Domestic violence is defined as physical violence that occurs between individuals in a family unit or those in a dating or other romantic relationship. The activities that fall under the category of “domestic violence” are wide and varied, but the focus is on activities that cause harm to the individual against whom violence is committed. What many parents find themselves wondering, however, is, “When parents physically discipline their children, does this amount to domestic violence?”
The Short Answer
Parents who physically discipline their children are not automatically committing an act of domestic violence. There are several forms of physical discipline that are legally acceptable when dealing with a child, and parents shouldn’t worry that they’ll be charged with domestic violence when physical discipline is necessary to control a wayward child. Many parents believe that failure to appropriately discipline their children is worse than disciplining too harshly, and some children simply don’t respond to time-outs or groundings. Discipline is different from violence and does not fall into the same category.
The Blurred Line
The fact that typical discipline isn’t domestic violence doesn’t excuse parents from using excessive force when disciplining their child. There are, of course, several very obvious signs that discipline has crossed the line. These include:
- Visible or excessive bruises on a child caused by discipline, especially those that clearly have the imprint of a hand or object
- Broken bones
- Any damage to the head, especially damage resulting in concussion
- Trauma inflicted by a sharp object
- Malnourished children who have been starved as a form of discipline
- Patchy balding from pulled hair
- Teeth missing in an abnormal pattern
- Isolation or an unwillingness to interact with others due to fear of the parent
Domestic violence might also be identified in a child who routinely flinches away from an angry adult or who expects severe physical punishment for small infractions. It’s also important to note that parents should moderate punishment based on infractions: extreme physical punishment for small mistakes or any type of violence that is not part of a punishment can also be viewed as domestic violence.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear line between domestic violence and abuse and mere physical discipline. What type of discipline is considered acceptable? Most people would agree that a spank on the bottom or a smack on the hand is appropriate discipline, but what about smacking the mouth of a smart-mouthed child? Determining the difference between discipline and domestic violence is much more difficult in this case.
Defining the Line
Each state has a different definition of the line between domestic violence and discipline. Some don’t make the guidelines particularly clear due to a desire to leave most basic discipline decisions to the parents. Others have stricter guidelines. Typically, however, the distinction between domestic violence and discipline comes down to a handful of questions.
- What was the intent of the action? An abuser will tend to act in anger, while a parent disciplining a child will punish in order to create better behavior in the future.
- Is the child endangered by the action? That is, does it cause unnecessary or excessive physical harm? If not, the action was discipline, not violence.
- Does the force used take into account the child’s age and size? An action that would be considered violent against a small child is more likely to be discipline against an older child.
Many times, the question of domestic violence versus physical discipline comes down to the personal determination of the individual who reports the violence, the investigating parties, and, ultimately, a juror. While reasonable physical discipline is never the same thing as domestic violence, discipline that crosses a line may be seen that way. If you’re struggling with a domestic violence charge as a result of disciplining a child or looking to understand the legal ramifications of violence committed against your child, contact us today. Experienced legal representation is critical to ensuring that you are protected to the fullest extent of the law.