Family Project Curbs Violence

November 1, 1994

by Karen McCowan of The Register-Guard

Forty pounds of explosive anger.

That pretty much summed up 7-year old Christopher Kruk’s behavior, after his parents split two years ago.

“He was literally smashing things, throwing things — slamming his bedroom door so hard, things were falling off the walls,” recalled his mother, Myrna Kruk. “There was chaos in this house. We had conflict, like, constantly. It was hell around here.”

Nor were things much better at school.

“His teacher would tell him to do something and Christopher would tell here, No! I don’t have to!'” Kruk said.

She also saw her son’s vulnerable, frightened side: “Every night, he would crawl into my bed to sleep with me.” But she was most frightened by the thought that he would grow up into 140 pounds of violent teen-ager.

“I kept thinking he would end up in jail, or doing something to kill himself,” she said.

Now, though, she’s not so worried about that.

“My son has not thrown a major fit in months,” she said. “There’s no more throwing things, no more smashing things. Now, when he’s angry, he just goes to his room and climbs on his bed — he may pout for a while, but he controls his anger, and when he comes out, he wants to talk about it.”

Kruk credits the change to their joint participation in the Family Resource Project.

It’s been nearly 10 years since the Oregon Social Learning Center launched the project with a study of 200 recently separated mothers and their children. Though it has drawn media attention from as far away as England, the research has gone largely unnoticed here. With our community reeling from a shocking spate of teen violence, though, maybe it’s time to pay attention.

Follow-up data on boys from those first 200 families is chilling. Those who reacted to their parents’ breakup with anti-social behavior — fighting, arguing, temper tantrums and school problems — ran an 89 percent change of being arrested by age 14. Those arrested ran a 72 percent change of chronic arrests. Among those with chronic arrests, 85 percent had at least one arrest for a violent offense.

But there’s also a positive reason for highlighting this project. Thanks to a grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health, it not only pays for itself, it also pays each participating family member $10 an hour, at a time when financial pressure is typically one more stress on newly single moms.

Yet dozens of slots remain open for the next phase of the project, due to begin in January. Recently divorced or separated mothers with a son in first through third grade can apply by calling Margo Fulton at 485-2711.

This final phase aims to pass along the successful parenting techniques identified in earlier parts of the study. A key goal is to help parents nip anti-social behavior early on.

“When you wait to intervene until they’re already adolescents, it’s really hard to make a difference,” said Marion Forgatch, director of the project. “You have to build the power of a parent-child relationship early.”

Typically, that power erodes when a family faces a major crisis — divorce, a major move, a job loss, a serious health problem.

“We actually went into homes and observed families,” Forgatch said. “We found that how parents parent is what makes the difference between a good adjustment and a bad one.”

Too often, the adult is so busy coping with the stress of the crisis, she neglects the parent-child relationship, creating a “seriously out-of-control kid,” who wreaks even more stress in the family.

“We know that the best way to help those kids is to strengthen their parents’ parenting skills,” Forgatch said. “Anti-social behavior starts with not minding. If you tackle noncompliance young, you can break the whole cycle of violence.”

And so, as the children participate in evaluation and counseling sessions, many of their mothers take a “Parenting through Change” course. They learn how to evoke and reward positive behaviors, instead of inconsistently meting out punishment.

“In some cases, punishment does work,” Forgatch acknowledged. “But we encourage parents to shoot for a 5-to-1 ratio — five positives for every sanction.

The course teaches specifics: moving close to children and making eye contact rather than shouting requests at them; breaking big goals into small, achievable steps; problem-solving together, at an appropriate time and place.

“I can’t say enough about how this program has helped me help my kids,” Kruk said. “Home is starting to be a place I like to be. We have some quality time together now. We’re actually making some memories here.”

Reprinted with permission. Copyright 1994, The Register-Guard,