Have I totally gone soft as a parent? Am I expecting too much, being too judgmental? I don’t know what to make of this. I just found out that spanking your children is not against the law. The woman taking my report of suspected child abuse at children’s protective services told me this information. After my reporting the details of what I suspected was child abuse, the worker at protective services, matter-of-factly stated, “you know this is not going to be investigated don’t you?” I replied, “Oh, yes, because I said that I didn’t see any marks?” No, that wasn’t the reason. The woman at the department of human services went on to say that physical discipline is not against the law. What do you mean?
The mother (adopted grandmother) admitted to hitting her 3 grandchildren with a belt. I had reported all this to the worker. I was shocked. How am I going to help a child who is acting out in school as the grandmother is reporting to me? According to grandma, my client is also loud and bossy. She gets inpatient with her brothers and argues with them frequently. Really? How is she supposed to act? I imagine that she feels like a cage, trapped animal unable to feel safe to have feelings, given the message that the bigger and stronger one wins when there are problems. And you wonder why your granddaughter is acting out? Geez! I guess that’s why I’m going to keep on doing what I do. I’m going to keep on reporting what I think is suspected child abuse. I always let the caregiver know that I’m doing it because I want to create trust and I think the more transparent I am the better. And I use a little trick that sometimes keeps the family coming back. It’s called the empathy sandwich. I first learned about this about 5 years ago when I started working with children in an outpatient setting.
I share with them that I UNDERSTAND and this is the first piece of bread, figuratively speaking. Then I put the behavior or strategy that we agreed would be used when we collaboratively developed the treatment plan for the child and that’s the middle ingredient of the sandwich. Then lastly, I give another example of my understanding and that’s the second and last piece of the sandwich. I give it to them and wait. Letting them digest it all.
For example, I told the grandmother that I’m a mother too, and a not so perfect one by any means. I go on to say, that I have found that if I do the hard, difficult work first, consistently and with warmth and firm authority, setting clear limits, it will pay off in the long-run, but I know it is hard. Sometimes I mention that I’m often thick-headed, stubborn, and hate it when I’m wrong. So, if I can do it, anyone can. That usually gets a smile. Sometimes not. I may get a finger wagging at me as I recently did when I informed a rather feisty 70 year-old grandmother that I was reporting her to protective services for the report her granddaughter had given me that she was slapped five times while they were in the car together. The grandmother admitted to doing this to her granddaughter who was being rude and sassy. Oh, and the grandmother was driving the car at the time.
I told her after she stopped for a second to take a breath and rest her finger that I hope to have half the energy she has if I’m blessed to live and see my 70th birthday. I guess it may have helped to diffuse the tension that was building in the session and I was showing, I hope, that I cared about her relationship with her and her granddaughter. As it turned out, the father that was my client’s primary caregiver because the client’s biological mother had died from cancer, was exposing her to some environmental distress as he was smoking marijuana daily and refusing to take her to the doctor for complaints of an earache she was having for almost two weeks. I had to inform him that I was going to file a complaint with him too. I’m not overreacting am I?
I’ve gotten written notice from protective services about the majority of my reporting’s being unsubstantiated and closed. I think in some of these cases, there wasn’t even any investigation as far as someone even going to the home and talking to the alleged perpetrator and victim. I understand that the caseworkers are overloaded and I may even be attempting a little of a scare tactic, but what if something serious happens on my watch and I could have done something about it. As the worker that I was talking to said, there is a lot of gray in this area. I can guess I can live with that. Especially when that is something I try to help clients deal with all the time. All or nothing thinking or not being able to deal with the shades of gray is inflexible and makes for maladaptive behaviors. So, once again, I have to say, if I can do it, so can you. I just wanted to see, am I the only one out there that thinks physically disciplining your children should be outlawed? What are your thoughts?
Karen Bates is a counselor, addiction specialist, and a doctoral student at Walden University.