Christian Counseling and Domestic Violence

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Domestic Violence

by Legal Issues, Treatments and Recources | posted in CCT Magazines 1990-2004, Domestic Violence

Domestic Violence
Legal Issues, Treatments and Resources
Ned Stringham Fort

Abuse is a very challenging topic for counselors and pastors, and indications of its occurrence within the family are especially disturbing. The thought of such an evil penetrating their refuge where
safety, comfort, and trust are nurtured strikes at the core of our corporate sense of security and well-being. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that any suggestion of the presence of abuse in Christian homes tends to be demoralizing for believers and often provokes either quiet denial (“We don’t have time to deal with that”) or open protest (“This doesn’t happen among our people!”). Nevertheless, most who read this article are keenly aware that the problem of domestic violence does exist in the Christian community.

Although estimates vary considerably, researchers suggest that up to two-thirds of couples will engage in spousal violence during the course of marriage. One in three girls and one in eleven boys are sexually molested by the age of eighteen, and half of these are victims of familial incest. Although Christians may find assurance in the conclusions of a limited amount of research that domestic violence is somewhat less likely in religious than in nonreligious homes, the data demonstrates that it is still widespread.

Legal Issues
Unique among counseling contexts, work with abusive families requires pastors and clinicians to have a thorough knowledge of relevant legal issues. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect of children and elders are illegal in every jurisdiction. Mental health professionals and pastors are almost universally required to report child abuse to the authorities, although legal mandates concerning the disclosure of elder abuse vary from state to state. The landscape of domestic violence is gradually being transformed by another trend. In many localities, the authorities are requiring the arrest and incarceration of perpetrators upon arrival of law enforcement if the evidence establishes that an assault has occurred. As might be expected, these practices have led to vast increases in the number of men participating in court-mandated abuser treatment programs and have strengthened the perception among professionals that treatment effectiveness is maximized by the coordination of a diverse group of community agencies.
Because of the potential for legal entanglements, counselors need to take two precautionary steps.

First, before counseling begins, all clients should sign written statements confirming their understanding of the circumstances under which confidentiality must be broken.

Second, because of the possibility that records or personal testimony by the therapist will be subpoenaed, once a family has been identified as potentially abusive, counselors should keep exceptionally thorough records of all case contacts, including therapy sessions, phone calls and meetings with clients, family members, attorneys, and criminal justice system officials. Of particular importance are explicit details such as times and dates of alleged abuse incidents, specific recommendations given to clients, and reasoning used in clinical decision making. While such actions usually seem burdensome for professionals, they provide a margin of legal safety for both the therapist and the family.

Child Discipline vs. Child Abuse
Determining the presence of child abuse can be very difficult, especially when victims are pre-verbal or give inaccurate accounts of the causes of injury. Physical abuse is clearly indicated by wounds
inflicted during punishment, such as bruises, welts, cuts, and broken bones. Painful methods such as the use of hot water or electrical shock can be similarly categorized. Furthermore, abuse should be suspected if a child presents with a history of injuries of questionable origin, or as overly compliant with adult requests, excessively fearful, or as often acting out or truant.

The professional community is sharply divided over the identification of some aspects of physical abuse. Many in the secular community, for example, posit that any form of corporal punishment, including spanking, is inherently cruel, while many Christians tend to view it as biblically mandated (Prov. 23:13-14) and occasionally necessary with some children. Even proponents of spanking disagree amongst themselves.
John Rosemond claims that any strikes applied more than three times by an instrument other than the hand constitute a “beating.”3 By contrast, James Dobson recommends that parents use a “neutral object” when
spanking and does not suggest a limit on the number of strokes applied, although he agrees with Rosemond that spanking should only be administered on the buttocks.
In addition, Dobson claims that spanking should only be used in response to clear acts of defiance.4 Psychological or emotional abuse of children is particularly challenging to detect. Threats to kill or wound a child and the use of name-calling and profane language are among the most overt forms of verbal abuse. More skill and careful examination are required to assess the covert forms, such as shame-based discipline that damages a child’s sense of dignity, gross inconsistencies in expectations and punishments that render a youngster unable to predict consequences for his/her actions, and pressures to perform, especially in front of other people. Children can also be victimized by spiritual abuse when, for example, God is presented as threatening or hateful, especially in a context where mercy and forgiveness are seldom mentioned, when religious instruction is given by an authority figure who is angry, or when a child is forced to pray.
I am not suggesting that such relatively subtle actions always constitute abuse, although they do in their most extreme forms, especially when they occur frequently.
It is necessary, however, for counselors and pastors to take excessive discipline seriously, to empathize with the experiences of youngsters, and to help parents recognize when they are provoking their children to anger or shame (Col. 3:21). Psychological and spiritual abuse are difficult to prove and are not subject to the same strict reporting requirements as physical and sexual abuse, but their presence
should motivate helpers to evaluate for all forms of abuse and to intervene.

Verbal Abuse vs. Poor Conflict Management
Assessing for the presence of verbal abuse in marriage can be even more challenging than detecting child abuse. By verbal or psychological abuse, I am referring to habitual efforts to control a spouse through the assaulting use of words: intimidation, threats, or attacks on personal dignity or self-esteem. Verbal abuse is distinct from poor conflict management in that the latter involves mutual difficulties with communication skills and conflict resolution, whereas the former involves unilateral attacks initiated by an offender against a victim.
Evaluating marital conflict requires counselors to develop the skill of interpreting events without the benefit of an objective witness. Denial, shame, and mistrust can motivate both perpetrators and victims to conceal or lie about verbal assaults, and fears of retaliation intimidate many victims into keeping silence. As a result, many troubled couples eventually acknowledge hiding critical facts during months or even years of counseling while embarrassed therapists and pastors often admit failing to recognize abuse’s occurrence.

Therapists and pastors need to understand one important concept regarding this issue—verbal abuse is more painful than physical abuse. This is the consistent testimony of every victim who has ever discussed this with me, and it should be taken seriously. Churches and professionals need to discard their presumption that unless a woman is hit, she is not really suffering from abuse.

Treatment and Resources Once abuse has been identified, the goals of therapy are clear. For the offender, the primary behavioral focus is to terminate the violence. Everything else is secondary. The majority of perpetrators will not sustain participation unless they are convinced that failure to complete treatment will bring major consequences such as incarceration or the loss of their marriage, so helpers must be prepared to provide very firm counsel both to offenders and to their families when they are making intervention decisions. Although individual counseling can be very useful, clinical experience suggests that group therapy may be the most effective counseling modality for abusers. Marital or family therapy should never be attempted until the abuse has ceased because of the risk of violence subsequent to therapy sessions.
The primary goals for the adult victim is to help her (assuming she is a woman) regain control of her own life and to protect her children. In order to accomplish this, it is necessary to train the victim to recognize abuse as it occurs and to develop confidence in her perceptions.

Group or individual counseling are recommended, and among the earliest decisions to be addressed will be whether safety considerations warrant separation from the abuser. Sometimes family members of the victim and even churches become indignant at those who separate and at counselors who support them in doing so, and therapists need to be prepared for the possibility that they may receive harsh criticism as a consequence of helping others.

Working with domestic violence is one of counseling’s most exacting challenges. The pastor or therapist must take as direct and authoritative a role in these cases as he or she will in any, and this includes the tricky task of assessment.
Hopefully this brief discussion will raise awareness of this
important work and improve the sophistication and clinical
wisdom of helpers who serve.

Ned Stringham, Ph.D., is a husband, father, and elder in a local church as well as a licensed psychologist at Lincoln Counseling & Enrichment Associates in Lincoln, Nebraska.
1. Marie M. Fortune, Violence in the Family: A Workshop for Clergy and Other Helpers (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1991): 3.
2. James Alsdurf and Phyllis Alsdurf, Battered into Submission: The Tragedy of Wife Abuse in the Christian Home (Wheaton: InterVarsity, 1989): 149–50.
3. John Rosemond, John Rosemond’s Six-Point Plan forRaising Happy, Healthy Children (Kansas City: Andrews & McMeel, 1989): 71.
4. James Dobson, The New Dare to Discipline (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1992): 60–65.
5. Anne L. Ganley, Court-mandated Counseling for Men who Batter: A Three-Day Workshop for Mental HealthProfessionals (Washington: Center for Women Policy).


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