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Parents Anonymous; Breaking the cycle of child abuse

Sally was frightened. She was abusing her baby daughter, Amy, and wanted desperately to stop but she didn't know how. Each time her rage erupted and she lost control, she sank deeper into a morass of self-hate, guilt, shame, and despair. She felt isolated and cried inwardly all her days for release from this monstrous behavior which she felt helpless to overcome.

Then Sally read a newspaper story about Parents Anonymous (PA), a national organization of parents like herself who helped each other stop their abuse. She carried the clipping in her wallet, wanting to phone but afraid it would lead to still greater frustration and failure. It was not until she reached a moment of sheer terror, when she feared for her own sanity and the life of her child, that she summoned the courage to make that phone call.

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''It saved us,'' Sally says. ''Love and compassion poured out from the person who answered my cry for help. Suddenly, I wasn't alone. I knew I could stop. I knew I could change.''

Today, Sally's rage is gone; and with it, her hurtful behavior. She has become the caring mother she always wanted to be. And she has grown personally. For the first time in her life, through PA, she has made close friends to alleviate her loneliness. She has developed enough self-confidence to hold down a full-time office job and still enjoy her family which has grown to four children, including infant twins whom she manages with ease and delight.

Sally says with equanimity: ''I'm not a perfect mother - there's no such thing. But I'm an 'OK mother,' and that means everything in the world to me.''

To become an ''OK mother,'' Sally attended weekly Parents Anonymous meetings in her neighborhood and soon had a network of PA members to phone in an abuse crisis or when she felt one coming on. The meetings gave her a place where she could openly express her feelings and fears without being ashamed and receive needed comfort and advice. She began to understand the causes of child abuse and saw hers was rooted in her childhood.

Sally, like most of the parents in the more than 1 million child-abuse cases reported nationwide last year, was abused when she was a child. PA calls this a ''cycle of abuse'' handed down from generation to generation, and seeks to interrupt the cycle.

Sally and her sister were physically abused by an overly severe mother and sexually abused by their father. The children were forced to live in the basement - the ''upstairs'' was for company only. The children were always immaculate, which meant no childhood games to dirty their hands or clothes. They were never out of mother's sight, not allowed playmates, and taught to distrust everyone. The slightest infraction of rigid family rules meant a beating with coat hangers, sticks, or whatever was handy to inflict pain.

When Sally married, her mother came to her large, suburban home to cover the upholstered furniture with plastic and to wax all the floors until they gleamed like a TV commercial. Sally set out to copy the only kind of homemaking and child rearing she knew. She had been raised to be the perfect child; now she would be the perfect homemaker and parent, just like her mother who was praised often as ''the best mother on the block.''

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When her first child was born, Sally knew she was in trouble. She expected supreme joy. Instead, she couldn't tolerate Amy's cries, her messes, her daily demands for care. She didn't know how to hug or play with Amy because no one had hugged or played with her when she was little. ''I'm strict because I love you, '' her mother always said as she beat Sally, so Sally thought beatings and love went together.

''Undoing that way of thinking wasn't easy,'' Sally says now. ''It was a battle. Oh, I still keep a clean house but it isn't perfectly clean any more. And I had to force myself at first not to see Amy's messes. I let her eat alone as soon as she was able and I sat out on the porch. That way, I didn't have to deal with spills and crumbs which used to trigger my anger.''

This kind of substitute behavior is part of the PA treatment which helps parents recognize their flash points and untangle old patterns of child rearing. Then they are taught how to replace anger with positive child-rearing techniques , the better to fulfill PA's avowed purpose of strengthening family love and preserving family unity.

A recent all-day workshop sponsored by Parents Anonymous of Michigan, for example, offered such practical coping skills as ways to relax through home exercises, the value of hobbies and recreation; learning to play with children, exploring the roots of anger and depression, and recognizing the positive aspects of family life.

The skills were aimed at the typical abuser who is generally a loner, feels inadequate socially or on the job, is always tense and uptight, and doesn't trust anyone enough to share problems or ask for help. He or she sees ordinary childish behavior as ''bad,'' and constantly punishes the youngster, usually the child ''most like me.'' The parent expects the child ''to give me the love I need, to take care of me,'' instead of realizing it is the parent's role to give the child the love and care it needs.

Child abuse takes many forms. It may be physical, sexual, verbal, or a combination of all three, or it may be physical neglect (lack of proper food, clothing, supervision) or emotional neglect (treating the child as if he or she doesn't exist and depriving the child of human caring).

The situations in Sally's PA group included:

* An unemployed father who constantly screamed curses and called his children derogatory names. He was helped to understand that his children were not purposely provoking him but behaving normally and that his real problem was with his feelings of inadequacy because he wasn't working. Eventually, he was able to calm down and use his time at home to get to know his children better.

Child abuse experts say cases always go up when unemployment rises, that children suffer the most when parents are under the stress of being out of work.

* A mother who lost custody of her son because her boyfriend tried to choke the child when she was away from home. The school saw the bruises and reported the incident. The mother was helped to garner enough self-esteem to discontinue her relationship with the man, who had other problems including alcoholism, and to put her son's safety ahead of her own need for companionship.

* A father who had turned his teen-age son out of the house. He was led to see this was too extreme and the boy could be seriously harmed on the streets. The boy was found and the father helped to substitute appropriate discipline and work out their differences so they could continue as a family.

* A mother who lost custody of her young daughter because she withheld food, wouldn't change diapers, and locked the child in a closet for hours at a time. A homemaker helper was supplied to give the mother time to work out her many problems and teach the basics of feeding, clothing, and providing proper physical and emotional nurturing.

PA does not always work alone. Other agencies or private counseling are often involved. Nor does PA claim it works for everyone, though it has had an astonishing record of success since its founding in 1970 with a group of three parents.

Today, 25,000 PA members meet regularly in all 50 states, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Scotland, Ireland, and at US military bases around the world. Another 40,000 regularly use the telephone hot line for emergencies and hundreds of thousands avail themselves of literature and educational programs.

In Michigan, an average state statistically, abusive behavior has increased fourfold in the last decade. Over 36,000 cases were reported last year; 70 percent were white, 25 percent black, and 5 percent other minorities. Neglect accounted for one-third of the cases. Of the physically abused children, state police records show 34 were killed by their parents.

Michigan has the largest number of PA chapters in the country - 54 of them - due to the state's generally progressive programs for the protection of children and the willingness of mental health professionals to volunteer as PA sponsors.

In each chapter, a chairman elected from the membership and the sponsor jointly run the meetings. The sponsor's role is to suggest therapeutic intervention appropriate to each case. The members perform the vital task of sharing experiences, supporting each other, and cheering each other on to conquer their abuse.

A recent Michigan PA survey showed spouse abuse was often present in the same homes where children were abused, with 31.7 percent of the males physically abusive and 41.2 percent verbally abusive to females, 10.7 percent of the females physically abusive and 28.7 percent verbally abusive to the males.

Typically, only 11 percent of Michigan's PA members are male, although as many men as women are child abusers. Sponsors say men are more reluctant to admit it and seek help.

Although children are the obvious beneficiaries when abuse stops, experts say they often need counseling which many parents are quick to provide through private agencies. This year, PA of Michigan is lending a hand by establishing treatment groups for the children of its members.

It has also contracted with Foster Grandparents to fill the emptiness in many PA families by providing a warm, loving ''relative'' who makes them feel important and valuable.

PA of Michigan recently hired a full-time executive director, Beth McElroy, an experienced social worker who formerly directed a mental health outpatient agency. The group is run by a volunteer board of graduate PA parents and a number of professionals in various fields who are interested in eradicating child abuse.

Two-thirds of its funding comes from Michigan's Department of Social Services. It must raise the rest on its own. Because its services are free, it must solicit outside its membership. More than once in its first 10 years it has been on the brink of extinction, lacking money to send out a mimeographed newsletter or even to pay the phone bill.

Lucile Cantoni, program director of Family Services of Detroit and Wayne County and a prime mover of PA of Michigan, sees many hopeful signs in the growing awareness of the child abuse problem by the general public.

''Newspapers, movies, and TV are telling us about it,'' Ms. Cantoni says. ''We no longer give tacit approval to parents who slap and scream at their children. We openly disapprove of violence and report it when we see it. We are finding better ways to discipline children and discovering ways to stop abuse through groups such as PA.''

This is important, she says, because ''the family is the basic core of any society. It always has been and always will be. The challenge is to meet the needs of the family members and help them fulfill the functions expected of them.''

The national office of Parents Anonymous (22330 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrence, Calif. 90505) maintains two toll-free numbers for information or assistance: outside California, 1-800-421-0353; and in California, 1-800-352-0386.

''Anyone hesitating to make a phone call should remember me,'' says Sally. ''The call I made eight years ago saved my life and saved my family.''

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