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We don’t really talk much about corporal punishment, but it wasn’t so long ago that it was an acceptable way to discipline children. Although public opinion may have hushed the conversation, in practice, physical discipline is not uncommon. A 2013 Harris Poll survey found that 81 per cent of parents believe that hitting is a sometimes acceptable form of discipline, and two-thirds said they had used it with their children.

As recently as the 1980s, the threat of spanking was a familiar refrain in American homes, a way to keep children in their place. And as for the tongue-lashing that followed a lazily completed chore? Well, it was better than the belt, right? These parenting practices weren’t labelled as abuse, but scientific research tells another story.

Studies have shown again and again that harsh physical and verbal punishments are ineffective and harmful, and can ignite behavioural and physical problems that follow children into adulthood. Given all of the evidence, why are people still doing it? According to a latest study by the University of Washington’s Social Development Research Group, adults who endured physical and emotional abuse as children are more likely to repeat those patterns with their own offspring. The authors noted that poor parenting, including physical and emotional abuse, frequently was observed across three generations, suggesting that those choices can affect families for decades.

Parents who are determined to break the cycle with their own children face a difficult path, according to Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of Nobody’s Baby Now: Reinventing Your Relationship with Your Mother and Father.

“If you’ve been abused, you may become an abuser yourself,” Newman says. “It’s comparable to alcoholism: If there’s a lot of drinking in the house, it’s likely that your children will start drinking as well.”

Difficult though it may be, change is possible. Here are some suggestions on how parents can end abusive patterns and set a different tone with their kids.

  • Acknowledge your own abuse. The first and perhaps most difficult hurdle in breaking the cycle of familial abuse is recognising it. The question of how to discipline is a cultural one: The methods that are considered acceptable vary with when and where you were raised. Newman says that looking back with an objective perspective is crucial. “Being grown-up gives you the distance to separate out what you think of as harmful or hurtful patterns so you don’t transfer them to your children,” she says. She also recommends resisting the urge to adopt an “it doesn’t matter; I turned out fine” mindset to bury negative emotions. “Those feelings won’t evaporate,” Newman says, “and their pain will manifest in other ways.”
  • Recognise the risks (and ask for help). The scars of trauma are often deeper than we realise. A study conducted by University of California Los Angeles researchers found that prolonged abuse causes wear and tear to the mind and to multiple body systems, and it changes the way a person’s brain responds to and processes stress. Any parent who has dealt with a toddler tantrum knows that stress comes with the territory. An overreaction to that stress could lead to physical violence towards the child, or to what Newman calls “humiliation parenting” — chipping away at a child’s self-esteem with negative and berating talk, often in front of others. In addition to therapy, Newman suggests talking to close friends or a spouse if you’re prone to verbal snapping, because it can help you relieve tension and develop healthy coping skills.
  • Set boundaries with the older generation. Severing contact with a parent — even an abusive one — is difficult and rare. A University of Cambridge study of familial estrangement reported that most adult children maintain some form of contact with their parents — even those who cited emotional abuse, neglect and traumatic events. The presence of grandparents can be positive for children as long as the older generation respects the boundaries of their adult child — both personally and when it comes to their choice of parenting style. “You can coexist by saying to your parent, ‘You had your turn at parenting; this is my turn,’ or ‘I know you have your grandchild’s best interest at heart, but we don’t agree with that way of doing things,’” Newman says. “Stand firm on that because now you are the parent and the most influential role model for your children.” And if the grandparents can’t respect your parenting role? “It’s time to re-evaluate the relationship,” Newman says.
  • Celebrate success as it comes. Raising children is challenging even in the best circumstances, and eschewing decades of poor parenting habits takes work and courage. Celebrating positive changes, even small ones, will reinforce the bond with your children and help heal your painful past. “When you have a good result in parenting, it’s incremental in rebuilding your self-esteem,” Newman says. “It’s important to say to yourself, ‘I have tried hard and followed my instincts and emotions and I succeeded.’” Allow yourself to feel proud for taking another path.
  • When you feel vulnerable, examine your motives. Mistakes are the common thread of parenting; we all make them, and not all of them will shape our children in adulthood. Still, it’s difficult to make confident choices when you’re worried about how your experiences might affect your child’s well-being. If you feel untethered in your words and actions, Newman suggests taking time to question your motives. Stripping away frustration and focusing on the goal can simplify your emotions. “If you ask yourself, ‘Why am I yelling at my child?’ or ‘Why would I hit them?’ you’re going to come up short,” Newman says. “And that’s where the change begins.”

-Sarah Szczypinski is a journalist living in Seattle.