The “Enlightened Witness” In Child Abuse Prevention

April is both Child Abuse Prevention Month and Cesarean Awareness Month. These two important issues are intertwined in that, in many cases, both may be prevented through parents getting the support and education that are critical in starting their parenting journeys.

When we look at the roots of child abuse, we often see a pattern of intergenerational transmission — not only in the immediate family, but in the cultural beliefs that have enforced an authoritarian model for parent-child interaction.

Lysa Parker and I (cofounders of API and coauthors of the book, Attached at the Heart) have read many sad accounts of early childhood abuse that led to later criminal and deviant behavior as these children grew into adulthood. But the amazing, and hopeful, factor about some of these stories was that in cases where the child or the parent had an intervention — a person who could show them love and respect — the cycle was broken. Dr. Alice Miller, the famed Swiss psychologist whose books chronicled the consequences of child abuse, called this person the “enlightened witness.”

When we think about a typical birth, with Cesarean rates skyrocketing in some communities, it is often the case that the mother has not had access to education and support. Instead she comes to the hospital with a lot of fear, hoping that the medical staff will take control and make the right decisions for her. The culture of so many hospitals is one of an authoritarian parent who gives orders, rather than a culture of nurturing support that empowers the mother to be attuned to the needs of her body and unborn child.

We know there are legitimate medical emergencies for which a Cesarean is a lifesaver for mother and child, but unfortunately in many, if not most cases, the medical emergency occurs because of too many interventions that interfere with the normal progress of labor.

When a couple are pregnant for the first time, our society has the opportunity like no other to surround them with the support and education they need to have a healthy pregnancy and birth, and to develop a secure and loving attachment to their baby. Research on doulas has shown amazing benefits to new parents in developing appropriate responses to their child. Mothering the mother (and the father or partner) are critical elements to support them during labor, delivery, and the early weeks of parenting. The birth doula becomes the “enlightened witness” for the parents, coaching and supporting them during labor. The postpartum doula can continue in the home, observing their interactions with their newborn and giving the couple all kinds of needed support from simple meals and laundry help to breastfeeding support and newborn care. This is even more critical if the mother is parenting alone.

Here is what we advocate for Child Abuse Prevention Month and Cesarean Awareness Month — that every parent, especially with their first baby:

  • Attend childbirth classes;
  • Hire a birth and postpartum doula;
  • Have access to a mother-friendly and baby-friendly hospital, birth center, or a safe homebirth with midwifery care;
  • Attend attachment-informed parenting classes, such as API’s Attached at the Heart parenting classes.

No matter the age of your child, it’s important to continue seeking ongoing parenting support in your community by attending La Leche League groups, API parenting meetings, and Attached at the Heart parenting classes. Where these programs are not available, online support can help new parents “find their tribe” of parents looking for positive parenting ideas and solutions.

Only then, will we break the cycle of abusive practices such as shaming, hitting, or neglecting our children. We all need to create an extended family of support — no matter what the age of our children. When we have trusted friends or family members to turn to when we’re feeling overwhelmed and incapable of dealing with our children, we have a safety net. Even the best parents from loving families are capable of doing harm to themselves or their children when they lack support.

Asking for help is nothing to be ashamed of — we can testify ourselves to how many times we’ve called on each other or other friends to process a problem we’re having or when we’ve needed an emergency visit to have a shoulder to cry on or play with the kids while we have a few minutes to be alone.

Make the time to nurture yourself! In so doing, you’ll be able to nurture those friends and family members who may be calling us for help. We at Attachment Parenting International are here for you and are proud of the tribe we are creating. The true legacy we hope to leave is one of loving families who are creating a ripple of love that is a tangible force to change the world.


Attachment Parenting International Resources

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