Smat Parenting During and After Divorce: What to Do When Your Child Tells You He or She Was Hit at the Co-Parent's House (page 2)
There is a difference between being spanked and being hit. Neither spanking nor hitting a child is a particularly good way of changing behavior. Aggressive discipline creates aggressive children, whether the physical contact is not considered abuse but "acceptable corporal punishment" (usually a swat on the backside with your open hand or a slap on the wrist), or whether it is considered abuse (striking a child hard enough to leave a mark, striking a child in the face or head area, striking a child with an object like a belt or shoe). Not all states have the same definition of abuse, so if you do use corporal punishment on your children, you had better be aware of what is considered criminal or neglectful and what is considered acceptable.
Your child may come home to you or may come to visitation complaining of being physically disciplined by the other parent. If that happens, you can either immediately accuse the other parent of being a child abuser and set out to prove it to the world, or you can rationally investigate to see whether your child is in danger.
As with many other topics I have discussed in this book, you can ask a co-parent a nonthreatening question, but it will not always be taken as such. That should not stop you from asking your question in a neutral and civilized way, regardless of what you suspect the reaction will be. This is one of many appropriate ways to begin such a conversation with the co-parent: "Billy came to my house a little cranky today. Is there anything that you know of that is bothering him?"
This might be the start of a productive discussion, or it might be a replay of other arguments that ultimately have an unproductive ending. If it does not turn into an immediate argument, you can continue by saying: "One of the things that he mentioned while he was talking was that he got spanked and it hurt him. Did you spank him today for something?" This statement is a lot more straightforward than the first statement, but it is still very appropriate, and it is merely reporting information. As always, this is not to suggest you will get a pleasant reaction.
You can soften that by saying, "I did not call to argue or criticize, and I know that Billy can be a handful, but maybe there is a different way of handling him when he misbehaves." If you are able to get this far, at the very least you will have communicated your concerns. In a high-conflict, poor co-parenting relationship, this is about as far as you will get in most cases.
Determining Whether Your Child Is in Danger
You must now decide whether your child's complaints represent a danger to him. Pay attention to the following cues:
- You notice marks or bruises on fleshy parts of the arms, thighs, and buttocks—especially those that look like four dots or finger marks close together—or two parallel lines or half-moon marks that can be from pinching. Belt marks look like slashes on the back, buttocks, or backs of thighs. Accidental bruising from play or clumsiness usually occurs on bony prominences such as chins, shins, foreheads, and elbows. While there is no way of generalizing, you can use these descriptions as very broad guidelines.
- Your child is afraid or emotional when she tells the story of what happened.
- Reports of suspected abuse come to you from teachers or from other people in your child's life who may be responsible for reporting physical abuse.
- Your child displays increased aggressiveness.
- You notice flinching when you move near your child or try to play or roughhouse in a normal way.
If communicating with the co-parent is impossible, and your child is saying that he is hit or hurt at the other parent's house, the suggested course of action is as follows.
- Take your child to the pediatrician for an examination of any suspicious marks or bruises. If you cannot contact the pediatrician, take your child to the local emergency room. Pediatricians and emergency room doctors are required by law to report suspected abuse or neglect.
- Make an appointment for your child to be interviewed by a behavioral counselor who is familiar with the signs and symptoms of physical abuse.
- Consult an attorney on the correct procedure to protect your child by court intervention.
If you decide to restrict visitation on the basis of what your child tells you, do so cautiously, and be certain that you have had input from treating professionals and from your attorney about whether this is advisable.
Do ask your child questions about where he got a suspicious-looking welt or bruise. If the child says he was hit, call your co-parent to see what went on, and then call child welfare authorities if you think there was abuse.
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