Ways to Stop Child Abuse

ByABC News via via logo

Aug. 15, 2005 -- -- Patty Enciso remembers with horror and shame how she used to rage out of control every time her baby cried.

"There were times that I would out of nowhere, I would just come and hit her," the Pomona, Calif., woman said. "I would actually slap her in the mouth and pull her hair and call her names."

Enciso is not alone.

Some four children die every day in the United States because of abuse and neglect, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And every year, local child protective service agencies substantiate close to one million reports of abuse and neglect.

Enciso is proof that abuse can be stopped. After years of therapy and involvement in a parent support group, she has learned how to deal with the violent impulses. But her actions may have put her own children at risk for repeating the cycle. Child abuse experts estimate that one in three people abused as children grow up to perpetuate violence on the next generation.

Dr. Joan Kaufman, a researcher at Yale University School of Medicine, believes learned behavior is only one small factor in the cycle of violence. She is using brain imaging technology to study how child abuse actually changes the brain.

New research suggests that when a child is abused, the part of the brain called the amygdala becomes hypersensitive to stress, sending alarms to the pre-frontal cortex, which acts like a guard, ready to stop violent impulses. But constant abuse lowers that guard, making it much harder for a person to stay in control.

"Little things that might make another person not think twice can really push another person, a person with a history of abuse, over the edge," Kaufman said.

The science also shows that those brain changes can be overcome and even reversed with therapy, medication and the support of positive relationships.

Enciso took the first step toward dealing with her abusive behavior after one painful incident with her daughter, Crystal.

"One time I went to give her some love, to caress her, and this little girl thought that I was going to hit her," Enciso said. "She thought I was going to pull her hair or something and she picked up her hand to protect herself. And when she did that, that's when I said, 'Oh my God, I need help.'"

The moment, 10 years ago, made Enciso fear both the past and the future.

Since then, Enciso, who is now raising four children and going through a divorce, has been attending weekly meetings of a support group called Parents Anonymous.

Parents Anonymous, a national non-profit organization, helps eliminate risk factors of child abuse such as unrealistic expectations, destructive attitudes, harmful behaviors, social isolation and ineffective coping, while enhancing positive factors such as increased self-esteem, increased parenting competence, social supports, problem-solving strategies and provision of a nurturing environment for parents and their children.

"People need to really examine the triggers that are their personal triggers, and they need to find a way to step back," said Dr. Lisa Pion Berlin, of Parents Anonymous. "Counting to 10 may not be enough. You may need to count to 100. Putting yourself in a safe place, calling a friend to come over and take your kids so you can really find out what's going on with you."

Enciso has reconciled with her daughter, Crystal. And now that Crystal is a teenage mom, Enciso is trying to help her avoid the same mistakes she did.

"No matter what, whatever life has thrown at us growing up, we don't have to be the ones to continue the same abuse … and give it to the next generation and the next generation." Enciso said. "We can stop."

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