Slobodna Dalmacija: “Children Don’t Become Violent Overnight, Let’s Bring Back Preventive Psychological Examinations Of Preschoolers”

In “Slobodna Dalmacija”, in Spektar magazine on Saturday, February 2, 2019, a comprehensive interview was published with the director Gordana Buljan Flander, Ph.D on the occasion of the promotion of the book “Science And Art Of Upbringing”. The director talked with journalist Marijana Cvrtila, and her article titled “Children Do Not Become Violent Overnight, Let’s Return Preventive Psychological Examinations of Preschoolers” is presented in its entirety:

“Beating didn’t come out of the heaven. Nothing justifies even the least physical violence against children. Parents are child’s first models for identification, they cannot and should not run away from their parenting role.

These are just a few of the postulates that the professor has been advocating during more than thirty years of her work with children. Gordana Buljan Flander, Ph.D, clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, director of the Child and Youth Protection Center of Zagreb, founder of the Brave Phone, University Professor, originally from Dubrovnik, now living in Zagreb – to list only some details from her rich professional and personal CV. A significant publication was presented to the public this week: “Science And Art Of Upbringing”, a handbook on modern upbringing for parents and educators. This manual is the product of a long-term work between Gordana Buljan Flander, Ph.D and 31 of her co-workers from the Center and the Brave Phone. On 720 pages, illustrated with children’s drawings, letters and messages, parents, teachers, educators and anyone working with children can come across a variety of expert advice which can help them all on the challenging path of child upbringing.

Can parents learn from books and manuals? Today, parents are confused and even frightened with parenting challenges and some of the contradictory information they receive from different sources. There are also those who say, “How did our mothers and grandmothers manage to raise so many children, despite not learning about it from books?”

We psychologists know many facts from developmental and child psychology, we know what children’s developmental and emotional needs are. Parents who are not professionals in this area don’t need to know all these things. They have love they will give to the child and they don’t need to know what science and clinical practice say about these subjects. That is why it is good to work with children and their families, and to share our scientific knowledge and practical experience with parents. Also, this book is abundant with children’s messages to adults through which we can directly hear what children need, what they think and what they want us to know. Sometimes, we expect to be perfect parents and educators, which is not realistic. It is also not good for children to have apparently perfect caretakers who show them with their behavior that it is wrong to make a mistake. There is no such thing as a perfect parent, but a good enough parent.

One of the 45 topics you are talking about in the book is related to parenting before and today. Is it more difficult to be a parent today than it was before?

There are differences, of course. Parenthood was once based on the importance of absolute obedience of children. Today it is based on the relationship in which both sides give, receive and change through the relationship, so the dignity of parents and children is preserved. One must know that the parent is the responsible one. It is the parent who hears and sees the child and accepts the child’s opinion if it is in the child’s best interest. For example, you certainly won’t accept the child’s opinion: “I want to play games all night ” or “I want to live with mom or dad because he/she lets me stay up late.” This is the child’s desire, which we can hear, not necessarily accept, but child’s needs and their best interest must be accepted. When my generation was raising children, they told us, “Don’t take the baby in your hands, or you will spoil it.” Contemporary, responsible parenting knows that the child needs physical contact and parents must fulfill those needs.

What is also important and what I personally wrote about is the attachment between the child and the parent. Everything that we give to children in the first three to four years of his life will later come back in a significant positive or negative form. If we are emotionally, psychologically accessible to the child in that early period, if we take him in our arms when he reaches out to us, if child’s emotions are mirrored in our face, then he forms a picture of himself: “I am worth the parental attention and the world will be there when I need it”. If we don’t meet their need for attention and acceptance, the child will create an image of himself: “I am not worthy of love and attention and the world will not be there when I need it”, with low self-esteem and bad image of himself. It is with this picture of themselves and the world that they move further trough life.

What are the biggest challenges of parenting today? What if parents can’t keep up with their child’s demands?

I have been working with children and families for more than 30 years and I have witnessed demands on parents getting bigger and bigger. Today, it is really not easy to be either a child or a parent because the challenges are getting bigger, parents are wondering what they can and cannot do, what are they doing wrong and how to behave in certain situations. This manual is important because it doesn’t condemn parents, but warns them not give up on their parental responsibility, even when they are doing two or three jobs, when they are tired and when it seems they are completely helpless. For example, often a parent of a three-year-old child comes to us and says, “I can’t do anything!” Parents must take responsibility, they mustn’t give up their parental role and lead the child through upbringing. If they don’t know how, then they shouldn’t be ashamed, but seek the help of an expert.


So, there is no situation in which, as parents say, “you should spank your child, otherwise they will not learn”?

When I ask parents whether they discipline their child, one part says, “Yes, I hit him” and another: “I do not discipline him because you psychologists tell me I can’t hit him, so I can’t even raise him.” Disciplining is not about physical punishment for children, but leadership throughout upbringing. First of all, this means that I lead the child with my example, that I should not “teach” him he can’t fight with others by hitting him because he hit his younger brother. Children learn trough modeling, by imitating our behavior. Consistency, setting the rules that need to be maintained, and both parents should be coordinated in it. Finally, we can apply consequences for unwanted behavior, such as the abolition of privileges – he will not be able to watch a movie for good night, go to the playground, in front of the building with friends …

What I really like to point out to parents is a reward that can be a very powerful means of directing children’s behavior. Reward your child for a desirable behavior. It will do much more to please the parents and therefore receives a hug, reward, praise, rather than doing something from fear of punishment.

Peer violence is crueler than it ever was

The manual deals with parenting issues from the decision to become a parent until the end of adolescence. Is it possible to set limits to adolescents?

You always have to know who is the parent. A story like “I am best friends with my child” is not good in terms of upbringing. It is fooling yourself and your child. Children should have friends of their age and we need to take parental responsibility. If I become a friend of my child, and they even call me by my name, then when that child is 12-13 years old and I tell him to come home at 11 pm, he can tell me as a “friend” “Why would I listen to you to come home at 11?”. But if I am a parent who sets limits, then he’ll know that he has to come home by 11, because this is what the law says, and I am a parent who respects the law. Otherwise, he will deal with the consequences of disrespecting the family rules.

The Center has been operating for 16 years, and 18 thousand children have passed through it. Have the forms of violent behavior changed in this period, or do you notice that, let’s just take one example, peer violence among children today is harsher than ever before?

Experience from my clinical practice tells me that peer violence today is crueler, primarily because it seems that children have become more tolerant to violence. They are surrounded with violence on the internet, through the media, and in that sense, social networks are risky because the child has no physical contact and doesn’t see the face of the person who he offends and is violent to. They are unaware and don’t see how much the victim is suffering. A child who has developed empathy, even if he starts to fight with his peers, he will stop if he sees pain in the face of another child, while online it is not possible and this spiral of cyberbullying continues.

In the last few years, we have been told that our schools have lost the educational dimension. We are also witnessing cruel conflicts of pupils, attacks of students on teachers, as witnessed by the recent Čakovec case. Of course, schools cannot completely replace parents, but can it still be said that this component has atrophied?

Although the school should be an educational institution, unfortunately, it seems to me that in some schools it is increasingly neglecting this educational aspect, and that the emphasis is almost entirely on academic excellence. I know a lot of cases in which some employees, schools and principals have shown indifference to the violence that occurs inside and outside the school walls. Let me illustrate it: I held a presentation to children on the prevention of peer violence in a city of fifty thousand people. The head of the Social Welfare Center reported that there were five applications for peer violence in that city of fifty thousand inhabitants. Five. Our research from about ten years ago shows that every third child experienced some form of violence in schools, i.e. 27 percent of them, and today’s situation, because of social networks, is even worse. Add electronic violence to it all – it raises the question how in a city of 50,000 people we can only have five reports of peer violence??! What does that say about the schools? Some schools hide violence, some don’t even recognize it, and some have no confidence in the system, I would even say the courage and responsibility to act and notify social welfare centers which are the only ones that can enter the family and help both the victim and the perpetrator. Many schools have a panel with the inscription “This is a place of zero tolerance for violence,” and underneath this panel, violence occurs every day as adults consciously or unconsciously close their eyes. Unfortunately, some teachers show an initiative for active action, but they say they don’t get support from a professional service or the director.

We also reported in the media about the examples when a young perpetrator harasses his peers and teachers, and even when the school alarms the social services, it is difficult to find a solution. Possibly moving him to another school, but then a similar situation is repeated.

Yes, but when do we react? When a child is in eighth or higher grade. I wonder where the whole society was when that child went to primary or secondary school and the adults, for example, just laughed because he mocked others, wrote inappropriate messages, and other similar things? Nothing should be ignored. When a student attacks a teacher, we also have to ask where were we before. Violent behavior doesn’t develop overnight without any earlier signs that we should observe and react to. Children are not born as bullies. They develop violent behavior due to various influences in the family and the environment. We have to react even in kindergarten and if we notice inappropriate forms of child behavior, we should notify the competent welfare center because we cannot enter the family. We must find ways to help both the victim and the small perpetrators. Small perpetrators are often unhappy, neglected or abused children who don’t know how to get other’s attention, children who are accustomed to aggressive interaction in their family and so on. We should aim to help this child not to become a perpetrator of violence from a minor offender because that will ultimately cost us a lot more. That’s why I always appeal, do not save on children, let’s bring back preventive psychological examinations of children around the age four or five. We should bring back counseling centers and early recognition of risk behavior in children and families in order to get started with prevention earlier. That is the profession’s view. Now it’s politics’ turn.

Schools warn that they are not professionally trained, that they lack psychologists, pedagogues and special educators because they have been banned from hiring for years?

We can agree that teachers, who are the first on the front line, need support. I agree with you, we do not have enough psychologists in schools. The state is the way it is, because we are saving on children, I responsibly say it. I have just come from a discussion in the Parliament about the topic of sexual abuse of children. It is good to talk about this subject in professional and public circles, but sometimes it seems to me that we haven’t moved much ahead in the past twenty years. We acknowledge and recognize that there is an abuse, but nothing is being accomplished. Our profession has long been telling what needs to be done, now it is the politics’ turn.

The Ministry of Education and Science has just set up a team for the adoption of an action plan for prevention and combating violence in schools.

Action plans, guidelines, platforms have long been around. Our laws are also well written, we signed numerous international conventions which protect children’s rights. Now is the time to put all of this into practice, to start implementing those plans and guidelines that we have long had to do. If only we stick to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says that all decisions should be in the best interest of the child, that the child has the right to protection from abuse, violence, right to a family… in the vast majority of situations we would know what to do. I am committed to redirecting energy to this practical part. I am a practitioner, a clinician, working with more than 1,600 sexually abused children and from the position of experience and profession I take stand for individual access to each child, to look at a particular child and to prevent possible problems in the future.

However, children live in the real world, exposed to social patterns of behavior that are filled with verbal aggression and violence, especially in politics and parliament. How can parents in such environment be able to nurture true values ​​for their children at all?

I will repeat that today it is difficult to be a parent. Before, the most important influence on education was family, school and church, so the advice went in the same direction. Today, parents and children are overwhelmed with various advice of experts, quasi-experts, and the Internet. Many parents are lost in that sea of ​​information. On the other hand, whatever they open – from the internet, social networks, portals, newspapers to games – children can’t avoid violence. There is a parent’s job to act as a dam between all the negative side effects and family values.

But if you have public people with whom we expect children to identify, and they behave aggressively themselves, it’s hard to say to our children: “don’t be aggressive, don’t offend or disrespect anyone because you will not succeed in life” when they see something completely different. Parents, regardless of everything else, are the most important models to children that can shape the values ​​and behaviors of a child with their behavioral example. This does not stop the responsibility of all other adults, media and institutions, to help parents in the upbringing of happy, healthy, and competent members of society.


Here’s your cell phone and surf!

The Center conducted the first national research on the screen-time of preschool children, which showed staggering results. Do we already turn them into small “addicts”?

Having a cell phone in preschool age is a wish, not a child’s need. When talking about older children, our second research on using Facebook has shown that children from fourth grade of primary school to fourth grade of high school are spending three or more hours on Facebook alone, but 95% of these children say they would rather spend time socializing with friends or on free activities. Us grown-ups didn’t organize children their leisure time according to their needs, we pushed them into the virtual playground and then we wonder why are they spending so much time in front of the screen. The survey also showed that almost half of these children received at least one offensive message via the Internet. In other words, they were exposed to cyberbullying. It is difficult for parents to keep up with the development of new technologies, but they need to show interest for online activities of their children. They often say that they don’t want to interfere in the online activities of their children because they don’t understand it, but I tell them that the child may have better understanding of the technology, but as parents they have better understanding of life. Therefore, they need to be interested in what their children are doing on small screens … Control is needed and possible until the age of 9 or 10, after that it has no effect … Our research showed that out of 1,500 children, 120 of them went to meet up with a stranger, without the escort of another person.


I am no longer an “enemy”, the society is changing after all.

The past year was extremely professionally successful for you. You have been declared the “Woman of the Year” by the magazine Zaposlena, and the Ministry of Demography, Family, Youth and Social Policy has awarded you with a Life Achievement Award. How much are these awards important to you?

I must admit I was surprised by the “Woman of the Year” award because I always thought that it was awarded only to managers, entrepreneurs or women from the world of the economy. This award is important because it shows how much the social climate and the sensitivity of society to children has changed. About 20 years ago, when I was talking about child abuse, I was almost an enemy, and in 2018, the woman in charge of this work is awarded for her achievements. This means that we as a society are ready to see the children’s suffering, not turning our heads away, ready to react. The Ministry’s and our government’s life award is important to me because it shows that my country stands behind my work. My job is not just psychotherapy and writing reports in the safety of my office. On the contrary, it often involves the dissatisfaction and complaints from parents I report for abuse and neglect of children. In this business it is necessary to mentally and often literally physically, leave the office and cooperate daily with other system specialists because only that way we can protect children. That is why it was important that I got the support of my country with this award, and I hope that this will be an incentive for young people who are engaged in this job to be active in protecting children.


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