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Ending violence in communities before it starts – what new parents can do

We are now in year 23 of the international 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, but South Africans don’t need reminding that gender based violence is pervasive in our society.

The year 2013/14 saw 62 649 reported sexual offences, of which rape totals just over 46,000. Access to justice remains a major challenge for survivors even in the comfort of polished reformed laws and inclusive policies such as the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, 2007 (Act 32 of 2007) and the National Policy Framework on the Management of Sexual Offence Matters (2012).

Shame and fear still silence survivors and many women (and sometimes men) die at the hands of their own partners. Our children are at risk each day of growing up in a violent society, watching, learning, and often victimised in a cyclical tragedy that is carried over to their children and the next generation.

Despite the fundamental importance of our criminal justice system and the need to strengthen it, even in an ideal system might not do much more than deter criminals from committing future criminal acts, which we can see as a positive spin-off to a good justice response.

But how do we stop violence from happening in the first place? Is this even possible? And where do we start?

This approach is referred to as primary prevention – targeting behaviour change that will prevent victimisation and perpetration from occurring at all. As research in gender based violence has progressed, we’ve come to learn that very little evidence is available on interventions that actually lower the incidence of gender based violence – and this has become a priority area of our work. So where do we start? The answer: At birth, through healthy, supportive and positive parenting.

Increasingly, we see the impact of experiences in early life on behaviour later on. For example, risk factors for boys who go on to rape include witnessing domestic violence in the home and/or being sexually abused as a child. Other predictors for violence include severe physical punishment or harsh parenting, poor intellectual development, and conduct disorder during later childhood.

(It has to be said however, that not all boys who carry these childhood experiences will go on to become perpetrators.)

Professor Lynn Murray, in a recent seminar, reflected on the importance of secure attachment, healthy social and cognitive development; and learning to regulate emotions by age three at the latest. By this time, children will have well developed in these areas, predicting later functioning in childhood and potentially adulthood.

So what can you do as a parent to develop your child to ensure a healthy childhood, and contribute to a safer future? Here are five simple ways to promote positive parenting taken from the latest parenting research:

  • Poor attachment to caregivers may have devastating effects on intimate relationships in later life and in developing depression. Secure attachment can be seen as a partnership between caregiver and baby. Responding to needs (such as hunger and discomfort) sensitively, and with understanding will create a sense of safety and trust.
  • Make time to talk, laugh and play. Social interaction teaches children to understand others and to be cooperative.
  • Positive discipline plays a big role in preventing aggressiveness and conduct disorders. This may include taking away privileges or teaching children alternative behaviours instead of hitting, spanking or shouting at them.
  • Teaching young children to regulate emotions through games (eg ‘play-fighting’) and other methods will assist in dealing with conflict and difficult emotions in a healthy way.
  • Read as much as possible to your child! This has been shown to greatly advance intellectual development and attention span in a child’s life. This cannot be overstated. Read to them, let them feel and smell the pages.

These five key areas to positive parenting bear almost no costs and can be practiced in any setting of any socio-economic status.

Preventing the cycle of violence starts in the home, and reaching out to families in conflict and distress to learn to cope and deal with young children while living stressful and difficult lives is a small first step to breaking this cycle. Parents should remember to always act in the best interest of the child. They should see themselves as advocates for the child’s active participation in their lives; children should live dignified lives, with the love and good care of their parents.

At risk families and children may need more complex, multifaceted interventions, but these are the little things which can make a difference in healthy future behaviour. As Lynne Murray said to the Daily Mail: “The basics are not rocket science.”

If you are experiencing domestic violence in your home and would like to seek help, please visit Shout for assistance.
Lynne Murray’s book “The Psychology of Babies” can be purchased through Amazon.

Lizle Loots bio picLizle Loots is a senior scientist affiliated with the Medical Research Council and the Sexual Violence Research Institute. Follow her on Twitter.

– Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

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