Tasha R. Howe, Ph.D, is a Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Psychology Department at Humboldt State University. Her studies are primarily focused on child development and violence prevention. This interview gives us a brief overview of some of her findings, and how we can use this knowledge to assist us in raising a healthier and safer generation of children.
Alec Holmes: Was there a specific instance that drew you to the study of familial violence prevention? If so, can you elaborate?
Professor Howe: When I was in my Ph.D program, my dissertation advisor got a small grant to do research with severely abused children in residential treatment. These kids had witnessed their siblings murdered by parents, had grown up in poverty, and with extensive trauma. Their parents’ rights had all been terminated. They had files a foot thick, mostly full of failed foster care placements and lists of massive quantities of medications they were on. I hung out with the kids to build rapport before doing my studies on them, and I wanted to find their strengths because they had to be extremely resilient to have made it that far and still be functioning in school, with friends, etc.
My studies focused on their emotional and social skills and I found they had many strengths, such as having best friends, and having keen insights into emotional experiences. I became more and more interested in resilience over trauma and how we can prevent such horrendous abuse and neglect in the first place.
AH: Amongst parents, what psychological factors contribute most to the high rate of child abuse in today’s global society?
Professor Howe: Abusing and neglecting parents are no different from typical parents. We all have the capacity to harm our children under the right (wrong) circumstances. There is no mental illness that they have at higher rates. They are not sadistic or sociopathic. They tend to be overwhelmed with their own problems. Many have addiction problems. Many live in poverty. But many don’t. And most poor, addicted, stressed out parents never abuse their children. So it’s a combination of factors that relate often to parents having been traumatized in their own childhoods, and having no role models for secure and loving relationships.
Our country does not provide paid parental leave, free health care, or high quality free child care like every other industrialized nation does. Thus, not surprisingly, our parents are more stressed out and unable to care for their children, and we have the highest rates of child abuse in the industrialized world.
AH: Are children (0-13) who experience physical (nonsexual) abuse more prone to behave violently towards others in their adolescent years?
Professor Howe: Most children who are abused or neglected grow up to be non-violent. So the cycle of abuse is a bit confusing for the public in that most abusers were abused, but most victims do not grow up to abuse.
Typically physical abuse is related to aggression, but people may be surprised to know that neglect is not only the most common form of maltreatment (about 70% of cases) but it is also greatly tied to later aggression because children have not been socialized to interact with others and they often have language and intellectual delays that lead them to get frustrated and lash out. Neglect is pervasive and chronic, whereas physical abuse can be more episodic, often related to discipline escalating into abuse, with loving interactions occurring sometimes as well.
AH: What are some early indicators that a child may be behaving in a way that could blossom into violent tendencies?
Professor Howe: Researchers can typically spot the outliers by the preschool years. Most three year-olds hit each other and take toys, etc., but the outliers are very aggressive very often and may not respond to typical redirection and socialization efforts. Interventions with parents at this crucial stage of brain development can prevent them from progressing, but most kids only come to the attention of adults when they violate social norms in elementary and middle school when their patterns are entrenched. Prevention efforts with new parents are much more effective than interventions when a child has already become violent.
AH: Do you believe media (games, movies, news, internet, etc.) contributes to violent behaviors amongst developing children?
Professor Howe: It’s not a “belief” because we can only base our ideas on scientific evidence. Violence in the media does increase aggressive behavior in children and teenagers. It also desensitizes them to violence against women as many games are misogynistic and racist (e.g., all Arab characters are terrorists). So the media teaches many negative belief systems that affect children and children imitate what they see. However, it does not affect every child the same way.
Children who have little parental supervision or support, experience other traumas in their lives, and do not have positive extracurricular activities are more likely to be influenced by media because they have nothing to counteract those messages. Playing Grand Theft Auto when you’re five will not turn you into a cop killer, but if it’s your only socializing agent, you’re at risk for adopting the views and actions in the media you watch and participate in.
AH: Can media be used as a tool for instilling healthy tendencies in developing children? If so, how?
Professor Howe: Yes, there is evidence that Sesame Street assists low income children in both academic and social development. Sesame Street has many programs related to helping traumatized children, such as their programs for children with an incarcerated parent and Syrian refugee children. Prosocial media can assist in parental socialization but it’s not a substitute for it.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time in the first two years (beyond FaceTime with loved ones) in order to enhance the incredibly fast rate of brain development in the early years, which depends on face-to-face interaction and experiences in the real world — nature, music, reading, animals, etc.
AH: Which method of behavioral adjustment (discipline) is the safest for children?
Professor Howe: Most children respond well to redirection (distraction) in the early years. By two or three they can understand basic rules and consequences and can be reasoned with. There’s never an occasion when it’s necessary to hit a child or spank a child. This is the hardest topic to teach when I teach parenting classes because parents of all backgrounds were raised with hitting and are convinced it’s necessary for proper development.
Instead, all of the research supports logical and natural consequences as the best route (you don’t clean up your toys, the toys go in the garage for a week; you hit your sister, you talk it out and make amends; you break a window, you do chores to pay for it). Paying attention and praising positive behavior is much more effective than punishment. Noticing children doing what’s right as often as possible shapes them to do that more often.
AH: What can teachers, and those who deal with children on a regular basis do to help raise a safer, less-violent generation?
Professor Howe: This is a huge question but in a few short lines, learn everything you can about child development and go to trainings in trauma-informed education. I’ve been training a lot of teachers lately and they are now serving as social workers, counselors, parents, meal providers, and educators. Learning can only happen when a child feels safe and cared for. They cannot use their logical brain when their emotional brain is activated constantly by stress and trauma. Safety, security, and a well-nourished body are pre-requisites for learning.
For a more In-Depth look at Professor Howe’s Background: Click Here!
Professor Howe is a master trainer at this APA child abuse prevention program.