your child for any reason, even as a last resort or safety measure.
- Write down your reasons for not spanking: what are your parenting goals and values? What do you want from your relationship with your children? What are you really trying to teach your kids?
- Shift your perspective: In order to understand the dissonance between the internal and external worlds of your child, think of your child’s behavior as an opportunity to connect. Consider the (internal) emotions and needs they are communicating instead of focusing on their (external) actions.
- Have a family meeting: Model acceptance of your mistakes by talking about them with your child in an age-appropriate manner. It is ok to admit that a previous choice turned out to be a mistake. It’s important to tell them when it will stop and what they can expect from you instead. You can say, “I don’t want to spank you anymore. Starting today, when I get angry I’m going to do some jumping jacks or walk away to calm down.”
- Learn what to do instead of spank: empower yourself with techniques and research in discipline, communication, nurturing, relationship building, and emotional intelligence. Remember that changing habits and mastering new skills requires practice and patience. Stay focused on your goals and be gentle with yourself on your path to success.
- Have good self-care: practice your emotional intelligence skills–including self-control of your own emotions, find a mantra or breathing exercise which can help you calm down in the moment. Make sure that you get the nutrition, exercise and sleep you need to fulfill your own basic needs, realizing that you also have spiritual, emotional, social, creative and intellectual needs to meet. I know that this is truly one of the toughest things for many parents because it can seem impossible to simply find the time. Make it a priority. Taking the time to have a date with your partner, chat with a friend or take a long bubble bath are not selfish, they are a necessary part of having the energy you need to parent responsively.
- Be proactive: good discipline is proactive, rather than reactive. Focus on how you prepare so that you respond in an authentic way to all childhood behavior. Knowing about child development and having a clear idea of what to expect for your child’s age is crucial to keeping your cool in situations where you feel tested. By anticipating and reading what your children need, you can save yourself a lot of frustration and avoid many of the “reasons” parents spank.
- Get support: for many people, the path of peaceful parenting is isolating. Though I know that the righteous path is often a lonely one, living by your values is easier when you have the support you need. Talk to your partner about your parenting goals, find local friends, meet-up groups or online groups where people with your parenting values congregate. If there aren’t any in your area, consider starting a play group or parenting book club. I bet there are parents like you who are also seeking support and they would be grateful that you took the first step.
Bouncing Back from Being Spanked
Recovering from being spanked by a parent can be trickier than recovering from spanking your child because the relationship with your own parents may have grown more complicated with age and reconnecting may be more challenging. When we make changes in how we parent, our children often respond positively to the increased connection and are receptive to those changes. However, when we confront our own parents about their choice to spank, it can be harder to find common ground if they cannot see the potential harm it caused us.
- Try to forgive your parent and talk to them about your feelings and the new things you have learned. I hope that they can be receptive, but know that they may not be. While there are indeed some evil, narcissistic parents who aspired to neglect and cause harm to their children, most parents spanked without knowing the harm it caused.
- Seek therapy (in whatever healthy form works for you) to address any deep feelings about your own parents.
- Forgive yourself for your childhood imperfections. Regardless of how adults in your life made you feel about your childhood choices, your behavior was not inherently wrong and you did not deserve to be punished for acting like a child.
- Commit not to spank your own children: one of the best ways we can heal from our own childhood experiences is to “break the cycle” and make different choices in our adults lives.
Recovering from being spanked is a personal, often private, journey. But you don’t have to do it alone. When you reach acceptance, you can start to experience hope that you can parent differently and get past your feelings of guilt, insecurity and fear. On the other side of the disappointment, frustration, and despair is a safe place where you can focus more on the joy of practicing self-control. The feeling of empowerment–knowing that you can parent differently and that you always have a choice—enables you to experience the true freedom of parenting with appreciation and respect. Parenting through informed choices offers more opportunities to see your children’s behavior through “rose colored glasses”, having positive expectations and beliefs about their needs and abilities. Mostly, the freedom allows you to feel enthusiastic and confident in your own abilities as a parent. Because when you feel better about your efficacy, it is easier to do something with increased ease and enjoyment.
The mom in my recent class had a strong emotional reaction which forced her brain to shut down functions extraneous to survival (like learning new information). Amazingly, fight or flight kicks in whenever the brain perceives danger, even if that danger is an emotional one. The emotional stressor caused the grief process and Kim reverted to a defensive position in order to fend off the threat. Since she had been spanked and relied on spanking in her discipline, her understanding of parenting inextricably included spanking and it was hard to imagine an alternative reality. When she left with a tensed jawbone and stooped shoulders that night, I wondered if she would be back and I worried about it all week. I contacted one of my mentors and sought support. Not only did she come back, she stayed and chatted with me after class for the next several weeks and we were able to work through her negative emotions together. Once we got past them, she was inspired to focus on her parenting strengths and move forward to build her relationship with her son.
Once the stages of grief begin–since no learning is taking place–in a sense, I have lost parents. But my hope is that it is only temporary. The next week they will return to class, a little more open to discuss spanking and receptive to learning about discipline alternatives. This is my ultimate goal as a parent educator and it keeps me motivated to work with parents every day, continuing to advocate against spanking. I know that change is possible for parents because I’ve seen it. I hope the tools and stories you’ve received this month have nurtured your confidence as a peaceful parent and reminded you that change is possible for your family, too.
Sheena Hill, CBE, CPST, MFS, MAJE, is a homeschooling mom and child advocate with over 10 years of experience as a Certified Parent Education Specialist. As a social worker, she counseled families in the non-profit world for 8 years before going into private practice. As the founder and director of Parenting Works, she educates and empowers parents through group and private workshops and individual parent coaching. She designs and facilitates classes focusing on gentle discipline, healthy communication, and emotional intelligence. Through classes and private sessions, she supports and inspires parents to reach their full parenting potential by enabling them to be more responsive, respectful and consistent in their practices. Her enthusiastic approach to parent education keeps parents coming back. Aside from her ability to compose silly songs (entertaining and annoying her daughter), her super powers are helping families enhance their relationships and mitigate power struggles. You can learn more about her dynamic work on Facebook www.facebook.com/ParentingWorks and at the website http://parentingworks.weebly.com/.