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Five measures that can prevent violence against children

Less severe violence against children and young people is declining, whereas severe forms of violence remain stable. According to OsloMet researchers, there are five measures that can reduce severe violence.

Heidi Ertzeid Published: Updated:
Girl reaching for her doll in a room without light except through a door.

Recent research from the Domestic Violence Research Programme at Norwegian Social Research (NOVA) at OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University shows that there has been a reduction in parental violence against children in recent years. But that only concerns less severe forms of violence, for example pushing, hair-pulling and slapping.

The severe forms of violence remain stable at around 4% according to the UngVold survey which was carried out among 18 and 19-year olds in 2007 and 2015.

What does it take to prevent parental violence? And what measures do the researchers believe can contribute to reducing the violence that have the most serious consequences for children and young people?

Stricter sanctions and awareness campaigns are not enough

‘A good explanation for the reduction in less severe forms of violence is a change in attitude among parents. We think we can reach many parents with awareness campaigns and legislation, but research shows that these measures are largely ineffective in relation to severe violence,’ says the head of the Domestic Violence Research Programme Svein Mossige at NOVA. 

Svein Mossige. Foto: Benjamin Ward

His researcher colleague Jane Dullum agrees. She recently wrote an article with Elisiv Bakketeig about whether more stringent sanctions can prevent domestic violence. 

‘It seems that more stringent sanctions and campaigns have an effect on the less severe violence, but severe and repeated violence require other measures,’ she says.

1. Talk and ask about violence

Associate professor and public health nurse Nina Misvær from OsloMet explains that the new national guidelines recommend that public nurses talk to parents about violence as soon as possible – both at home visits and the public health centre.

‘To prevent and discover violence, we have to dare to ask about it and show that we can handle the answer,’ she says.

Misvær is concerned with the importance of talking about this topic in a good way.

‘We must ask about it so that the parents are willing to accept help. That means asking open questions, thereby starting a constructive dialogue with the parents. Public nurses, kindergarten teachers and teachers should know even more about how to ask about violence,' she says.

NOVA researcher Anja Bredal also feels it is important to talk about violence. She researches honour culture and social control in immigrant environments.

‘As regards less severe forms of violence, it can be a good idea to not be dramatic and judgemental. We can say: “We know that using violence in children's upbringing is normal in many countries, and if you sometimes do this, we would like to help you to find alternative ways of setting boundaries”,’ she says.

2. Targeted measures aimed at children at particular risk

The UngVold survey shows that the risk of being subjected to severe violence increases when children and young people live in difficult family situations where the parents use alcohol or drugs, are in a poor financial situation or are themselves subjected to violence from their partner.

‘This means that we have some target groups to focus on. The prevention of child abuse requires us to broaden our perspective and place more emphasis on family functioning and family stress,’ says Mossige.

Anja Bredal

There are also several children and young people with backgrounds from non-Western countries who experience violence from their parents, according to UngVold.

‘People are coming to our country whose child upbringing traditions are different from ours. We should help parents understand that violence is harmful to children and give them other ways of setting boundaries,’ says Bredal.

She recently submitted a report on family counselling and other services for families from immigrant backgrounds together with Camilla Vislie.

Among other things, it shows that minority families can have complex problems that require more of the health services.

‘Family conflicts can be related to problems concerning immigration law and socio-economic problems. These are demanding cases, and it is crucial that the health services do not portion out the problems and send them further through the system individually.’ 

3. Extensive long-term programmes

‘If we are going to do something about the severe violence, we need more extensive measures than awareness campaigns. Such extensive measures have been the exception rather than the rule here in Norway,’ says Mossige.

He points out that the health services should focus more on how parents relate to their own children.

‘Rather than preventing violence directly, we should encourage good relationships and improve parents’ ways of handling situations, and thereby lessen the child’s problems,’ says Mossige.

According to the violence researcher, the measures must be correctly timed, include various methods, promote positive relationships and the effect must be measured on a continuous basis.

Some examples of such programmes include the International Child Development Program (ICDP), The Incredible Years, and Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP).

Researcher Eirin Pedersen from the Work Research Institute at OsloMet is part of a project that is evaluating the latter

This is a programme where measures are taken already during the pregnancy of vulnerable women, and they are then followed up until the children are two years old. Vulnerable women include women who have had a tough upbringing themselves, are very young, have mental health challenges or substance abuse problems.

‘The purpose is to use frequent home visits to strengthen parenting skills and establish a sense of mastery as early as possible in the child’s life,’ says Pedersen.

4. Give neighbourhoods with poor living conditions a boost

Mossige believes that measures targeting poor-functioning local communities should also be considered.

‘Neighbourhoods characterised by poor integration and openness can lead to distrust and powerlessness that make the residents less willing to report violence. There is less internal control there because people have more than enough with their own families,’ he says.

Mossige emphasises that vicious circles can often arise in such communities.

‘The effects of neglect and child abuse can be strengthened by a lack of social control and contribute to an environment characterised by secrecy and an acceptance of neglect and violence,’ he says.

Researcher Ingar Brattbakk from the Work Research Institute has researched neighbourhoods and what measures can give local communities a boost. 

Among other things, it is important to strengthen and coordinate the public services to enable a more comprehensive view on the problems.’

Jane Dullum

He also emphasises that children and young people need safe and good places to be.

‘In order to give a neighbourhood a boost, you have to mobilise the people who live there, civil society and private players to create meeting places, offer more recreational activities and improve the outdoor areas.' 

5. More research on what works

All the researchers we have talked to call for more research on what actually works in the prevention of violence against children and young people.

‘The weakness of the prevention field is that not much research has been conducted on the effects of the various measures. I welcome more systematic research on the effects and implementation of prevention programmes,’ says Mossige.

‘We know too little about the measures that work both in relation to sanctions, protective measures and support measures, says Jane Dullum.

She will now evaluate the restraining order scheme, and a part of this project will now consider whether this scheme has a preventive effect.

Reference:  Vold og overgrep mot barn og unge. Omfang og utviklingstrekk 2007-2015. NOVA Report 5/16 (English summary)