We speak the same language against violence
Although the use of physical violence in disciplining has decreased in Serbia from 2005 to 2019, as many as 45 per cent of children aged 1 to 14 experience violent disciplining
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Sabac, Vrdnik, March 2023 – “Unfortunately, we often witness children being victims of domestic violence, either directly as victims of physical violence, or indirectly as witnesses of domestic violence. It hasn’t yet been eradicated despite the Law on Prevention of Violence and such cases being prosecuted. That’s why programmes, such as UNICEF’s programme for non-violent disciplining of children, which systematize the knowledge of experts in a new way and raise parents’ awareness that corporal punishment is harmful to children, are truly good for children and give good results,” says Vesna Dimitrijevic, who has been working at the Centre for Social Work in Sabac, in western Serbia, for 23 years now.
She describes herself as a pacifist and says she believes only in positive methods of raising children. When it comes to a traditional saying in Serbia that “the beating stick came from heaven”, she interprets it a bit differently – if the beating stick had been good, it would never have left heaven.
Her experiences in the Child and Youth Protection Service have been confirmed by research. Although the use of physical violence in disciplining has decreased in Serbia from 2005 to 2019, as many as 45 per cent of children aged 1 to 14 experience violent disciplining (MICS 2019).
“The most severe forms are hitting a child with a hand or some object. But even a gentle slap on the head, face and body is humiliating for a child. The consequences are always bad and traumatic. This creates a feeling of insecurity, rejection for a child, the feeling that no one loves them, that they are not needed. Later, these children have problems with speech and development,” explains Vesna.
To change that, UNICEF launched a programme for the promotion of the non-violent disciplining of children, which, in addition to educating social protection, health care and education experts, also involves raising public awareness about the harm of corporal punishment. The idea is to connect systems and ensure that all experts working with families and children have unique knowledge and skills for counselling work with parents. For this purpose, a campaign was launched in 2022 under the slogan “Be the hand that loves and the word that guides” which aims to inform the public and highlight the importance of alternative and positive parenting practices.
The 5-step preventive model was developed within the programme, and it informs experts on the main pillars of positive parenting. Vesna and her colleagues from the Centre for Social Work were trained for the use of this model, to support parents in non-violent disciplining. The results are visible, she says, because parents are reconsidering their behaviour and finding solutions through conversations with experts.
She explains how the 5-step model – provide, reconsider, avoid, apply, seek help – is implemented in practice.
“Our duty is first to provide information to parents that corporal punishment is harmful. This means providing them with both knowledge and understanding. Then, all of us together, both parents and experts, need to reconsider our attitudes and beliefs about such a way of raising children. Then, we say avoid, stop using that practice because it’s harmful. Apply new knowledge and practice what you have learned, and the fifth one is to seek help. This means that parents, but also we, the experts, need to seek help if we need it,” Vesna explains.
Some hundred kilometres away, in Novi Sad, in northern Serbia, Olgica Stojic, an expert associate psychologist at the "Dreamland" preschool institution and a psychologist at the Harmonija NGO Centre in that city, also uses the same model in her work with parents.
“For the message to reach all parents, it’s important to publicly promote campaigns such as ‘Be the hand that loves and the word that guides,’ then ‘Count to 5’ and the 5-step model metaphor. Just like we have 5 fingers on our hands, we also need 5 steps to become responsive parents,” Olgica explains.
While she was a mentor in the process of implementing the 5-step model, she had the opportunity to hear numerous examples of parents using corporal punishment on children.
“They most often hit a child for the first time when the child is 2 or 3 years old. We know that this is a challenging time in parenting because it is important to set boundaries during this period. Parents are most often unable to do this and resort to corporal punishment out of feelings of powerlessness,” explains Olgica.
Using the 5-step model in her work, Olgica says that she sees numerous positive changes in the thinking process of parents who, in fact, know very little about the harmfulness of corporal punishment.
“I had a situation when the mother of a pre-school-aged girl, feeling powerless in raising her child, sought advice. She reflected on the parenting practices she had experienced in her childhood. She told me ‘My mother was like that, strict, and she would punish us a lot’. Working with her, I applied the 5-step model and saw that it literally enables parents to reconsider and change their beliefs, to distance themselves from parental practices, and then that cycle of corporal punishment is broken,” Olgica tells us.
Just like Vesna, Olgica also says there is no mild corporal punishment. That’s a myth, she says. And she repeats that every day to parents, colleagues, and experts in other fields.
“What I see as a little slap, a little spanking, that is a lot for a child, especially when corporal punishment comes at an early age. That’s the period of the greatest possibilities, the most intensive brain development, but also the period of greatest sensitivity. The consequences can be adverse and long-term and cannot be compensated for later. When they grow up, such people have psychosocial and health problems such as insomnia, anger, dysfunctionality, panic, insecurity, alcoholism, dropping out of school, inability to maintain emotional relationships, termination of pregnancy, and they become violent parents themselves,” says Olgica.
She believes that communication about child disciplining is the responsibility of every expert, and not a private decision. That is why, she says, it is important to constantly and publicly promote successful models of raising children, to inform, motivate, advise and support parents.
“It’s also important that celebrities, experts and parents always promote non-violent disciplining strategies and that the professionals never get tired of protecting children and their happy and healthy childhood. Such preventive programmes provide support to parents, so that they do not remain on their own, that they do not feel powerless, but to openly discuss parenting as a role for which they will never be sufficiently educated, for which there is no school to attend,” Olga concludes.
The programme of support to experts for non-violent disciplining was developed as part of the Integrated Response to Violence against Women and Girls in Serbia - Phase III joint project implemented by UNDP, UNICEF, UN Women and UNFPA in partnership with the Government of the Republic of Serbia, with the support of the Government of Sweden.