Help for Parents in Times of Stress: Preventing Abuse


In a story told in The Bluebird, by Maurice Maeterlinck, the little children who are to be born are waiting at the quay with Time, who calls out their names as the moment for their departure arrives. Some of them are frightened; some are excited about this new adventure; some would really rather not be born at all, but would like to stay where everything and everyone are familiar.

As they wait to be taken to earth, they hear the strains of a lovely melody. Light, who is with them, tells them that it is the “song of the mothers” coming out to meet them.

For Maeterlinck, this song symbolizes the joy of almost every father and mother as they anticipate the birth of their own special child, as they excitedly plan not only for the birth but for the life of their little one.

Happily, such joy begins the great mortal adventure for most children. But there are times when such is not the case. Sometimes parents, unprepared for this new responsibility, fail to properly care for their child. They hurt the child physically or emotionally in an undisciplined moment of anger or through gradual neglect. In 1981, 851,000 cases of child abuse were reported in the United States. That number increased twelve percent in 1982. (“Child Abuse: The Ultimate Betrayal,” Time, 5 Sept. 1983, p. 20.)

Such figures are alarming. What could cause parents to harm their own children? One factor which may lead to abuse is a feeling of isolation. Sometimes the couple has moved away from family or friends to pursue education or a career. Perhaps the area and culture are unfamiliar, and they are afraid to become involved in the new community. The mother, left to cope with her children by herself, may feel lonely and helpless. The father, trying to adjust to a new schedule, could resent the interference of his children. Perhaps neither has anywhere to turn for help or even for friendship.

Another factor may be a parent’s lack of self-esteem. Most people feel inadequate at some point in their lives and so have difficulty in responding to others’ needs. Low self-esteem can result from a variety of experiences. Parents who marry young, dropping out of high school to take care of their family, may feel inadequate. The young father working at any job he can find may long for better employment but may lack appropriate skills. Perhaps he has the training he needs but is temporarily unemployed. He feels like a failure in his role as provider. Low self-esteem may also result if the parent feels overweight, ugly, or useless, or if he feels he lacks friends or considers himself inadequate as a parent.

Personal stress also influences parents’ behavior toward their children. A father with pressures from school or work might feel frustrated by a crying child. A mother who has too many other tasks to do may be overly annoyed at the need of one child to be held and nurtured. Sometimes, too, this stress can stem from the marriage relationship. A father may find himself out of patience with his two-year-old who seems uncooperative. The child always seems to scream “no” in a loud voice and is generally disruptive. The husband and his wife disagree about how to discipline the child, and the friction between them increases. Financial matters and poor communication may further strain the relationship, causing potential for abuse.

Unrealistic expectations also contribute to feelings of anger, which can in turn lead to abuse. The woman who came to motherhood believing babies are always sweet, cooperative small persons with happy smiles may be easily upset by continual crying and wet diapers. Perhaps her first child slept through the night from the beginning, and she is frustrated by another child’s habit of waking every night at two A.M. The father who dreams of a football-playing son may be disappointed with a little girl or surprised at his son’s seeming lack of coordination. The child may be smaller than usual or have a handicap that requires special care. The parents may be disappointed in the child’s rate of growth and dismayed by a typical two-year-old’s behavior, which seems rebellious or personally offending. Such lack of understanding of the normal development and needs of children may result in frustration and anger.

A very significant factor in parental abuse is the method of discipline parents experienced when they were children themselves. As high as 90 percent of the parents who abuse their children were abused themselves as children.

Any or all of these elements could cause abusive behavior, but they need not. The cycle can be broken through increased trust and knowledge. Abusing or neglectful parents can learn correct and loving skills and principles.

Specifically, what can be done?

First, parents who have succumbed to anger and come close to abusing a child should ask themselves some important questions.

Are there times when I feel that my emotions are out of control? Is punishing my children an outlet for personal anger and frustration? (Discipline is given in love by a parent in control for the benefit of the child. Abuse is given in anger as a release for the parent.) At such times a parent can help himself. Here are some useful techniques:

1. When you catch yourself feeling angry toward your child, stop whatever you are doing. Put the child in a safe place (crib, playpen, or separate room). Say a quick prayer for help from the Lord, then take a few minutes to calm down. You may want to lie down or think of the most peaceful scene you can imagine. Take time in your prayers to talk to the Lord in depth and then listen for his counsel.

2. Call a trusted friend or confidante, your visiting teachers, or home teachers. Having someone to talk to may be just the help you need.

3. Simple friendliness, noticing and extending yourself to new people in the area, alleviates a feeling of loneliness, replacing it with a sense of belonging. Invite others to activities with you and your family.

4. Schedule time for yourself and with your spouse. An occasional night out can give you necessary time away from the children, time to relieve pressures and strengthen marriage and family relationships.

5. Find ways to increase your self-esteem. Get your high school diploma, or complete a college degree. Perhaps you could gain a new skill. Get involved in an exercise program. Exercise not only promotes good health but can help you feel better about yourself. The Church’s Pursuit of Excellence program is one way of identifying and focusing on goals for self-improvement. As you gain a feeling of competence, your feelings of frustration will decrease and you will be more capable of serving and nurturing your children.

6. Enroll in the Family Relations course in Sunday School. This course can provide insight into and strategies for deepening the love you feel for your partner and your family. Relief Society homemaking lessons can help mothers learn wise resource management and increase homemaking skills, which can help alleviate financial stress. Often, Relief Society lessons help mothers develop interpersonal and social relationship skills and a greater understanding of gospel truths that can help them as parents.

7. If the problem is potentially serious, seek counsel from your bishop. The bishop is qualified to assist. He has the guidance of the Spirit and the resources of the Church at his disposal. If additional help is needed, he may refer you to a qualified counselor.

Belonging to a caring community concerned with their needs is a great support to parents. As members of the Church, we have a readily accessible support system we can rely on for help—and as a tool to help others. Lucy Mack Smith, mother of the Prophet Joseph Smith, said to the Relief Society sisters of her day, “We must cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another, and gain instruction, that we may sit down in heaven together.” Perceptive and friendly people can provide a frustrated parent with this type of support by doing such seemingly, simple things as listening to the individual’s problems, taking him or her to lunch occasionally, or helping with yard work.

Substitute grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles can relieve feelings of isolation. Even taking a fussing toddler from a parent who is struggling with little ones during sacrament meeting can help.

Visiting teachers and home teachers can play a powerful role in helping the parents they serve if they really care and are willing to teach and visit sensitively, with the Spirit of the Lord attending them.

For example, a mother who has several children and is aware of the frustrations of rearing young ones could say, “Let me tend your baby while you do your shopping, or even if you just need a nap occasionally.” A visiting teacher, concerned with her own small children, could invite the woman to Relief Society, especially to the Mother Education lessons. Here a struggling mother can see parents with similar problems discussing workable solutions.

As friendships develop, home teachers and visiting teachers can involve the family in Church activities, thus strengthening the circle of concern. The consistent, nonjudgmental, and supportive involvement of a good friend is often the key to a change in the parent-child relationship in a potentially abusing family.

The Church offers other programs ward leaders could use to help struggling parents. Wards with young parents can arrange a night to teach them about the children. The filmstrip Your Baby and You (VVOF3095) can be shown at the meeting and the brochure Your New Baby (PXRS0329) distributed. The brochure correlates with the filmstrip and teaches about normal child development.

Ward employment specialists should help individuals who are out of work find employment. A steady job can do much to alleviate feelings of frustration. If the problems are more serious, requiring professional help, LDS Social Services provides marriage and family counseling.

Child abuse is not an isolated event to which most people are immune. Almost anyone, given sufficient stress and insufficient understanding, might react in ways that could cause harm to a child. It is therefore important to become sensitive to our own needs and the needs of others. As we learn to offer (or seek) the kinds of assistance that will reduce stress and help parents, we will begin to prevent the tragedy of child abuse.

If that is done, the “lovely song of the mothers” coming out to meet the spirits about to be born will echo into forever, renewed again and again throughout each lifetime. May it be a beautiful song, unclouded by abuse or neglect, a song of joy and happiness and great love.

Warning Signs of Child Abuse and Neglect

Child abuse is defined as real or threatened damage to the physical or emotional health of a child. It includes nonaccidental physical or mental injury, sexual abuse, or repeated negligent treatment or maltreatment. Abuse decreases a child’s ability to love and trust others.

Factors Which May Lead to Abuse

1. Parental predisposition: The parent has a greater potential for abuse and neglect when he or she—

  • was abused as a child

  • has a poor self-image

  • is isolated from and distrustful of others

  • has little emotional support from spouse or others

  • has no spouse (especially if never married or divorced)

  • has unrealistic expectations of children

2. Perception of a child as being different: A child may be, or may be seen as being—

  • physically handicapped

  • mentally retarded

  • smaller than average, sickly

  • a reminder of someone whom the parent dislikes or resents

  • from an unwanted pregnancy

3. A precipitating event: The final action, small or large, of the child which results in abusive behavior by the parent or caretaker. There is usually some underlying stress or stresses, including—

  • unfulfilled expectations, lack of satisfaction or communication in marriage

  • financial difficulties

  • separation from family and peers, especially in minority groups and military units

  • alcoholism or other drug abuse

  • loss of job or employment instability

  • serious illness, injury, or death in the family

  • divorce

Abuse is most likely to occur when elements from all three of these categories are present. Prevention can take place by neutralizing these factors; it must include meeting the needs, especially the emotional needs, of the parent as well as the child.

If there are known or even suspected cases of abuse which have already occurred or been verified, it is mandatory by law in many states to report the abuse to the proper authority. This is done to protect the child from further damage and to help the parent. Qualified professional counselors, who are skilled in evaluating and assisting in such cases, will be able to accomplish what well-meaning, but unskilled and untrained, persons might not be able to do.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Help for Parents in Times of Stress,” you may wish to consider the following:

1. What are the potential causes of child abuse? Do any of these factors influence your life or the life of someone you know?

2. What stress do you feel in your life? What can you do to alleviate it?

3. Discuss these areas of stress with your spouse or a friend. Are there ways you can help each other?

4. Is there a new family in the neighborhood? What can you do to become their friend?

5. What have you done lately to build the self-esteem of your spouse? ward members? friends? What else can you do?

6. Evaluate yourself in your call as home teacher or visiting teacher. How can you better help the people you visit?

[illustration] Illustrated by Cary Henrie

Joy Evans, mother of seven children, is a member of the Relief Society General Board.