What Should I do if I suspect child abuse?

Question: I just got home from a Thanksgiving dinner and I can’t believe how my brother-in-law was treating his son. He humiliated my nephew in front of everyone, yelling at him and criticizing him endlessly throughout the day. I could hardly keep my mouth shut. I just wanted to scream at him ‘Stop—don’t you see what you’re doing? It’s abusive!’ My husband says it’s none of my business and every parent has bad days, but I’m so upset. What should I do? Dana in GA

Answer: First, let me help you understand the general principles of responding to child abuse and then I’ll get into some specific things you might want to think about. God defines abuse as sin. It violates a relationship of trust when anyone, but especially a defenseless child is treated as an object instead of a person worthy of dignity and respect (Colossians 3:21). Abuse toward children can be physical, emotional and, or sexual.

Within these types of child abuse, there are also varying degrees of abusive behaviors. Physical abuse may range from a harsh shove in a moment of anger to beating a child so severely he dies. Sexual abuse is not only having sexual intercourse with a child, but also showing a youngster pornographic pictures or touching a child in sexual ways. Emotional abuse can be just as harmful as physical and sexual abuse. God’s word tells us that “reckless words pierce like a sword” (Proverbs 12:18). Name calling, degrading comments like your ugly, fat, stupid, lazy or a bad or evil person can wound a spirit and break a heart every bit as much as slapping, punching or beating can. The apostle Paul exhorts us that our behaviors as well as our speech must be free from all kinds of abuse (see Colossians 3). Jesus has especially harsh words for those people who mistreat children (Matthew 18:6).

What is My Responsibility?
When we suspect that a child in our extended family is in serious danger of being harmed we must take immediate action for the child’s well-being. We can have a family conference to pray and make an action plan to approach the offending parent in love (Ephesians 4:25). Sadly, even with heart felt promises to stop, the abusive parent usually does not have the internal controls necessary to change these sinful patterns without some outside help.

Family members are not legally mandated to report suspected child abuse to the authorities, but it may be prudent to do so for the child’s protection, otherwise there is no way of ensuring the child’s safety.

However, in most situations, it's not that clear and we’re uncertain what to do. Our perspective may be in conflict with other family members as to whether we should get involved or what that involvement should look like. Fears of family conflict or hurting someone’s feelings or making matters worse are legitimate, but ultimately, what is best for the child must take priority.

One thing you can always do is to reach out to your nephew after his dad has embarassed him and give him a hug and tell him that you love him and think he's a pretty great kid (and mention some specific things you like about him). Studies show that when children are affirmed in genuine ways by others, this goes a long way toward mitigating harsh and critical remarks made by their parents. If you do decide to speak with his father, or parents, here are some guidelines.

How Can I Talk To the Child’s Parents Without Offending Them?
The apostle Paul counsels us that when we see someone caught in sinful behavior, our approach with them should be gentle and for the purpose of restoration (Galatians 6:1). This may involve preparation work on our part so that we have the right attitude and the proper motives.
God promises us wisdom (James 1:5) and he cares for the victim of abuse (Psalm 10:14,17,18). Therefore, we can pray with confidence that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us and will give us what we need to deal with the situation properly.
Choose the Time and Place
When Queen Esther needed to confront her husband, the King, about what Haman had done, she sought counsel, prayed and fasted and chose just the right time. Confronting someone needs to be done with their best interests in mind (James 5:20).
Use a Neutral Voice Tone
It is very tempting to let emotions run high which always makes a bad situation worse (Proverbs 15:1). Stick to the facts as you have observed them. If others in the family have also observed abusive behaviors, have them participate in the meeting, each stating what they have seen and how concerned they are not only for the child, but also for the family.
Demonstrate Gentleness through Empathy and Humility
None of us have been perfect parents. Many of us have engaged in some low levels of abusive behaviors toward our children at times. When my son, Ryan, was a toddler he threw one of his best temper tantrums at a local department store while I was shopping. Nothing I did settled him so in a moment of frustration I yanked him to his feet by his arm. Later in the emergency room, I learned my yank had dislocated his elbow.
We are all capable of being abusive toward our children. With humility be empathic. Let your brother in law know how much you too are tempted to lose it when your kids misbehave or you’re under stress and feel overwhelmed. Don’t judge, instead offer help and be supportive.
Offer Help
Reach out to your brother and sister in law, offering to be “on call” when he is angry with the kids so that he some space to calm himself down. Suggest attending parenting classes, or going to Christian counseling, offering to baby-sit or paying if necessary, so that they might get some outside help to help them learn to handle their children's misbehavior without shaming them.

Remember, most parents do not want to hurt their children. They feel ashamed and terrible but often feel helpless to stop these destructive patterns. By bringing the problem out in the open you offer an opportunity for restoration and healing.

For those who may need to resport suspected child abuse, the toll free phone number is ChildLine 1-800- 932-0313.

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