Writer: Norman Martin
LAS CRUCES - With child abuse cases on the rise statewide, a New Mexico State University researcher is calling for stepped-up prevention that includes intensive parenting education classes to better protect children. In Doņa Ana County alone, seven children have died in the last 3 1/2 years as a result of child abuse.
"Parenting education can have a powerful role in preventing child abuse," said Esther Devall, an associate professor in NMSU's family and consumer sciences department. "Many parents at-risk for abusing their children have similar characteristics. They are typically young with little social support. They also have lots of stress in their life and don't really understand child development."
Simply put, they might not have reasonable expectations of what a young child can and can't do, she said. Sometimes they unrealistically expect the child to love and take care of them, instead of the other way around.
Too often media and advertising images create a rosy expectation of what it's like to raise children, especially a baby, said Devall, who serves as director of NMSU's Strengthening Family Initiative. In reality, parenthood is one of the most stressful and demanding times in a person's life. It's also period when many adults aren't fully prepared or lack the support they need.
As a result, many parents can relate to feeling overwhelmed by stress and lose patience with their children. "One thing we know, the child that is most at-risk for being abused is the child who is the neediest," Devall said. "Very young children are more likely to be abused and killed than older children, partly because they are so demanding."
The number of confirmed child abuse victims in New Mexico increased by 5 percent to 6,102 from 2002 to 2003, according to the state Children, Youth and Families Department.
Most child fatalities occur in the first six years of life, Devall said. "So, if you want to prevent child abuse, get to families while the kids are young because that's when parents are frustrated and abuse patterns begin."
Devall added that the consequences of poor parenting practices continue for decades. The one common predictor of delinquent behavior, teen pregnancy and adolescent substance abuse is poor discipline practices and lack of attachment between parents and children, she said.
NMSU's parenting education curriculum directly focuses on those elements that predict child abuse, she said. Among those factors are lack of empathy for others, inappropriate expectations, reversal of parent-child roles and belief in corporal punishment.
Funded by a $2.4 million grant from the New Mexico Human Services Department, NMSU's began offering a parenting education program to a broad mix of audiences five year ago. Growing from a single class in Las Cruces, the program now covers more than 15 counties.
The classes target expectant families, teen parents and parents of preschool, school-age and adolescent children. Other groups attending have included families dealing with divorce, abusive families, grandparents raising grandchildren and families affected by substance abuse. The parenting instructors have even gone into the state's prisons.
The foundation of NMSU program is its nurturing parenting curriculum, said Lisa Shields, associate director of NMSU's Parenting Education Programs. "We are not here to judge," she said. "We try to promote an accepting atmosphere, a sense of 'We're all in this together.' We want parents to feel safe and free to share their feelings."
Another key element of the program is an emphasis on positive discipline techniques, Shields said. Rather than hitting or yelling, more effective strategies such as redirection, time-out and consequences are stressed as good alternatives.
Parenting education can also clarify the roles between parents and children, she said. The job of the parent is to take care of the child, not the other way around. Another side benefit the classes provide is simply the support of other parents who have been down the same challenging path.
The classes, which are offered in English and Spanish, meet weekly for two and a half hours for four to six months. Sessions are held in a variety of locations across New Mexico, including schools, health offices and community centers.
The first half of each class focuses on parents' issues, such as handling stress, anger, communication skills and healthy relationships. The second half focuses on nurturing children, including information about child development, positive discipline techniques, family rules and establishing routines. While parents participate in class, their children learn through activities and play in a nearby room.
"Parenting is a learned skill, just like driving a car," said Charolette Collins, program coordinator with NMSU's Strengthening Families Initiative in northern New Mexico. "It takes practice and instruction."
If you're interested in NMSU's Parenting Education Programs or would like more information, please contact Collins in Albuquerque at (505) 332-3765 or Shields in Las Cruces at (505) 646-3434.
© 2013 New Mexico State University Board of Regents
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